What we do — and don’t — know about schools reopening for fall


In California, for example, the state Education Department recently issued guidance calling for the implementation of a hybrid, or blended, instructional model in all K-12 districts.

Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni said recently that he envisions some combination of remote and in-school learning, with in-school learning most necessary for students with special needs, young children, English-language learners and other at-risk students.

In Ohio, some districts have informed the state they plan to use blended learning.

And many colleges and universities throughout the country that have declared that they are welcoming students back to campus envision a hybrid model, with students doing some classes in their dorms and others in front of a teacher.

According to a new survey by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, 94 percent of K-12 superintendents nationwide indicated that they are not ready to announce when schools will reopen and exactly how they will do it.

Part of the holdup in making decisions is uncertainty about how serious the coronavirus crisis will be in their communities when it is time for school to start — especially with infection rates rising now in a significant number of states. Reported coronavirus cases have topped 2.1 million in the United States.

And budget cuts of as-yet-undetermined amounts are making it difficult for districts to plan; some districts say without substantial new state and/or federal aid, they can’t reopen safely.

There are some aspects of school life that are becoming obvious about the “new normal” as education leaders present scenarios they are considering for the new school year.

In terms of protective health measures, it is expected that many, if not most, students will be required to wear masks in school, although the mask rules could be different for different ages of children. Desks in many classrooms will be six feet apart for social distancing. Many districts will require children to have their temperature taken when they enter a bus or school building and to wash their hands frequently during the day.

But nobody knows how well these measures will work to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and its disease, covid-19.

How long will it take to check every student’s temperature? Will there really be enough sinks for hand-washing? Can young children be expected to keep their masks on all day or refrain from jumping out of their seats to visit their friend sitting at the next desk?

One veteran educator, Brad Johnson, tweeted: “I wonder how many minutes into the new school year it takes some students to lift their mask and start coughing in the classroom and create total chaos? I’m guessing 4 minutes. Only because I remember how I was in 4th grade!”

Another issue that districts are trying to address — without any conclusions yet — is how to minimize the inconvenience to parents when hybrid models are implemented and children are at home for some days of the week.

This past spring, many parents were home during the coronavirus pandemic when their offices closed, trying to help their children with remote learning and doing their own jobs. But they can’t do that indefinitely. Other parents still report to their jobs and would need child care, a system reported to be at risk of collapse without more federal funding.

In North Carolina, state education officials recently laid out three models for reopening — all remote learning, or all students in-school with “minimal social distancing” if coronavirus levels are low, or a hybrid with 50 percent of students in a school at one time in schools and buses.

But it won’t be until July when the Department of Public Instruction will have policy recommendations to bring to the State Board of Education for approval. Meanwhile, a new state law requires all public schools in North Carolina to reopen Aug. 17 — earlier than usual — and add five days to the 2020-21 academic year.

The “instructional scheduling model options” released by the Department of Education in California are hybrids, including what is called an “A/B Week Blended Learning Model.” In this scenario, half of the students would be in school for four days a week while the other half is doing distance learning, and then, the following week, the students would swap. On the fifth day, all students would do distance learning.

While in school, California students will probably, among other protective measures, have to submit to temperature checks with no-touch thermometers as they board a bus or walk into a school building, wear face masks all day, and frequently wash their hands at portable hand-washing stations that are supposed to be installed.

In North Carolina, however, state officials are only strongly recommending the use of face masks for students — not requiring it — showing how things will look different from state to state and even district to district.

Districts are also grappling with serious money issues. The economic downturn that resulted from the pandemic means less revenue for local and state governments, and school districts are being asked to cut budgets across the country — in some places deeply.

Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, told Congress this week that if his district is forced to take a potential 25 percent budget cut and doesn’t get significant federal aid, drastic measures will have to be taken, possibly schools closures, firing teachers and the elimination of academic and arts programs.

He said his district is still developing its plan for the fall, but “we expect that we will likely operate three to five scenarios, some simultaneously, that support the varying needs of learners in multiple different ways.”

  • A much more robust home-school and online learning environment for students and families (as well as staff members) who, because of the coronavirus, cannot or will not return to school or work.
  • A flexible independent learning model for students who can work well on their own, such as middle and high school students and gifted students, but who will need some limited support from teachers in schools.
  • A blended model for students who need an increased level of direct support — such as younger students, students with disabilities, English learners, and foster and homeless youths — who can spend possibly two to three days a week in school with teachers.
  • Daily in-school learning for some students with higher needs who need in-person instruction.
  • A fully reopened but redesigned system that leverages all of the above personalization and flexibilities when schools can resume.

But it will take a lot of federal aid to make all of this happen, he said.

In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included some $13 billion for K-12 schools, but districts say that is only a fraction of what they need. And last month, the House passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES Act, which includes about $58 billion that is supposed to go to K-12 schools — far less than the $200 million for which education groups are lobbying and say they need for the school year. The Senate shows no signs of taking up the bill anytime soon.

Meanwhile, teachers await word from their districts about what exactly they will be doing in the fall. Nicholas Ferroni, a high school teacher and public education activist in New Jersey, tweeted about the frustrations about being asked for lesson plans without knowing how he will be teaching his students. He wrote:

Dept. of ED: “Teachers, we need your lesson plans, strategies, SGOs and exam schedules months in advance. Plan ahead or you will be punished!”

Educators: “What is the plan or guidelines for the next school year so we can plan ahead?”

Dept. of ED: “We’ll let you know…”





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