When Can Kids Go Back To School? Leaders Say 'As Soon As It's Safe'

Jul 21, 2020
Originally published on July 21, 2020 12:16 pm

Ann Levett's worst day as superintendent of Savannah-Chatham County Public School System wasn't March 26, the day Georgia's governor first closed schools, keeping Levett's more than 37,000 students home in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Her worst day came just a couple of weeks ago, Levett says, when she realized the infection numbers around Savannah were so high that she wasn't going to be able to reopen schools.

Levett had hoped to welcome students back on Aug. 5, right on schedule, but says she can't do that safely while COVID-19 continues to spread in Georgia — and many nearby states. Every day, Levett says, she wakes up and checks the numbers "and I'm like, 'Please, please let them go down. Please let them go down. And they're not going down.' "

As President Trump criticized school leaders for not reopening fully or quickly, NPR reached out to superintendents across the country to hear their side of the reopening story. From Georgia to New York, Texas to Ohio, they were consistent: School leaders say they are determined to open school safely and feel dismayed by the Trump administration's efforts to politicize and rush decisions that could have life-or-death consequences in their communities.

"Anyone out there who's questioning whether or not educators are at home and not doing the work that our young people need us to be doing, you're wrong," says Luvelle Brown, head of the Ithaca City School District in New York. "We're working even more now. And we can't wait to get these babies back in our spaces."

While superintendents may not share President Trump's view of the science of reopening, they do share his sense of urgency.

"It is better to have kids back in school every day," says Paul Imhoff, the superintendent of Upper Arlington Schools, near Columbus, Ohio. "All of us want that. All of us are anxious for that."

But then Imhoff pauses.

"As soon as it's safe."

What is safe?

This is where many superintendents part ways with the president, who insists that science supports schools reopening fully this fall. Does it?

Yes. And no.

"Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, especially the most vulnerable — those with disabilities, children who are homeless, or the millions of kids who are food-insecure. And that's not reckoning with the academic toll this pandemic has already taken on an entire generation.

The science is clear: In normal circumstances, children are better off in school.

But these are not normal circumstances. COVID-19 is sweeping across the American South and West like wildfire, with many children living in areas now experiencing substantial community spread of the disease. While reopening in parts of Montana may be relatively safe, it's difficult to say the same for Florida or much of Texas.

"Sometimes parents forgive us if we commit educational malpractice. They will never forgive us if we let something happen to their children," says Michael Hinojosa, who runs the Dallas Independent School District. Infection rates have been soaring in his county.

As Allison Aubrey from NPR's science team has reported, the research on kids and COVID-19 is new and incomplete. Recent data suggest that children, in general, do not get seriously sick from the disease, but it's less clear what role they play in spreading it to each other or to teachers and staff who would be asked to spend hours indoors with them. In fact, new research out of South Korea found that children older than 10 do spread the disease, much more often than kids age 9 and younger.

Until recently, Hinojosa was preparing to reopen schools to any student who wanted to return. "We think we can have a pretty safe learning environment, but we're going to have masks. We're going to have face shields. We're going to have plexiglass in the classroom."

But now, with infections rising, Hinojosa wants to delay the start of school. At this point, even if he could fully reopen, he's not sure who would show up. In response to recent district surveys, roughly half of parents and staff who responded said they were not comfortable returning yet.

The Texas Education Agency announced Friday that it would soften an earlier requirement that schools quickly reopen for in-person learning. The new policy allows schools to function remotely for the first four weeks of the school year and for a subsequent four weeks if approved by a local school board.

"We'll use every one of our spaces"

In Ithaca, where infection rates are relatively low, Brown says he's still trying to make sure he can keep students socially distant when they return to school buildings. One option is to bring students back in rotations, for just a few days each week — similar to New York City's reopening plan. But reducing the number of students in a classroom means finding new classroom space elsewhere.

"We'll use every one of our spaces. We hope to be able to get outside and use those spaces as well. But I still don't think we can get all of our young people in school at the same time," Brown says.

Transportation may be even harder, Brown says. Instead of seating 50 children, a socially distanced bus can now handle 12 to 15. "There are no extra buses floating around. And more importantly, there are no extra drivers floating around in my community."

There's also a deeper question, more emotional than logistical, about what effect all these social distancing measures will have on students, especially those who have already been traumatized by so much time away from vital school-based adults and support systems.

"I struggle with some of those guidelines because they have our schools turn into more like correctional centers in the ways in which we are lining up and staying apart from one another. And it's not consistent with the kind of culture and community that we've built over time," says Brown.

"Vaccine"

Chad Gestson, the head of the Phoenix Union High School District, says this pandemic is forcing educators to become epidemiologists.

"We were spending so much time studying respiratory droplets and measuring classrooms and how many kids fit on a bus and how to transition thousands of kids between periods that we lost track of the core of our work," Gestson says.

That core is teaching and learning. So, with infection rates skyrocketing across Arizona, Gestson recently announced that, for now, all of his students will keep learning remotely when school resumes. That way, he says, he and his staff can now refocus on educating kids.

When will everything return to normal?

In some communities, where infection rates are low (or nonexistent), the answer is: soon. Classrooms may look and feel a little different, but schools will open right on time. Parents will return to work. Life as a facsimile of normal.

But educators and health experts say that won't — and probably shouldn't — happen in the many school districts still grappling with the coronavirus.

In Ithaca, where a proposed plan is for students to return to school in rotations, a few days a week, Superintendent Brown does not hesitate when asked what it will take for his schools to open fully. He answers with one word: "Vaccine."

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