Under pressure: Big risks, few answers on reopening schools


School superintendents and principals are staring at an impossible equation.

Governors are promising to put kids back in classrooms in a matter of weeks, but it’s mostly school officials stuck navigating the messy details of how to keep students and teachers safe and win over skeptical parents, while dealing with a budget crisis that is forcing layoffs and other cuts.

In California, six major school districts warned state lawmakers that proposed budget cuts could delay the fall semester. And in New Jersey, superintendents are trashing the state’s “inappropriate” guidance for in-person summer programs. The head of the Massachusetts Teachers Association said the governor’s plan to require children to bring their own masks will punish low-income students and communities of color.

“I mean, it’s like it's a lose-lose situation,” said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association. ”You have parents that are demanding the schools to open. And then you have parents that are saying, we're not going to send our kids to school. You have teachers that are saying we're not going to go back to work. Districts that are saying, with these budget cuts, we're going to have to lay off teachers.

“It's just, this is unbelievable.”

Most principals understand they’ll be opening with a mix of in-person and remote learning, but they don’t have a clear idea of how that will happen, said Bob Farrace, of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Right now, principals are flying blind with only very high, top-level guidance on what the reopening of school is going to look like,” he said.

Economic recovery in large part depends on kids returning to school so parents can get back to work. President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he expects a full reopening of schools in the fall, though his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos concedes some classes may have to remain online — even though virtual classes have been a bust in many places.


Other countries don’t offer a clear direction. Austria, Denmark and Germany opened schools in April and have not seen significant increases in new cases. South Korea and Beijing, however, were forced to close schools again because of outbreaks in local communities, and Israel put 2,000 students and staff in quarantine because of outbreaks in several schools.

While a study published Tuesday found that children and teenagers are only half as likely to become infected as adults, they are not immune, and the CDC is investigating reports of a rare but serious type of inflammation found in children that is associated with the coronavirus.

“You don’t want to be the superintendent to open too quickly and somebody dies,” said Kristi Wilson, superintendent of the Phoenix-area Buckeye Elementary School District, where schools will reopen Aug. 5.

“Live with that! It’s just way too much to take on.”

The concern isn’t just for students. Nearly a third of K-12 teachers may be at higher risk for severe illness because they are over 50. In New York City, up to 20 percent of teachers could teach from home over health concerns.

Face coverings, desks spaced 6 feet apart, and, if feasible, daily health checks in schools are part of detailed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening the country.

But the CDC’s recommendations are simply guidance, leading to a patchwork of rules playing out across the various states. In Washington state, for example, all employees and students will require face coverings. But in Vermont, only staff are required to wear masks. Vermont will require all students to have their temperatures taken but neighboring Massachusetts will not.

Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said the nature of the coronavirus almost lends itself to a patchwork of rules and requirements because there is still so much unknown about the virus.

“We are going to learn as we go,” he said. “It’s a matter of trying some of these things out and finding what will work.

Rules may need to vary even within school districts, said Roger Shapiro, an associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s school of public health. High school students may be more apt to wear masks and remain socially distant than younger children, he said, while younger kids may need alternate days to limit the number of students in a class.

Montana, where nearly a dozen schools fully reopened on May 7, might have offered a preview for how schools will change. Teachers at Willow Creek School wore masks and students lined up after recess on socially distanced spray painted circles. Students had to undergo health screenings before entering the building and staff operated a staggered schedule.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said parents, too, must change their habits to keep schools safe.

“I’m a mother and I think I can speak for all moms and dads that we’ve all sent kids to school when they have the sniffles,” said Raimondo, a Democrat. “We can’t do that anymore. We have prided ourselves on a perfect attendance culture. That’s going to have to change.”

Changes are also going to be needed to protect teachers and staff more susceptible to the virus, Plescia said. Principals may need to find a way to employ teachers in settings outside the traditional classroom or offer some type of distance learning to students with underlying conditions.

“We’re not going back to how the school system was any time soon,” he said. “People are going to have to be ready for it.”

Education leaders say all these changes will require additional funding and many decisions are on hold until they know what’s coming. An analysis by AASA and the Association of School Business Officials found that the average U.S. school district may need to spend an additional $1.8 million to reopen school buildings, given new expenses for health monitoring and cleaning, additional staffing, protective equipment and transportation.

“Time is running short,” Domenech said. “Decisions have to be made. Staff has to be hired. You’re going to do all these things, you have to be ready for it and you have to have the money to be able to do it.”

Districts are experiencing a “degree of paralysis” because they’re anticipating a 20- to 30-percent cut in state aid, which will be “devastating,” John King Jr., the president and CEO of the Education Trust and former education secretary, said during a June 10 Senate hearing. “That will mean layoffs, program elimination. And so districts are, in a sense, stuck waiting to see if Congress will help states,” he said.

An analysis by the National Education Association projected a loss of 1.9 million education jobs in public schools and universities by fiscal 2022.

“For us to think that we are going to send our students back to school safely and provide them with the quality education we believe they all deserve — we know that cannot happen,” Becky Pringle, NEA vice president said during a House hearing. “We need the Senate to act right now.”

The CARES Act provided more than $13 billion in K-12 emergency funds and the House-passed HEROES Act includes nearly $58 billion for K-12 but it’s unclear when the Senate will take up its next relief measure. Dozens of prominent education groups are calling for $500 billion for state and local governments and at least $175 billion for K-12 education.

Wilson, the Buckeye Elementary School District superintendent, said she’s in a “holding pattern,” waiting for the out-of-session Arizona state legislature to change a state law that she says could prevent schools from getting full funding if students aren’t learning inside a classroom. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, who is contending with a fresh outbreak and a record number of hospitalizations, announced last month that schools may reopen in August though the state provided few definitive answers on how when it released guidance earlier this month.

The one-time infusion of CARES Act cash helps with protective equipment, but it doesn’t help Wilson hire and maintain additional staffing to keep students socially distanced. Busing is another problem: Attorneys sent her transportation guidance calling for fewer riders — and suggested protecting the driver with everything from a mask to a shower curtain. Teachers and districts, meanwhile, are “frantic” over whether they’ll get sued.

“It’s awful,” she said. “I don’t sleep. I’ve been a superintendent eight years, and I’m just worried. It’s hard to put into words.”

Most school superintendents haven’t announced when their schools will reopen and resume in-person instruction, even if more than half say they “intend” to open on time, according to a nationwide survey from AASA, conducted between May 5 and June 8.

More than half, 56 percent, replied that “we intend to open on time” when asked to describe their district’s decision status while 32 percent said “we are considering a modified schedule” and 16 percent said “we have not yet begun planning.” Thirteen percent said they “anticipate a delayed opening.”

“The guidance from state and local health officials is evolving on a day to day basis,” said Christian Rogers, AASA policy analyst. “That’s really impacting when superintendents are able to know for certain when they’ll be able to resume normal school operations.”

If superintendents don’t know what’s going to happen, multiply the uncertainty “by 100 for every principal,” Farrace said. All they know is there will be a “tidal wave of issues” they’ll have to figure out how to manage “because once [students] are in the school, there's really no other level to to kick it to,” he said.

A USA TODAY/Ipsos poll last month found 1 in 5 teachers say they are unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopen in the fall, and a parallel poll found that 6 in 10 K-12 parents are likely to pursue at home learning options rather than in-person school. And last month, a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found 41 percent of registered voters think it’s a bad idea to reopen K-12 schools in the fall while about a third think it's a good idea for children to resume in-person classes or go back to child care.

Utah’s GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s announcement that most K-12 schools and colleges would welcome back students in August drew a backlash from concerned parents and students. The state is seeing a spike in coronavirus cases that has forced Herbert to pause reopening.

In North Carolina, a state where the recent uptick in cases has caught the attention of the White House, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said one of the primary reasons he is concerned about his state’s current spike is that it will make it that much harder to open schools, which “are vital to learning, physical fitness and social interactions and for many students it’s also a place for healthy meals, safe environments, stability and routine.” Schools are set to return, by law, on Aug. 17.

Educators in Wake County are worried, said Kristin Beller, president of Wake North Carolina Association of Educators. Some have concerns about health conditions while others shared fears about having to tell students about a teacher dying or a fellow student. Earlier this month in neighboring Durham County, a second-grader died from Covid-19 complications.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and fear,” Beller said.

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