Back-to-school plans include big changes for K-12 students, educators


by Leandra Bernstein

Monday, May 18th 2020

4VIEW ALL PHOTOSNEW YORK, NY – MARCH 17: A hallway is empty on what would otherwise be a school day as teachers and faculty members learn remote teaching and methods for students at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Public schools in New York City have been shut down until at least until April 20th amid the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — At the start of this week, 48 states will have started loosening coronavirus lockdown restrictions. In the coming weeks, governors, school administrators and parents will have to figure out a crucial step towards reopening, namely, how to return K-12 students to their classrooms safely amid the pandemic.

Pressure has been building from the White House for states to reopen elementary and secondary schools. At a press conference Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump insisted, “I think the schools should be back in the fall.”

The president suggested that medically compromised students and older teachers shouldn’t necessarily return, “But we want to see our schools back. We want to see our country start to work again.”

The remarks came a few short days after Trump suggested that the coronavirus had “little impact on children” and that schools “should absolutely” reopen as a necessary precursor for getting the economy restarted.

Public health officials have been tempered in their expectations for the start of the fall academic year. At a Senate hearing last week, top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned that reopening schools was risky and would likely have to be handled differently region by region. “We don’t know everything about this virus and we really better be pretty careful, particularly when it comes to children,” Fauci advised.

In the coming months, state and local authorities will have to make decisions that balance the health and educational needs of students, as well as the safety of educators and staff.

Those are some of the big questions governors and local leaders are grappling with as they actively develop back-to-school plans. There are a lot of similarities among reopening plans, but much like the challenge of reopening state economies, there is no one size fits all approach.

In an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis explained his state’s plans to reopen schools using a “hybrid” model of in-class and at-home learning. Colorado was the first state to announce that it would be reopening schools in the fall.Colorado Gov. Jared Polis responds to a question at a charter school during a news conference Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“By and large, I think, across our state and across our nation, kids are going to be able to return to school in the fall,” Polis said. “It’s just not going to look like any other school year.”

The governor described a “hybrid” school year, where students and teachers should anticipate times where classes convert to online learning if there is a resurgence of cases. “What’s likely to occur this year, is while generally, schools are open, there might need to be periodic, regional, or site-based closures,” he said.

State and local officials have been preparing plans to stagger school schedules including arrival times, lunchtimes and break periods to allow for more social distancing. Colorado is also anticipating a portion of parents may want their kids to remain at home opt for online learning, instead, Polis said. That could mean less crowding and safer conditions.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was one of the first governors to order a statewide shutdown of schools. DeWine told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that he is working with schools to bring kids back in the classrooms by August.

“What I have asked the schools to do is to assume they’re going back, but to come up with all kinds of alternatives” to ensure social distancing and student safety, DeWine said. Schools in Ohio are being asked to come up with “very specific plans that are unique” to that school and in line with public health guidance, the governor added.

Flexibility will be key for reopening schools, said John Bailey, the co-author of a new report by the American Enterprise Institute titled, “A Blueprint for Back to School.”

“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way there, it’s going to be to figure out which recommendations make the most sense given the state or local context,” Bailey said. “We have to start the planning now and have plans updated as the science becomes clearer and as we learn more about what does and what doesn’t work.

The AEI report was developed to prepare schools to be flexible to meet the challenges of teaching during a pandemic. Among the recommendations, educators were told to prepare for “14-to-28-day rolling closures triggered by new outbreaks.”

Schools will also have to adopt new health practices, from monitoring student and staff temperatures to increased cleaning and disinfecting. The report also encouraged schools to look beyond the 2020 school year at the possibility that coronavirus disruptions could continue into 2021 and 2022.

Many of the basic health recommendations for returning to school have been outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Last week, CDC released a single page “decision tree” to help schools determine when it will be safe to restart classes.

The first criterion is ensuring that schools are able to screen students and employees for symptoms and exposure while protecting students and staff who are at risk of serious complications from the virus. CDC further recommends planning for social distancing and disinfecting classrooms.

The single-page document offered fewer details than the CDC’s three-phased guidance, which was not released publicly because the recommendations were stricter than those advocated by the Trump administration, according to The Associated Press.

The guidance specifically recommended students and teachers maintain 6 feet of social distance when possible, which includes classroom seating. Schools should avoid mixing classes and stagger arrival and drop off times or locations.

Communal spaces like cafeterias and playgrounds should be closed or carefully disinfected between use, according to the CDC. Shared items should be limited, like art supplies and computers, or carefully cleaned.

Adult employees are encouraged to wear face masks. And schools are encouraged to maintain distance learning options for higher-risk students and have sufficient back-up staff in the event regular staff requires sick leave.

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