Sunshine Bible Academy and Dakota Christian School are calmly planning a “pretty normal” start to the school year in August.
“Honestly, especially since we’re in such a rural area, I don’t know that we will be terribly affected,” Dakota Christian School CEO Jeremy Boer said. The private Christian school in Corsica, S.D., switched to distance learning in the middle of March due to the coronavirus pandemic. It plans to resume on-site classes in August.
Principal Jason Watson of Sunshine Bible Academy in Hand County, S.D., predicted an unremarkable return, as well. He explained the boarding school already has called back some students for the final two weeks of the current school year, with teachers taking added precautions such as temperatures checks for the returning teens. But the school does not require masks, nor does it have plans to do so for the upcoming school year.
Another small school in Montana is giving the nation a glimpse of what fall could look like for students. Willow Creek School was one of 11 in the state to reopen in early May once Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, gave the go-ahead. Teachers wear masks and use colorful, 6-foot pool noodles to remind students to keep their distance.
But Willow Creek has only 37 students. Dakota Christian School and Sunshine Bible Academy serve just 29 and 75 pupils, respectively. And all three already have the class sizes that easily accommodate the social distancing needed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Larger districts in major urban centers like New York and Los Angeles face a much more difficult challenge. With school populations in the thousands, looming budget cuts linked to empty state coffers, and uncertainty lurking at every turn, how will school leaders address even the most basic barriers to bringing students back?
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance this month attempting to answer those questions. The CDC document contains a laundry list of recommendations, including advice to pare down class sizes, limit field trips, and constrain students to a single classroom for the entire day.
About one-third of French children returned to classes in mid-May, allowing for what school officials hoped was ample social distancing in classrooms. But within a week authorities reported 70 new COVID-19 cases with possible links to schools. The flare-up prompted the closure of seven schools in northern France.
Germany has fared a little better. Classes there slowly resumed over the month of May with virus mitigation strategies such as wearing masks and copious use of hand sanitizer. Education officials in the European nation report they’ve experienced a handful of isolated infections that required temporarily closing individual classes but not entire schools.
And just last week hundreds of thousands of high school seniors in South Korea switched from online learning back to on-site classes. They wore masks, endured strict social distancing guidelines and temperature screenings, and sat behind plastic screens on their desks. But two students tested positive for COVID-19 early on, prompting 66 schools outside of Seoul to abruptly shutter and send everyone back home and back online.
The new normal for larger schools likely will include students attending in shifts or on just two or three days per week. School districts in Fort Worth, Texas, and Bloomfield Hills, Mich., unveiled plans for hybrid instruction, with students spending some time learning online and some time on campus. The on-campus time would occur in smaller classes and less densely packed buildings.
“I think that we would be naive to ever think about American schools going back to the way that they were,” Wyoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said in a town hall meeting last week on CNN.
Going into the next school year, local officials know any time in a school building could put students and teachers at risk. But schools help power the economy, with many parents depending on them for child care while they work. There’s a sober awareness that distance learning has not worked well for everyone, and some children will return with significant learning gaps. And many students will go back to school traumatized by the loss of a loved one to COVID-19.
Parent and Forbes contributor Alison Escalante wrote this week that we might all do well to take a deep breath, grieve the loss of “normal,” and move forward: “Maybe it’s time to stop freaking out about the school reopening guidelines and start thinking about what is feasible.”