School communities desperate for normalcy are hoping that the new school year will be more stable than the last, when the coronavirus forced schools to close and launch remote learning overnight. But that seems like wishful thinking, as 2020-2021 is shaping up to be even more problematic.

School districts are embarking on novel experiments in learning, unveiling plans to reopen with new procedures for just about everything. But none of them are set in stone because the unknowns about how things will work far outweigh the knowns.

That heralds confusion and potentially repeated learning disruptions that could harm children, especially the most vulnerable, who are already suffering from the loss of learning and special education services.

District leaders are under pressure from many parents to reopen school buildings, especially for students in vulnerable populations and those who have special needs but did not receive mandated services this past spring. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

But they are caught between what people want to happen and some of the realities on the ground, which often conflict. For many students, school is a place of stability and safety, and there is a strong imperative to get them back into school buildings. But safety issues still loom large for everyone.

For example, medical experts say children don’t often show symptoms of covid-19 even if they have the infection. But that doesn’t assuage teachers — especially older ones who are at greater risk of dying from the disease. (The vast majority of deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been people 65 years and older, though even babies have died.) Some school districts are requiring that everybody wear masks in school, which experts say is a necessary factor in controlling the spread, but others aren’t.

Districts are planning for various contingencies — all students in school, no students in school, or some form of a hybrid version of in-person and at-home learning, though details change district by district. It is likely they will start with one and have to revert to another during the year, which, of course, most impacts the most vulnerable students.

Here are some of the factors that speak to a chaotic 2020-21 school year:

The pandemic

Heath officials are warning that the fall and winter could see big coronavirus infection spikes at the same time as the regular flu season begins, complicating efforts to keep students and teachers healthy. (In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is possible for someone to have the seasonal flu and covid-19 at the same time.)

As it is now, such states as Florida, Texas and California, which have been reopening their economies in stages, have seen record increases in cases and been forced to reinstate some restrictions.

How will schools stay open if there are coronavirus outbreaks? And if they close, when do they reopen? Districts still haven’t explained exactly what constitutes an outbreak in a school. Two cases? Ten? Plans call for rooms in schools where students can “quarantine” if necessary — but how many people can do this without causing fear throughout the building? If schools do close, what will determine when they can reopen?

District plans and capabilities

Every district plan envisioning some amount of in-school learning depends on children, who aren’t known for strong impulse control, to follow rules requiring them to stay six feet away from each other all school day, wash their hands repeatedly, listen to masked teachers and, in many places, wear masks themselves.

A successful learning plan also means that teachers have created new lessons to work in school and at home, with backup plans in case schools close again. Last semester’s learning programs were thrown together, and presumably, educators have had time to refine them. Will they work?

While districts learned lessons from the chaotic spring and have tried to resolve problems, many of them don’t have the resources to fix all of them, such as ensuring all students have devices and reliable Internet service. Districts are still planning to provide hot spots with Internet service for families, but that could mean spotty service or could force students or teachers to leave their homes to do their work online. Last semester, some sat in parking lots near buildings with Internet service, and districts sent out buses to various locations to create hot spots. That will happen again, diminishing the ability of teachers to teach and kids to learn.

Some districts are also offering parents options before school starts. But what happens when parents decide, after school starts, that the option they chose isn’t working? How many changes can districts make quickly?

One measure of the uncertainty about how well the learning process will go is that some states have already announced that they will ask the U.S. Education Department to grant permission not to administer federally mandated standardized tests in the coming school year. The department granted waivers to every state for 2019-20 because of the abrupt closure of schools. Georgia was the first to make the announcement that it would seek a second waiver, and other state officials have followed.

Teachers, too, in several states, including Michigan, are asking leaders to seek waivers. And in Texas, a group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment issued a statement calling for a waiver, saying: “We know that teachers are essential to a student’s education and neither packets [of work assignments] nor computers can substitute for them. Until every student has the opportunity to learn in their usual way at school, we believe it is prudent, advisable and supportable of Texas families and schools that the state seek a waiver of testing for the 2020-21 school year.”

Meanwhile, problems many school districts have long faced still remain, including nonworking heating and cooling systems; crumbling school infrastructure; teacher shortages, which are likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic; absenteeism; and insufficient funding, just to name a few.

Budgets

Districts still say they need billions of new dollars from Congress to enact their plans and ensure they have enough protective gear for adults and children, but exactly how much they need isn’t clear. Nor is the intent or timing of U.S. legislators.

Congress included more than $13.5 billion for K-12 schools in legislation that passed in March, but much of that money has not yet been spent (for reasons including delays in disbursement and in the Education Department setting rules for spending).

During the 2007-2009 Great Recession, Congress provided more than $110 billion to K-12 schools, but it wasn’t nearly enough and some states still spend less per student than they did before that economic downturn.

Eric Gordon, chief executive of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, told Congress this month that his district was forced in 2010 to close 23 schools; lay off 1,000 educators; and eliminate student transportation, sports, extracurricular activities, art, music, physical education, and library and media services from K-8 schools, as well as electives from high schools. As bad as that sounds, he said, the district would be forced to do the same thing “simply to keep the lights on" if it is forced to cut its 2020-2021 budget by 25 percent, a possibility depending on several factors.

Michael Leachman, a vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told Congress: “The covid-19 pandemic has caused state revenues to fall off the table, creating a fiscal crisis unlike anything states have faced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Without significant federal aid, soon, states and localities will lay off teachers and other workers and take additional steps that worsen the recession, delay the recovery, and weaken students’ education."

Hundreds of thousands of teachers and other school personnel have already been laid off as a result of the coronavirus, he said.

Recently, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), chairman of the Senate’s education committee, said he would support spending $50 billion to $75 billion to help schools, along with extra money for busing, but a spokesman in his office said it is unclear whether that would be solely for K-12 schools or would include colleges as well. He would consider the issue in the “next work cycle,” the spokesman said, but did not clarify when that would be.

And a Democratic-led House bill passed recently calls for $58 billion in new funding for K-12 schools.

But the Council of Chief State School Officers recently sent a letter to Congress estimating that the cost of safely reopening schools this fall is estimated to be between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion.

Many districts still don’t know how much money they will have for the new school, which in some places could open as soon as in a month.

Effects on students

There has been much written about the pandemic causing a generation of students that could be academically lost, socially stunted and emotionally scarred. The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote in its clinical guidance on reopening schools:

The importance of inperson learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.

But exactly how students will be affected by all of this is simply not known — at least not in long-term impacts.

“We currently have no way of predicting the long-term effects of the pandemic on children," Sanja Gupta, a neurosurgeon at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and a CNN medical correspondent, wrote recently. "Covid-19 is an unprecedented natural experiment in and of itself. Some kids may come out the other end with increased resilience. Others may experience the type of long-term trauma that impairs their development and keeps them overly cautious in the future.”

But in the short term, educators say they are highly concerned about what further disruption will do to at-risk students who have already missed out on learning opportunities and special education services.

Teachers

Medical experts have noted that children seem to be far less impacted by the coronavirus than older people, though they can carry the infection without showing any signs and potentially spread it.

Many teachers are not sanguine about that. In Fairfax County, Va., one of the nation’s largest school systems, teachers revolted. The three major teachers associations in the county issued a statement saying that the district’s plans for face-to-face teaching imperil teachers’ health and need to be changed. And that’s not the only place where teachers have expressed reluctance to return to school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics noted in its guidelines that policymakers “should acknowledge that covid-19 policies are intended to mitigate, not eliminate, risk."

“No single action or set of actions will completely eliminate the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission, but implementation of several coordinated interventions can greatly reduce that risk," it said. "For example, where physical distance cannot be maintained, students (over the age of 2 years) and staff can wear face coverings (when feasible).”

But is it feasible for a 3-year-old to keep a mask on for longer than a few minutes, other than on Halloween?

Navigating new territory always brings with it some disarray, but this coming school year will present a new and difficult path for America’s schools.

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