Dozens of teachers, parents and district leaders around the country told NPR that the back-to-school season — that beloved annual ritual — has fogged over with confusion. States, districts and the federal government are pushing and pulling in different directions. Scientists are updating their advice to reflect emerging research and the changing course of the pandemic. And parents and educators are finding it hard to make decisions in the murk.
What's at stake: An unknown number of lives, the futures of tens of millions of children, the livelihoods of their caregivers, the working conditions of millions of educators and people's trust in a fundamental American institution.
Thomas Jefferson, the scribe of the Declaration of Independence, was among the first Americans to propose a system of universal, publicly funded education in 1779. Since then, besides providing an education, public schools became by far the physically safest places for the nation's more than 50 million schoolchildren. They fed about 30 million children meals they might have missed otherwise, and offered crucial assistance with housing, health care and mental health.
Until this past spring.
Schools closed abruptly amid the coronavirus pandemic, in the U.S. and almost everywhere. At one point, 90% of the world's schoolchildren were out of class. Now, across Europe and Asia, dozens of school systems have already reopened, with precautions in place, and few virus spikes have been seen as a result. But in the U.S., where the pandemic continues to rage, that version of normal is not being contemplated in most places.
One notable exception, Florida, has just ordered schools to start back with full-time in-person instruction at least five days a week. This, in a state with one of the worst outbreaks in the country.
"To be perfectly honest, it's terrifying," says Kirk Hansen, a middle school social studies teacher in Lakeland, Fla. "We've worked with very little before. The story of public education is inadequate funding. And we are supposed to come back to an environment where we don't know what's happening and we're supposed to do it on limited funds. And I think it's just — it's going to be a fiasco."
Back to school, not back to normal
Many parents and teachers echoed Hansen's anxiety. Across the United States, each district is making its own decisions based on guidance — not directives — from the federal government, states, experts, educators, parents and local health authorities.
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for social distancing, and grouping kids into small pods, to limit the spread of a potential infection. That means a drastic reduction in class sizes everywhere. In the absence of funds for more space and more staff, that's driving schools to cut back on in-person class time. The state of California, for example, recommends splitting up students into smaller cohorts that attend two days a week, every other week, or mornings and afternoons, while offering remote instruction the rest of the time. We're hearing versions of this limited-time plan everywhere from New York City — the nation's largest school district — to Omaha, Neb., Seattle and West Bloomfield, Mich.
At the same time, districts are surveying parents and teachers to find out if they are willing to go back at all. One national survey by the American Federation of Teachers found about 1 in 4 educators were not willing to come back even with precautions, and a survey of parents found two-thirds were nervous about the prospect. That means many districts are offering remote learning at the same time, which is essentially a whole other job for schools and teachers.
Meanwhile, the pandemic is spiking in some parts of the country, while other places like New York are vigilant based on past experience.
Districts are taking time to sort through all the information. The delays in communication, in turn, make it harder for families to make plans.
This convoluted, decentralized process around reopening schools is also pitting stakeholders against each other. In San Mateo, in the Bay Area, some teachers want to start the year remote-only, while parents and administrators are pushing for more face time. Jinna Hwang, who teaches math at San Mateo High School, says she can't create a warm, accepting classroom culture when everyone is wearing masks and she must enforce physical distancing. Face masks will also be an obstacle for English language learners, Hwang says. She's not sure how she'll find time to teach her in-person lessons — multiple times over, to different cohorts of students — while also planning and executing remote teaching at the same time.
On the other hand, she says, if schools stick with remote-only, "What do you do with kids who have difficulty learning online? What do you do about kids who are entering depression and need their wellness counselor?"
Questions like these abound. After New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy released that state's "Restart and Recovery Plan for Education," educators crowdsourced a list of nearly 400 unanswered questions and concerns. Among them: How can we safely toilet train students with autism? How can students in band play a trumpet with a mask on? Will substitute teachers get paid more since their job is now high risk, and who pays for their health insurance if they get sick on the job?
"The devil's in the details," sums up Hwang.
Reopening followed by re-closing?
As difficult as reopening plans are, they are just the beginning. As Dr. Anthony Fauci emphasized in recent Senate testimony, local coronavirus infection rates are a key factor driving schools' ability to not just open up, but to stay open.
Mike Looney, the superintendent of Fulton County Schools, a large district in the Atlanta area, has been grappling with the uncertainty around reopening. His schools are set to open Aug. 17, and he says he's been letting parents know: The rest is in their hands.
"I have been doing my very best to communicate to our families that they really are in control of whether or not the school district opens up as planned — because the school district has to respond to the community spread."
Looney's district is unusual in having already released not just a reopening plan but a detailed re-closing decision matrix. It gives 12 options for how long to close a school if someone at the school tests positive for the coronavirus. For example, explains Looney, if there is low community spread and one person at a school tests positive, that school will close for up to 24 hours for cleaning and contact tracing. But if there are more or rising cases throughout the community, the closure for that single case will last for 72 hours. Conversely, even with few cases in the broader community, if there are five or more positive tests in a single school, that closure could last at least two weeks to give people time to isolate and recover.
The math around contact tracing and risk reduction can be head-spinning. And that's exactly why Michelle Hoffmann in High Bridge, N.J., is planning to home-school her 6-year-old son this year.
Hoffmann has been working as a contact tracer, following up with people who test positive for the coronavirus so that their close contacts can be notified to try to stop the spread of the virus. She anticipates schools closing down quickly and repeatedly after they open. And she doesn't see the utility of rotating cohorts of students as long as they share the same teacher.
"If a teacher came in and said, 'Hey, I just found out my sister tested positive for COVID and we saw her over the weekend,' both groups of students are going to have to stay home."
It might work better if each tiny group of students had a different teacher, she says. "But again, who has the resources for that? There is no unlimited supply of substitute teachers. That's just not a thing."
Hoffmann feels prepared to take on home-schooling. For one thing, her wife is an educator who may be laid off — New Jersey, too, is cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from education this year. Hoffmann's mother has been teaching her son Korean. And she has friends who work in technical fields who are willing to pitch in, guiding her son with science projects over Skype. All of which seems preferable to the disruptions of repeated openings and re-closings, she says. "I don't want to scramble. I'm very much a planner, so I want to have a plan in place."
But many families don't have the resources to make a plan like this. And online-only learning, the fallback option, isn't making many folks happy either.
"We're all horrible teachers," Ashley Ruiz, a mother of two in south Florida, says of her and her friends' experiences with remote learning. Her 7-year-old son is on the autism spectrum, and relies on her school for speech and social skills therapy, and help with reading, none of which are really replicable online.
"We now all recognize that teachers need to be paid a million dollars in cash, tax-free, because of what they do," Ruiz says.
Nicol Turner Lee, an expert on educational technology and digital divides at the Brookings Institution, is in frequent consultation with districts around the country. She calls this past spring's attempt at emergency remote learning "an abject failure for our children."
Research shows students who struggle tend to do even worse with distance learning. Some districts are investing in training teachers to raise the quality of remote teaching, and working to get special education students and English language learners the support they need. Yet simple access is still a big problem. Turner Lee says an estimated 12 to 15 million students still do not have broadband Internet at home. And an estimated one-third of low-income students have to share devices with family members.
Can schools do better this coming year? "I think we have run out of time," says Turner Lee.