Facing Uncertainty: Opening Schools during a Pandemic

As an ex-superintendent of schools (I served seven years in Arlington, Virginia) family and friends have asked me often what I would specifically recommend to a school board when to re-open schools and under what conditions. I have given the question a lot of thought but have been reluctant to answer simply because I no longer sit in the superintendent’s suite and in the time I served there were surely crises but nothing like this pandemic.

So much remains unknown about the virus itself–its transmission, mutations and resurgence after the “curve has been flattened.” How long one has immunity if they have had Covid-19 also is a mystery.

Sure, there are ways to protect one’s self from getting the coronavirus through physical distancing, wearing masks, and avoiding gatherings of family and friends. There is no treatment other than self-quarantine and if one has to be hospitalized concerns about using ventilators and the disease’s after effects fuel anxieties. Finally, no vaccine is yet available.

And then there is its unusual pattern of spreading across the country with relatively safe areas and hot spots scattered across the nation. Map below show green counties (lowest incidence of infections to red counties (highest incidence)

Incidence of infections by county

In short, each person, each family, each business has to make risky decisions of what to do daily–from going to re-opened bars and restaurants to getting a haircut to swimming in a nearby pool to having family and friends over. Even going to school (both K-12 and higher education). When such decisions were once automatic, medical experts now rate such familiar activities, low, moderate, and high risk (see here).

And what exactly do these medical experts, people that CEOs and school boards rely on for direction even given all of the unknowns about the virus and its disease? Their advice to families is, well, divided.

Pressure to re-open reveals the familiar clash of values that have characterized this crisis since it first appeared in the U.S. in January 2020 and has spread exponentially since. Fear for the health and safety of the young getting infected and spreading it to parents and grand-parents vs. increasing political pressure to get the economy moving again since parents–both single moms and spouses working at home provide child care–as numbers of unemployed unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s scrabble to live as unemployment benefits disappear.

Moreover, economic inequalities have become so blatant that only the myopic cannot see the enormous gaps in income, health insurance, and assets between American poor and working class families, especially Blacks and Latinos, and the upper five percent, nearly all white, who control most of the wealth of the nation.

Then there are the closed schools. With children at home, working parents and single moms have to provide both child care and schooling. Remote learning for young children is a bust. High school and college students have to rely upon distance learning until schools reopen with face-to-face instruction.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC ) issued guidelines throughout the spring to help administrators plan for re-opening schools and containing infections when they occur. Guidelines for opening schools range from low-risk (remote instruction) to high-risk (“full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.”). For school boards and administrators opting for “moderate-risk” the CDC defined that level of risk in this way:

Small, in-person classes, activities, and events. Groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days and groups do not mix. Students remain at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures, or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).

Now turn to what medical experts say about sending their own children to camp this summer, day care and K-12 schools? Over 300 epidemiologists were surveyed. Twenty percent said they would send their children to school this summer; 40 percent said the fall. Over 30 percent said they would wait until winter or up to a year before packing lunches for their kids.

Then there are the guidelines (e.g., spacing, masks, health advice given age of children) of the American Academy of Pediatricians that recently recommended K-12 schools re-open with all children physically present in the fall. The guidelines offer advice for behavior in classrooms, hallways, busing students, lunchtime, and on playgrounds. Like nearly all health experts point out about the low incidence of Covid-19 in children of different ages, the risk of getting infected can not be eliminated. But it can be reduced.

No surprise, then, that school districts across the nation have a patchwork of plans. Denver (CO) public schools will re-open in August for personal instruction except for those parents who want their sons and daughters to do remote learning at home. Superintendent Susanna Cordova assured parents in her letter home that all health guidelines will be followed.

Denver is the exception. Most districts will open in the fall with hybrid patterns of some children and teenagers attending twice a week and the rest of their instruction will be distance learning. Parents will have choices of which kind of contact they want for their children. Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools serving over 180,000 students, Seattle (WA) with 54,000, and San Diego City Unified Schools with 135,000–all have variations of hybrid re-openings that combine personal instruction with remote learning. Including Arlington (VA), the district where I served.

What is clear to me as an ex-superintendent whose primary obligation when I served was the health and safety of students (still true for all sitting superintendents and school boards) is that the continuing mystery of the coronavirus, resurgence of infections in many states, and mounting economic pressure to have schools in session to release single moms and working spouses to return to their jobs, have produced these various plans to re-open schools. Hybrids, of course, will still leave many parents scrambling for child-care when students stay at home to do distance learning.

No school plan for re-opening will eliminate risk of infection. Reducing the risk is what these plans attempt to do in the face of a disease that is, so far, incompletely parsed by infectious disease experts, unrelenting, and, dangerous.

Oh, if only there were a manual that district leaders could consult to do what has to be done. Sadly, no superintendent, past or present, has had such book of rules to follow during a pandemic. It has yet to be written.



Filed under compare education and medicine, school leaders

6 responses to “Facing Uncertainty: Opening Schools during a Pandemic

  1. Laura H.Chapman

    In addition to the hazards of Covid-19, there are very few dicussios of the “ordinary” hazards of seasonal flu, the importance of well-time vaccinations, and intersecting time frames for contagion, especially in schools. See more at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/school-business/index.html

  2. This is a difficult time for both parents and school authorities. I pray children would be safe and healthy when they have to go back to school. And any decisions and rules made for their welfare would be reviewed when necessary.

  3. I am on my school’s reopening planning committee. Been interesting. It is amazing how little guidance there is from the organizations that matter. Lots of stuff from the CDC but the CDC does not control our opening. The county health department does. We have nothing from them as to what we have to do to reopen. My principal tried to contact the person in the county health department that is supposedly is in charge what schools need to do to reopen. That person is on vacation until the 20th of July. The State Office of Public Instruction and the Governor’s office both published opening guidelines. They gave differing requirements. The right hand apparently did not talk to the left hand. It would be laughable if it was not so serious.

    The local public school principals had a meeting. Some are strongly opposed to masks being required, others think it is the only possible way to open schools. We usually follow the lead of the public schools. Not this time. They seem to be using the “head in the sand” approach to Covid and reopening. We are going masks required, staggered lunches and as much spacing as we can get in our classrooms. We are also planning on if another shutdown is required. If fact we are assuming there with be another required shutdown in the Fall.

    The lack of leadership at certain levels is embarrassing.

    • larrycuban

      Your experiences in planning for re-opening a private school mirror uncertainties for public schools. How could it be otherwise? Thanks, Garth, for describing what goes on.

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