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The coronavirus closed schools in a flash. But detailed planning must guide students’ return to classrooms, groups urge

Mark Keierleber | May 20, 2020

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This will all end. State lawmakers will lift stay-at-home orders, office dwellers will return to their cubicles and — critical for America’s stressed-out parents — children will go back to their classrooms.

For most schools, however, getting there will be easier said than done. Despite widespread uncertainty and the unique demands of online classes, a growing chorus of education leaders say school officials must act now to prepare for a future return to school.

New blueprints from education groups, think tanks and government agencies offer school leaders a daunting checklist of measures to consider. From staggered start times to in-class lunches and relaxed graduation requirements, students should brace for a return to class that is anything but education as usual.

The uncertainty around school closures was underscored last week by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who told lawmakers that communities risk “suffering and death that could be avoided” if they open too early. Having a vaccine ready so students feel comfortable returning to classrooms is “a bridge too far,” he said, noting that the number of infections and available testing should guide local decisions on whether to reopen. He also warned against “thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects” of the virus.

While the advice from federal officials and education experts offers a complicated path to reopening schools, local officials will ultimately drive decision-making.

But so far, school leaders have been bogged down by current demands and many haven’t adequately planned for the return to physical classrooms, argued Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a national consulting firm focused on emergency preparedness.

Trump has long advised education leaders on safety issues such as preventing and recovering from mass school shootings. But when the outbreak closed campuses, he pivoted to helping districts respond to the pandemic — a challenge that he said is far greater than anything education leaders have faced before.

“As we work to deal with the unknown unknowns, there is no textbook on school reentry or on managing any of this,” he said during a recent video call with school leaders. “We are flying the plane while we build it.”

Anew report by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, offers educators an extensive blueprint on the considerations they need to weigh as they consider reopening. The report, which operates under the assumption that campuses will reopen in the fall, urges educators to coordinate with local health officials. If community “trigger points are breached” and virus cases resurge, however, local leaders should consider new “rolling closures” of two to four weeks. Given the possibility, educators should plan for continued online learning. That includes emergency drills, similar to those used to prepare for potential fires and active shooters, to “test remote learning systems and procedures before they are needed.”

“We moved so quickly to remote learning that we weren’t able to step back and say ‘What does success look like in remote learning? Where should we even start?’” Candice McQueen, CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, said on a recent video call. “We’ve got to step back and analyze what went well [and] what didn’t.”

At the local level, leaders need to examine every aspect of the school day and make changes that promote safety, according to the report. Leaders should create protocols on temperature checks and physical distancing, and should put a renewed focus on the emotional wellbeing of children, many of whom will return to classrooms with trauma stemming from the deaths of family members and economic insecurity. Schools should evaluate the need for additional social workers and psychologists while expanding access to telehealth counseling services.

Centers For Disease Control and Prevention guidance released last week said schools should not reopen unless they can protect children and employees with a heightened risk of becoming ill. In order to reopen, the agency said, school officials should create screening protocols to evaluate students and staff for symptoms and previous coronavirus exposure before allowing them on campus.

Draft recommendations from the CDC, leaked to reporters earlier this month, were more extensive and suggested substantial schedule changes when schools reopen. Schools should consider organizing students and staff into groups that remain consistent throughout the day and restrict mixing between cohorts, according to the draft. When possible, dining halls and playgrounds should remain closed. Instead, schools should serve meals to students in their classrooms. Staggered drop-off and arrival times should also be considered, and social distancing should be promoted on school buses.

To promote a safe learning environment, officials should clean frequently touched surfaces on campuses and in school buses “at least daily,” while using ventilation systems, fans and windows to “increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible,” according to the draft.

The draft urges officials to create a plan in case school staff or students fall ill. Schools should establish an “isolation room,” to separate anybody who exhibits symptoms and create procedures to safely transport ill people home or to a healthcare facility.

Reopening strategies should also consider a longer academic year moving forward, according to a report by the Johns Hopkins School of Education and the nonprofit Chiefs for Change, not just as schools recover from the pandemic, but as “a permanent feature of America’s schools.”

“Year-round school has the potential to produce not only academic benefits for students, but logistical and financial benefits for families,” according to the report.

AEI’s blueprint also touched on the need for social distancing, for both students and educators. States should consider offering early retirement to employees who are most vulnerable of being infected, the report noted. District leaders and unions should work cooperatively on collective bargaining agreements to ensure effective social distancing, including provisions related to class sizes, schedules and staff work hours.

Teachers unions have issued their own priorities governing how campuses should reopen. Though the AEI blueprint says a return to classrooms is likely in some form next fall, a report from the American Federation of Teachers outlines a stark possibility for back-to-school season: A resurgence of the coronavirus. Leaders should avoid reopening campuses too early, the union said, warning a premature return “risks a second surge of infections” that could prompt a second lockdown. To reopen schools, communities should maintain physical distancing until the number of new infections declines for 14 consecutive days, according to the report.

Though the union has long been hostile to standardized testing, its roadmap notes a need to understand students’ academic proficiency following a lengthy disruption. However, the report said all student assessments should undergo a review “to limit the loss of learning time to excessive testing.” Districts should also halt formal performance evaluations “until they develop new expectations for the possibility of instruction that alternates between in-person learning and distance learning.”

“For too long officials have used school and student data solely for accountability purposes,” the plan continues. “As we reopen our schools, we need to primarily use these data to guide instruction, identify and share best practices and help collectively solve mutual problems.”

The AEI report, meanwhile, suggests that districts and states “repurpose” tests canceled this spring as back-to-school “diagnostic assessments.” They should also commit to state testing next year and consider new school accountability models, such as competency-based learning.

Though the reports offer considerations as schools move forward, the only certainty is uncertainty, Wayne Lewis, dean of the Belmont University School of Education in Nashville, said during a video call.

“As educators and education leaders, I think we need to first be able to wrap our heads around the reality that we don’t exactly know what it’s going to look like,” he said. “I think we need to train in that regard, and I think we need to prepare for some different contingencies” including full-time remote learning, full-time classroom instruction, or a combination of the two.

In the end, the dizzying array of considerations that educators must weigh before reopening campuses should be guided by simple communication, said Trump, the school safety consultant. The perspectives of all school officials — from senior administrators to attorneys and custodians — should be considered.

For any plan to work, the Johns Hopkins report noted, students, educators and parents must feel confident in the return of face-to-face instruction. Managing the school community’s emotions will likely be among the largest challenges, Trump said.

“Fear, especially related to the safety of children, is often even greater than the actual risk itself,” he said.

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