Mid-July is usually a perfect time for school administrators and teachers to catch up on reading, take a family vacation, or polish mostly finished plans for the fall semester. But a normal summer break is another victim of COVID-19: Education officials nationwide are grappling with plummeting budgets, rapidly changing state and local health protocols, and uncertainty on just about every front. Meanwhile, the clock relentlessly counts down toward the start of the new school year.
Despite the legion of unanswered questions, school leaders are starting to pull together their back-to-school plans. But varying needs across the country and changing health recommendations continue to cast doubt on what students can expect when they return. And federal education officials also are weighing in on how they think districts should balance health and teaching needs during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Some schools are preparing for the worst. Los Angeles and San Diego are opting for a completely virtual start to the year. Similarly, Milwaukee and some Houston-area schools plan to begin the year online with the option of switching to in-person classes if health conditions improve.
Other districts are working on hybrid plans. Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the Big Apple’s more than 1 million public school students will return to physical classrooms just a few days per week and spend the rest of the time online. Schools in Hawaii will start up the first week of August with a mix of in-person and distance instruction, although administrators are squabbling over just how much they should spread out desks for proper social distancing.
And some administrators remain hopeful school can look somewhat normal. While Chicago has yet to release its plans, Detroit is prepping for classrooms capped at 20 students, while bolstering online resources for those who cannot attend in person. Officials in states such as Wyoming and Montana, where COVID-19 deaths remain rare, argue that they don’t need any adjustments and want to start the new school year unencumbered by pandemic precautions.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would release new guidelines for schools sometime this week. The CDC’s May guidance sparked controversy with its costly list of recommendations, including drastically reduced class sizes, limited recess and extracurricular activities, and severe restrictions on how many riders school buses should accommodate. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield later clarified that the agency would not revise the original recommendations but would publish supplemental information to help schools plan, declaring, “Our guidelines are our guidelines.” Leaked internal documents from the CDC last week rated full-size, in-person classes in the highest risk category.
But the president and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are pushing for as much in-person instruction as possible. DeVos even warned last week that the agency could hinge the availability of federal funds on whether schools open for in-person instruction this fall. Even though federal dollars represent a small portion of most school budgets, that could put a squeeze on districts that already have announced online-only plans. Recognizing that schools will need more money to open safely, Vice President Mike Pence said on Monday that the administration is working to put more support for schools in the next round of coronavirus aid: “We’re in active discussions with leadership in the Congress about additional education funding support in the upcoming relief bill.”
Meanwhile, surveys show that only 21 percent of teachers are comfortable returning to the classroom for in-person instruction, and 47 percent of parents are seriously considering homeschooling for the upcoming year.
Uncertainty, it seems, appears to be the only certain thing around.