The vast majority of schools in the United States have closed their doors for the remainder of the academic year, an “unprecedented disruption” to K-12 education that has left parents and kids wondering when things will get back to normal ― and questioning what “normal” will mean amid a pandemic.
Five experts in health and education, who ― while repeatedly emphasizing that the situation is changing by the day ― offered their predictions about what school might look like for kids whenever it starts again.
It probably won’t follow the typical schedule. No one knows whether school will start again in September. New York City’s education chancellor has said there’s a 50/50 chance that his city’s schools will reopen in the fall.
Other parts of the country are considering earlier start times. In Missouri, policymakers are mulling a summer reopening to help mitigate learning loss and to get ahead of potential disruptions later in the year. Health officials have spoken of the possibility of a spike in COVID-19 cases this fall. So a typical academic year schedule seems unlikely. And certainly everything could change as doctors learn more about the health risks posed to children by a rare inflammatory syndrome possibly linked to the coronavirus.
“Even after schools open, if we have a second wave of this virus, they may have to close again.”- Dr. Sally Goza, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics
“Even after schools open, if we have a second wave of this virus, they may have to close again,” said Dr. Sally Goza, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which recently issued guidelines about reopening schools that it will be regularly updating.
“There may be rolling closures, where they’re open, then they’re closed, then they’re open again,” she said. Parents should be honest with their kids about that possibility, the experts advise, so children are not counting on things moving forward in the usual way. “Share the information you know for sure in a developmentally appropriate way. If your child asks you something you don’t know, be honest and avoid vague jargon,” said Rachel Busman, a psychologist and senior director of the Child Mind Institute’s Anxiety Disorders Center. “It’s OK to say, ‘That’s a great question. We don’t have all the information yet. I’ll be sure to tell you more as I find out.’”
Get ready for shortened or staggered days.
In order to keep children, teachers and other school staff safe, public health officials say it will be critical to not crowd large numbers of kids together. One way schools might avoid that is by adjusting the daily schedule so that kids attend on alternating days or in shorter shifts each day. “I think we could see teachers who are now doing three shifts [of students] a day, with two or two-and-a-quarter hours per shift,” said Brian Perkins, an associate professor of practice in education leadership and director of the Summer Principals Academy at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
So instead of having 30 kids in class for a full day, students might come in ten at a time for a few hours. That way, Perkins said, schools could limit class size using the teachers and classrooms they already have available. That kind of schedule would place an incredible burden on parents, he acknowledged, but it may be the best option available.
Even in schools with smaller classes, experts say that parents can assume the traditional drop-off routine is a thing of the past.
“We’ll ask parents and faculty to be wearing masks and we’ll do temperature checks at the door,” said Lee Scott, chairwoman of the educational advisory board at The Goddard School, a private early education provider. The school expects to stagger when parents can drop their children off and to make sure the parents are in and out fast.
Teachers will likely wear masks. Kids might too. In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s proposed guidelines for reopening schools, which were obtained by The Associated Press, the agency called for cloth masks for all teachers. It’s unclear whether those guidelines will be taken up by state and local governments, but it seems likely that many teachers will be wearing masks. (The AAP’s guidance for reopening schools says that masks may be one strategy used to limit the spread of COVID-19, but doesn’t provide much detail beyond that.)It’s possible that in some places, kids will be expected to wear masks as well, though that probably depends a lot on their age.
“I highly doubt that schools are going to require children under 5 to wear masks,” said Scott. “If children want to wear masks, that’s of course perfectly fine, but making them wear masks is a different protocol,” she added. Subject-wise, school could be cut down to the absolute basics.
If school days are shorter or kids attend only a few days a week, school districts are going to have to make difficult decisions about what they have time for.
“I think unfortunately it’s going to have to be a discussion of ‘What is an acceptable amount of education?’” said Perkins. “Right now, we build in a lot of non-cognate areas, like physical education, the arts. Those are so important. But I think it’s going to be a question of ‘What is absolutely required?’” He anticipates that schools will prioritize language arts and math, followed by science and history. Unfortunately, a lot of other subjects simply won’t fit on the schedule. It is also likely that after-school care, arts programs and athletics will be shelved — which, again, will hugely complicate life for many working parents.
“Sporting events, practices and conditioning sessions will be limited in many locations,” the AAP says in its guidelines.
Digital learning is not going away. Because school days could be abbreviated, and because the next school year could stop and start in waves, experts say that parents and kids should be prepared for the likelihood that remote learning will not end with the current academic year. Especially if children are not physically in class for full days, schools will need to rely on digital learning to fill in some gaps.
“Situations like this shine a light on inequalities that already existed in our society and that are reflected in the education system.”- Nermeen Dashoush, an early childhood education professor at Boston University
That means the challenge of ensuring that children have access to reliable internet service and devices will not go away either. Schools and educators will continue to grapple with the many ways in which COVID-19 has heightened existing inequities. “Situations like this shine a light on inequalities that already existed in our society and that are reflected in the education system,” said Nermeen Dashoush, an early childhood education professor at Boston University and chief curriculum officer at MarcoPolo Learning.
Educators will likely spend a lot of time measuring learning loss. Whenever school reopens — and however changed, or not, it is — teachers will need to spend more time than usual getting a sense of where their students are and helping many of them catch up. “I think the big question is going to be: How are we going to push kids forward in a way that helps them catch up after missing kindergarten or a third of first grade year?” said Perkins.
Teachers will need to gauge where children are and find ways to overcome what could, in many cases, be a pretty profound learning loss. A huge challenge will simply be carving out the time to measure students’ progress. Kids will still be dealing with some really complex emotions. Children’s worlds have been upended by the pandemic, and both parents and schools should understand that the transition back will not be a simple one. Several of the experts noted that children may experience unprecedented separation anxiety after spending months at home. Kids may be confused about why school is so different now. They might have lost loved ones to the coronavirus. They might be afraid of catching it themselves. Parents can help. “When kids are worried, we want to ask why and get more information instead of assuming we know,” Busman said. “For example, if a child says that they are scared to go back to school, say, ‘I really want to understand that more. What are you most worried about?’”
Schools are going to have to check in on kids’ emotional wellbeing, too, and to walk the sometimes fine line between promoting safety and being overly strict. It will be a real-time experiment. “There’s a lot of anxiety. It’s not possible to put a 4-year-old child in school and tell him to stay 6 feet away from another child or don’t touch high-contact surfaces. It’s not going to happen,” said Dashoush. “We can’t put them in a situation where we’re setting them up for failure and probably amplifying anxiety they’re already feeling.” Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but its guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.