Face-to-face classes, online learning or a combination? The reopening of schools will bring new struggles

With the next academic year less than three months away, and with no end in sight of the coronavirus pandemic, school districts face a daunting decision: Reopen the schools they closed or continue to teach students remotely?

Educators in the United States are weighing their options, considering the quality of education they can offer, the need for children to socialize, and with safety above all else.

So far, a hybrid model that combines some in-person learning and some remote learning has become the most popular proposition for the fall, according to Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, an advocacy organization for 14,000 superintendents in the United States

That could mean that a school has as little as 25 percent of its normal capacity in the building at one time, which would give students more room for social distancing in their classrooms and hallways. Or schools could bring back 50 percent of students and staff at the same time, something that Broward County, Florida envisions with the hybrid model it has proposed for its school year beginning on August 19.

How, exactly, schools will stagger student schedules depends on individual districts, and the group not in the building at any given time will continue the curriculum remotely.

But with so many unknowns still, many school districts are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Schools in Virginia are closely monitoring COVID-19 cases before deciding what the fall semester will be like, but have indicated they will initially do the combined in-person and online learning format, prompting protests from parents in al less a county that wants more face-to-face instruction. Last week, health and education officials in Minnesota announced that if state COVID-19 metrics “continue to stabilize and / or improve,” schools could reopen in the fall without strict guidelines for social distancing. Meanwhile, Texas plans that all students return to their school buildings, even as cases in that state increase.

Any option involving students entering a physical space will surely be fraught with obstacles, from keeping them 6 feet apart on the school bus to making sure they are using hand sanitizer, in addition to adequately stocking their classrooms with cleaning articles.

“This will be a very, very difficult and challenging school year,” said Domenech, whose organization released a set of 50-page guidelines on Friday to reopen schools. “There is not much time to plan, especially when you don’t know what to plan.”

What a combination of online and in-person learning would look like

The hybrid model is not a one-size-fits-all plan. In Virginia, for example, state guidelines require that in-person instruction be offered first to preschool through third grade and to English language learners.

And in North Carolina, the state is looking at complex variations ranging from students who spend half the day at school and the other half at home to students who go to school on alternate days or weeks. The state plans to announce before July 1 whether it will continue remote learning, send all students to school full time, or do some combination of both.

But even with detailed proposals for the fall, school districts still face a number of uncertainties, namely how they will pay for whatever scenario they end up going to. An analysis by the Association of School Superintendents and the Association of School Business Officers found that, on average, a school district could spend up to an additional $ 1.8 million to reopen school buildings when considering the costs of monitoring health, cleanliness, equipment of protection and additional personnel.

That is a difficult task for struggling school districts at any time, but particularly in an economic recession.

“Districts are seeing significant cuts in their budget and wondering where the money will come from,” said Domenech. “They are caught between a rock and a difficult place, and the biggest fear is that they will be forced to open schools without safety guidelines.”

Cash-strapped school districts are “caught between a rock and a tough place, and the biggest fear is that they will be forced to open schools without safety guidelines.”

While children have generally had milder symptoms of the coronavirus than adults, there have been some serious and even fatal pediatric cases. And there are concerns about a rare, new, and potentially serious condition called multisystemic inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, that appears to be related to the coronavirus.

Fears of children who become seriously ill from a coronavirus outbreak at school, or that a child transmits the coronavirus to a vulnerable family member, have scared parents. Six in 10 said they would likely continue remote learning instead of sending their children to school next year, according to a May USA / Ipsos survey in May.

The concern is not just for students and their families: Without vaccines or reliable treatments, teachers and staff are also at risk, particularly those of advanced age or those with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID complications. 19. In another USA Today / Ipsos survey, 1 in 5 teachers said they were unlikely to return to school if their classrooms reopened in the fall.

But many parents desperately want to send their children back to class. And experts from around the world, including more than 1,500 pediatricians in the UK, say returning to in-person learning is the best way to go.

“Children need to go back to school,” said Dr. Kathryn Edwards, an infectious disease specialist and professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, who sits on an advisory committee for the Nashville board of education. , Tennessee, which is helping the school system to reopen schools safely. “Children benefit greatly from school: they are educated, several children receive at least two meals at school so they are not hungry, and also, there are situations where schools are a way to detect situations of neglect and abuse” .

Some other countries have already reopened schools, such as Austria, Denmark, and Germany, which have not seen a noticeable increase in COVID-19 cases since then. But in Israel, dozens of schools had to close after students returned in May because of outbreaks.

Taryn Southard, a second-grade teacher seen here with her son Cassian and daughter Isla. “This is 100 percent a traumatic event, even in the best of circumstances, for the children at home,” Southard said of the abrupt change to remote control. learning.Taryn Southard

Taryn Southard, a second grade teacher in Portland, Maine, fears that she, her students, or their families may become ill if everyone returns to school. But remote teaching has had its downsides.

He had just started to progress with some of his students, most of whom do not speak English as their primary language, when the abrupt switch to remote learning occurred. Seeing her second graders try to meet the demands of school from home, where many live below the poverty line and do not have a stable environment, she highlighted the existing disparities between them.

“At home, you are really struggling with many different things,” he said, adding that one of his students was homeless and trying to stay on top of his school work while his family moved into the homes of several friends.

Some of his students, he said, had parents who couldn’t help with school because they didn’t speak English or had to go to work during the pandemic. Other students had to compete against their siblings for computer time to complete their assignments.

“This is a 100 percent traumatic event, even under the best of circumstances, for children at home.”

“This is 100 percent a traumatic event, even in the best of circumstances, for children at home,” said Southard.

Domenech urged all school leaders to involve parents, teachers, staff, and students in the discussions they are having about what fall will look like “so that people do not have the expectation of opening the school business as usual, when that is not the case. it’s going to happen nowhere. ” “

“The number 1 priority has to be that everything done is done safely,” he said. “And if that means remote learning has to continue for a large part of the population, then that’s what must happen.”