As school districts across the country began to reveal reopening plans this week, parents and students were forced to grapple with a difficult reality: It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue.
Students in Seattle are likely to go to school in person only once or twice a week, officials said. Half of Omaha’s students will attend Monday and Tuesday, and the other half Thursday and Friday, rotating Wednesdays. And Fairfax County, Va., outside Washington, said students would spend at least two days a week in class, with the rest online.
The governors of Connecticut and New Jersey announced guidance that they said would allow students to return to school, but left the details up to districts, with Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey acknowledging on Friday that some schools would likely need to adopt a hybrid model and restrict daily attendance.
Many of the nation’s largest districts have yet to announce plans, although Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York suggested on Friday that all of the city’s 1.1 million students are unlikely to return full-time during the pandemic. “One day there’s going to be a vaccine,” he said, “and I think that’s the day when you’re going to see things go back 100 percent — to every kid in the classroom — as normal.”
Reopening decisions are likely to vary greatly based on the size and density of districts, as well as region. In the South and West, where political leaders have been more eager to reopen their economies despite a recent upswing in coronavirus cases, school systems may be more likely to return to a full-time schedule, albeit with distance restrictions, new sanitation procedures and mask recommendations.
But for districts that hope to closely follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it would be nearly impossible to maintain sanitation and social distancing with normal school attendance. Class sizes in many schools would need to be cut by more than half. And while health experts generally recommend face coverings for both staff and students, some educators and parents say that is not realistic, especially for the youngest children.
Those complications are likely to prompt many districts — where administrators must decide how to implement the broad guidelines from federal and state health officials — to adopt a hybrid model in which students will spend some time in the classroom but a significant portion of the week at home.
Although that reality has been apparent to many educators for weeks, it is just beginning to confront parents. Some are finding out this week that their scramble to balance their own jobs with their children’s education and daily care will continue for many months, if not all of next school year.
“Everyone, including myself, wants to go back every day,” said Naomi Peña, a mother of three New York City public school students. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that that’s wishful thinking.”
Ms. Peña is hopeful that her children will be able to report to school every other day for the fall semester. “These kids need some sense of normalcy back,” she said, adding, “Every single parent I know, their whole routine they have cherished and worked so hard to preserve is completely out the window, and in the trash can.”
The enormous strain caused by remote learning and limited child-care options has been particularly hard on working mothers, said Julie Kashen, the director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation, a public policy research group. “We’ve worked so hard to have choices for women in the work force, and it doesn’t feel like we have real choices right now,” she said.
Experts on working families are concerned that employers who were flexible in the spring may lose their patience come fall, even if schools do not fully reopen. “Families have used up any slack we’ve created in the system,” said Brigid Schulte, who runs the Better Life Lab at New America, a think tank.
Most parents, teachers and school leaders acknowledge that remote learning did not work as well as it should have during the spring semester, and that it will need to improve rapidly for the coming year. The average American student is expected to return to school significantly behind academically, with low-income, black and Hispanic students experiencing the greatest learning losses.
Many schools are providing professional development to teachers this summer and also reconsidering how they use technology. Still, no matter how much online learning improves, keeping school buildings shuttered will have a profound impact on children, especially the most vulnerable.
Those students have endured economic strife, parental unemployment and the burden of caring for younger siblings while being isolated from their own friends. In cities like New York, some are struggling with the trauma of seeing their family members, teachers and principals die of the virus. Schools offer a support system that is impossible to replicate online.
As they make reopening plans, many districts are taking into account the special needs of some students. In Seattle, where the schools announced this week that their goal was to provide at least two days per week of in-person instruction to elementary students and one day to middle and high school students, officials said children with disabilities, those learning English and those living in poverty would be given priority for additional in-school support.
Educators crafting reopening plans face a daunting set of challenges this summer, from how to procure enough masks and cleaning supplies, to how to reduce class sizes and redesign lesson plans to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Instead of clustering around tables for group projects, teenagers will likely receive more individual assignments, with the students seated at desks facing forward. Younger children won’t be able to pile onto a soft rug for story time; instead, they will be required to sit in clearly marked spaces, six feet apart.
Many districts are surveying parents to better understand their comfort level with reopening school buildings. They are finding a significant minority — up to a third of parents in some large districts — do not want to send their children into classrooms, according to Mike Magee, chief executive of Chiefs for Change, a coalition of district and state education leaders.
Most districts are expected to give parents the option of keeping their children home. Schools in Nashville and Marietta, Ga., said this week that families would be given a choice between in-person schooling and full-time online instruction.
But the hybrid approach, with only limited classroom time, could become the norm in states that have experienced heavy coronavirus caseloads and have chosen to take a slower approach to reopening the economy. Those states, mostly controlled by Democrats, also tend to have powerful teachers’ unions, which have repeatedly raised a red flag about the health risks of reopening schools — even as they have pushed for limitations on the expectations placed on teachers working from home.
The American Federation of Teachers, a national union, has estimated that in order to safely and effectively reopen, the nation’s schools will need an additional $116 billion to cover costs such as reducing class sizes, increasing cleaning staff, and hiring counselors and educators to help students recover from the emotional and academic impact of the pandemic.
Despite the challenges, some education and health experts have called for fully reopening schools before the development of a Covid-19 vaccine, given the central role that American schools play in both the lives of children and the ability of parents to work outside the home.
The experts point to hopeful evidence from child care centers that have remained open to serve the children of essential workers: Widespread outbreaks of the virus there appear to have been rare or even nonexistent. Research suggests that children are much less likely than adults to die from the virus or to suffer a severe health consequence; children may also be less likely than adults to transmit the illness.
But the science on the virus has shifted rapidly in recent months, and much is still unknown. In addition, the pandemic has become politicized in many parts of the country, leaving school leaders wondering whether they can effectively enforce mask wearing and other risk-mitigating behaviors among students and staff.
That is just one of many concerns for Scott Muri, the superintendent of the Ector County schools in Odessa, Texas. His days are filled with considerations of both logistics and teaching strategies.
For students to return to school, he will have to reduce the number of children on buses at any given time. He is also weighing whether to reassign teachers so that only the most skilled at online instruction are creating video lessons, while others are focused more on small-group tutoring and counseling, which could be provided either online or in person.
Dr. Muri has yet to announce a reopening plan, but expects a hybrid model.
“I will not welcome back any child or staff member if I do not feel it’s the safest environment we could possibly create,” he said. “Until we get past the dangerous period, right now, everything is on the table for consideration.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.