Future Tense

Here’s How We Reopen Schools This Fall

It starts with flexibility and creativity. Yes, it will take a lot of money.

Three students, one wearing a mask, sitting at desks in a classroom
High school students in Greece on May 11. U.S. classrooms could reopen too, if we do it right. Orestis Panagiotou/Getty Images

The school year’s barely over, but we’re already looking toward the fall. School districts have started to announce their plans, at least in some form. Fairfax, Virginia, said it’s all online or two days in person. Rhode Island, where I live, said in-person starts Aug. 31.

For the most part, these plans are tremendously nonspecific. But the return to school is crucial. Michelle Goldberg makes a strong case in the New York Times. I have written before about learning losses and inequality. Remote school will hurt kids, especially poor students and students of color. It will make it harder for economies to open as more and more parents must choose between parenting and work. In-person school enhances learning, but it is also the primary child care most parents rely on. Figuring this out is an emergency.

A successful approach will meet two main goals: First, it will protect the safety of kids and staff (teachers, sure, but also cafeteria workers, janitorial staff, coaches, and everyone else) as well as the broader public. Second, it will, if at all possible, have kids in classrooms, in some form, full time.

The question, then, is: What’s it going to take to do that?

In the big picture, there are four crucial elements: commitment, flexibility, realism, and a focus on staff.

This will never happen if policymakers do not commit to doing it now. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has come under a lot of criticism for saying schools will open Aug. 31 without providing a lot of details about how that will happen. I see the critics’ perspective, but the fact is that if you start by saying, “Let’s explore the possibilities,” it will not happen. The logistics of opening schools are daunting to the point of breaking even the best of us. If it feels like there is a choice, it will be too easy to decide not to.

When someone comes out and says, “We are opening,” it puts on the pressure to find a way. It encourages people to think about creative solutions and push past the problems. The only way this is even a passing hope is if we commit to making it so.

We will need to be flexible. We may find that, come August, the pandemic situation is such that it is unsafe to open despite having done our best to be as safe as possible. The same way that we are backtracking on indoor dining, we may need to backtrack on schools. I really, really hope not. But we must be ready to do so.

We also need to be realistic. When we reopen schools, some people at schools—kids, staff—will get COVID-19. Some of these infections would happen anyway, outside of school. Many of them will not be driven by school contacts. But there will be in some in-school transmission, no matter how careful we are. This is the unfortunate reality. Some of these people may get very sick. If we are not willing to accept this, we cannot open schools. We also, in that case, should not open anything else.

The fact is that we accept some risks of this nature in normal times—allowing people to drive cars, have swimming pools, avoid the flu shot, etc. If we open schools and then panic and shut them when there is one case of COVID-19, this will have been a waste. We know there will be one case. There will be more. We need to set some limits in advance in terms of how to react to cases, and we need to plan. But we cannot plan to panic.

While the benefits to opening schools may be most obvious for students, we need to focus on staff for safety. Kids are at low risk for COVID-19 and do not tend to get very sick. Yes, they can get very ill, but that is rare. This is not true of teachers, who are not children. It’s not true of coaches, cafeteria workers, janitorial staff, and others. When we talk about opening schools and protecting people, these conversations should have a heavy focus on staff. We need staff to feel safe and cared for. And in a practical vein, if you do not do that, you will not get teachers to return, and opening schools with no teachers is not going to work.

So with those big-picture goals in mind, how would this work? Here are the central principles I hope schools and school districts have in mind. (There are many details I have missed like buses, school lunch program, etc. But these are the big picture.)

Tracking

It will be necessary to track infections at schools. One way to do this would be with routine, random, or universal testing of the school population. If you test everyone, even those without symptoms, you could pick up infections before they spread. Many large universities will plan some version of this if they open.

I do not think this is realistic for school systems, due to cost and logistics. If the technology improves a lot, we may get to some exciting new world where every kid in a class spits in a bucket in the morning and we do pooled saliva antigen testing every day. But we are not there now, and we should not plan around that.

There are two types of tracking I think are realistic.

First: Schools should be reporting, each week, confirmed COVID-19 cases in students and staff. They should also report total counts of students and staff in school. (Together, these give us a case rate, an informative metric from which to make decisions.) This reporting could be processed through some school district–level reporting or, even better, coordinated at the state or federal level.

Second: I believe there should be some routine testing of teachers and staff. Asking teachers to be tested each week, even without symptoms, would be a big lift, but it would help with both tracking and prevention. And it’s a smaller lift than testing all students.

Recognition of Age Group Differences

High school students are not the same as elementary school students, either in their disease risk (higher) or in their ability to learn online (better). There is a reason that most of Europe opened elementary schools first.

Because school districts serve all students, there is a temptation to think about everyone the same. I think that’s a mistake. As we work through these plans, we should allow our solutions to differ by age group.

Realistic Prevention Measures

The recent American Academy of Pediatrics guidance for schools says it may be unrealistic to have little kids wear masks. Some pediatricians I talk to have noted that it might even make things worse, since kids tend to touch their faces a lot when they have masks on. It also may be unrealistic to ask 4-year-olds, or even 9-year-olds, to physically distance. Masks may be more feasible for middle and high school students (although keeping them from touching one another is another thing).

We can and should take precautions, but we want to focus on the ones that are feasible. Hand-washing, for example, is something we can all do.

Among the most important prevention measures is keeping sick kids home. And this will require both parental cooperation and plans in school. If your kid is sick, she needs to stay home. Period. I know some of us have sent our kids to school with a fever of 100.1 (sneaking in under the common 100.4 threshold). We cannot do this anymore.

Then, we need an in-school plan for when kids get sick at school. They need to be isolated until they can go home.

Contingency Plans

We have learned in the past weeks and months that the virus is unpredictable, as is human judgment. There will be waves, outbreaks, and continued cases until we have a vaccine. Even in the absence of a large wave, cases will arise in classrooms (see comments on realism above). Schools need a very concrete set of contingency plans.

Example: When there is a student case in a class, do you a) close the classroom for a day and deep clean, b) encourage testing of all kids, c) bar students from that class from school for two weeks, d) all of the above, or e) none of the above?

Example: If a student has a fever, how long does he have to stay out of school? Does it matter if he has been tested?

Example: If you do need kids to learn from home for some time, whether because they are sick or their classmates are, what is the distance learning plan? Even if schools fully reopen, they are going to need to figure out how “hybrid” learning will work.

School districts cannot think through all contingencies, but they can try to think through as many as possible. Schools need a playbook. They cannot just be told: “Be safe!” That’s not enough.

Creative Staffing

(I talked about this idea with New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg, and I really like it; I give credit to Elena Tuerk for thinking this through. Districts, ask her about it!)

A basic issue is that schools need more staff. Some high-risk teachers will not be able to return, and if we want classrooms to de-densify, we need more classrooms and more supervision.

The most obvious solution is to have kids in school for less time. Hence the “two days on, two off” or “morning or afternoon” plans. However, these types of plans pose tremendous challenges for parents. What will kids do when they are out of school? And if we expect that during their days off kids will be learning via distance learning, well, that poses all the same internet access and supervision problems we’ve had this year.

We need to think about this creatively.

Here is a proposal: Turns out many students do not want to start college or return to college online. Athletes whose seasons are canceled may wait a year to preserve eligibility. Many of these students may be looking for jobs, and yet those may be hard to come by. These people are not teachers, obviously. But they are low risk for the virus, and with some training I think they could help.

Imagine your kid goes to school with their normal teacher and half their class in the morning. They do school. Then, after lunch, they go to another location—a curtained-off space in the gym? a trailer? an empty movie theater nearby?—with people in their late teens or early 20s who are doing gap years. They do a little online math or reading. They color. They have recess.

It’s not perfect, but I’m guessing kids would get a lot more online Zearn badges if they were supervised in school rather than being asked to do it at home. Plus, they are out of the house so parents can work.

Maybe there are better solutions than this (I’m sure there are!). The point is not that we must do this particular thing, but that we need to think outside the box.

Finally, these plans—especially the last one—are expensive. Some ideas, like randomized or universal testing, may be out of the realm of possibility given cost. But this is important. State governments should devote resources. The federal government should. If they will not step up, foundations should.

Gates Foundation, I’m looking at you.

A version of this article first appeared in Emily Oster’s newsletter, ParentData.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.