How to Reopen America’s Schools

Many questions remain as experts weigh options for getting children back into the classroom.

By The Editorial Board

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstandingvalues. It is separate from the newsroom.

  • June 6, 2020
Credit…Nicholas Konrad

Parents who have watched their children struggle with online learning since schools across the country were closed in March are painfully aware that virtual classes are no substitute for face-to-face instruction. Even so, many of these parents worry that schools might hastily reopen without taking the necessary precautions to shield children — and everyone in the school community — from infection.

If this crisis of confidence continues to fester, millions of families could well decide to keep their children home when schools begin opening around the nation this fall. This would further harm the prospects of schoolchildren who have already lost ground because of the pandemic and who are at risk of falling irretrievably behind. By the start of the next school year, the average student could have already lost a third of his or her expected progress in reading and half in math, according to a recent working paper from the nonprofit NWEA and scholars at Brown and the University of Virginia. The learning losses are greatest among black and Hispanic students. The decision to keep some children home next year would also undermine support for public education generally and damage the possibility of economic recovery by keeping caretaking parents at home and out of the work force.

Parental anxiety is strikingly evident in recent polls, including one released last month by USA Today/Ipsos. Elected officials should find it sobering that six in 10 parents say they are likely to continue home learning instead of sending their kids back to school this fall. One in five teachers say they are unlikely to return to their classrooms. And when parents and teachers are considered together, about four in 10 oppose returning to school at all until a coronavirus vaccine is available — in other words, possibly years from now.

One Texas father and teacher among those surveyed spoke for many others: “The expectation of parents and society is we’re sending our children to be educated in a safe environment, and how we’re going to provide that safe environment is completely unknown.”

Teachers’ unions are rightly worried for the safety of their members. Apprehension is running especially high among school employees over 65, an age group of people especially vulnerable to coronavirus infection. An analysis by John Bailey of the American Enterprise Institute shows that 18 percent of teachers and 27 percent of principals fall into the high-risk age category. Districts might end up offering buyouts for some their most vulnerable employees — and finding roles outside of schools for the others. This could create a staff shortage at precisely the time when districts are trying to lower the risk of spreading infection by cutting class size and staggering schedules to limit population density in school buildings.

Elected officials have deepened people’s anxiety over these problems by fixating more on resurrecting bars and restaurants than on schools. Over and over again, we’ve witnessed a laissez-faire approach to reopening that lets each locality go its own way. In some places, discussions on reopening schools is being carried out behind closed doors or without consulting parents’ groups that clearly should have been involved from the beginning. In still other places, officials are whistling right past this volatile issue, mouthing vague platitudes about wearing masks and allowing a little more space among children’s desks.

Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District — the second-largest in the country — has taken a more candid approach during his regular briefings to the public. He acknowledged on Wednesday, for example, that reopening schools would require “a delicate dance, with a thousand steps, each connected to the other” and striking a balance among three sometimes competing priorities: the health and safety of those in the school community, the impact of the pandemic on jobs and families, and the need to effectively educate students.

Mr. Beutner nevertheless told Angelenos that the term “safely reopen” was misleading because “the risk from the virus will not be zero until there’s a vaccine or a treatment which is 100 percent effective.” Drawing an epidemiological picture, he pointed to a school in the district whose 2,844 students and staff members come from a vast area and are connected to nearly 100,000 other people. The public health mandate that requires limiting student and staff interactions at school will require putting fewer students on buses and in classrooms. Without an infusion of new teachers to staff additional class even fewer students than might otherwise be allowable would be on hand in any one school building at a time. Under this hybrid schooling model, some students will study at home and some at school on certain days, and the groups then switch places.

School officials can handle instructional logistics. But as Mr. Beutner rightly states, county and local agencies need to take responsibility for the complex network of supports that schools would need to stay open in the midst of a pandemic. He called on public health officials to decide a few crucial issues promptly, so that procedures and protocols could be made public.

How much testing will be needed to ensure protection of the district’s 700,000 students, its 75,000-person staff and the vast number of families connected to them? Once a case has been diagnosed, how will health agencies track down and test people at risk of infection, particularly those in a poor and transient population? Will a school need to shut down once someone in it tests positive for Covid-19? If so, for how long? How often will schools be sanitized? Who will supply staff members and students with protective equipment? Who will pay for the inevitable lawsuits that arise when people sue, claiming they were infected at work?

Mr. Beutner has set a good example by giving regular updates and sharing his concerns with the public. Elsewhere in the country, however, some officials seem to be operating on the presumption that they can set rules in private that families will meekly follow. The truth is that parents, not school officials, hold the leverage. Families will inevitably balk at sending children back to school if they sense that districts have not taken the Covid-19 threat seriously or have done too little to shield students from harm.

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