School districts across the country are planning to return to full-time, in-person classes this fall. But some also are planning for hybrid systems that combine in-person and remote learning as a fallback. All teachers and staff who want vaccinations will have them, but children will not. Masks and other virus mitigation measures will remain in place in much of the country.
Some administrators anticipate lunch in the cafeteria again, but others say students probably will have to eat in their classrooms. Some say sports and choir can return. Others aren’t sure.
In Albany, N.Y., Superintendent Kaweeda Adams is planning for two different hybrid systems and a full return to school, unsure which system she will need to implement.
“We have to be able to pivot,” she said. “ ‘Pivot’ is the new word.”
Concerns of teachers, who have argued it is too dangerous to return to many buildings, probably will linger, and so may battles that consumed many districts this year. Some families are sure to prefer fully remote education — either because it is working for their children or because they fear going back. Many districts will continue to offer online options.
Asked whether parents should expect in-person instruction in the fall or whether that is a leap, Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite was noncommittal. “It’s a leap only because we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said in an interview.
Many large school districts, including those in Chicago and Los Angeles, have struggled to open their doors this spring even on a part-time basis. Some remain fully online even now, such as San Francisco and Newark, which are planning a return to classrooms but have not yet reopened. Schools in rural areas and in some Republican-run states tended to open early in the year, while many big cities and schools across California have struggled to open their doors. Districts in New Jersey and elsewhere have battled in court over their plans.
In January, just under half of all elementary and middle schools offered full-time, face-to-face classes, federal data show, and the rate was almost certainly lower for high schools. This puts the country close to a narrow goal set by President Biden, for 51 percent of K-8 schools to be open full time in his first 100 days. But it shows the country has a long way to go before all students are in something approaching traditional school.
Politically, Biden may find himself in a bind if school doesn’t feel normal to parents come fall. Although his stated goal covers progress through April, many parents have all but written off this school year. Their expectations for fall, though, are higher, given the rapid deployment of vaccines and an enormous infusion of $122 billion in federal funding.
Several district leaders said they are planning to reopen full time but they are not ready to commit. They say they cannot predict the path of the pandemic or whether their communities will do what is needed to bring and keep infection rates down. Some fear the spread of variants of the virus, against which vaccines may not be as effective, will lead to a fresh surge in cases and a new round of restrictions.
“We can apply every ounce of reason and logic, but we’re at the mercy of what covid chooses to do and how our country and our region responds. So the best-laid plans will crumble underneath a surge,” said Grant Rivera, schools superintendent in Marietta, Ga. He hopes to use the time between now and the start of next school year to prepare.
“We now have a six-month runway to do this thing better,” he said.
In Philadelphia, Superintendent William Hite said he is focused on reopening full time, yet his district remains almost completely online now. Only students in pre-K to second grade have access to in-person classes, and even they are back part time. The district’s current agreement with the teachers union does not allow for higher grades to come back.
“I want people to be working toward the expectation of full in-person learning — not ‘We might get there,’ ” Hite said. As Philadelphia tries to reopen more classrooms, he said, “we are still going to have the same tensions.”
This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cleared the way for full-time school in much of the country by saying three feet of distance between students is sufficient in most situations to prevent the spread of the virus. Before that, the agency had been recommending six feet.
That disagreement could set the stage for more disputes this summer and fall between school districts and teachers unions over whether to reopen full time — with students closer together — or part time, which allows for more distancing.
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, said she anticipates schools will open this fall but not necessarily with full classrooms. She wants more research first.
“I’ve seen inequalities all my life, and the last thing we can afford to do at the end of a pandemic that has already disproportionately impacted our Black and Brown and Indigenous communities, the last thing we need to do is to say we did not take the time to do studies in their environments, in their schools,” she said. “We still have lots of questions.”
But even with the three-feet distancing rule, many districts are still working out what’s possible. In Greenville, S.C., 75 percent of high school students who opted for in-person learning come to buildings on any given day to reduce crowding. Officials are studying their high school classrooms to see whether they can fit three feet between desks and push it to 100 percent for fall, said spokesman Tim Waller.
“I think we will be able to solve that unsolvable problem,” he said.
In Guilford County, N.C., Superintendent Sharon Contreras says the three-foot guidance will allow all students to go to school full time, but a range of adjustments will be needed to bus and class schedules. It’s possible her schools will use staggered start times to reduce the number of students in buildings at the same time.
“We may have to start schools much earlier to allow for students to have their whole schedule,” she said.
The CDC recommends a range of other mitigation strategies even if the number of coronavirus cases significantly drops. That includes mandatory use of masks, regular hand washing, cleaning facilities and good ventilation.
“It’s going to be a long time before we see a lot of our community settings back to normal,” said Greta Massetti, who helped write the CDC’s guidance for schools. “What we need to do is continue to have our eye on preventing transmission to give these vaccines a chance.”
Nonetheless, some districts are planning to loosen the rules. Roberto Padilla, superintendent for the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York, said he sees a fall that is “pretty close to normal.” Instead of lining up in single rows to eat lunch, students will be able to socialize more freely. Athletics and arts programs probably will resume.
“I do think masks in the fall probably would be optional and certain adults and children will continue to wear them,” he said.
As they plot the fall, district leaders say they know not everyone will want to come back. Federal data shows that Black, Hispanic and, in particular, Asian students are less likely to be enrolled in in-person school than White students are. So they are planning to keep remote options in place.
In the Marietta city schools, north of Atlanta, Rivera plans to offer five days a week, up from four now, maintaining a virtual option for those who want it. But he wants to be done with the system where teachers now instruct some students in the classroom and others at home at the same time.
Teachers are exhausted. They are “whipped,” he said.
Instead, Marietta will pare down high school classes offered to those learning from home to about 55, far less than the “hundreds” taught in person. “We’ve had to make some very difficult decisions between what we want to offer and what we know we can offer and do well,” he said.
Rivera suspects the school system will open cafeterias in elementary schools for socially distanced lunches next year, using classrooms or outdoor spaces if extra seating is needed. Unless health guidance changes, he imagines masks will be around. But they will get rid of the plexiglass partitions placed on desktops. “We don’t have enough evidence to show that they decreased transmission,” he said.
The Northside Independent School District in San Antonio offers in-person classes five days a week, but nearly half the student body has chosen to remain remote. Superintendent Brian Woods favors offering remote classes into the fall, although he has misgivings about this for the youngest students. Still, he says he would offer it even to them to deliver some education to students who might otherwise have none.
“I would not do it long term,” he said. “I just think we’ve got families that are going to say, until there is a widely available vaccine, I’m just simply not going to send my child. So, I’d rather serve them virtually than not serve them at all.”
He estimates his district could bring back 85 percent of students next year — but that leaves one in seven learning at home.
“I think some folks in this state and probably in others are ready to just declare the pandemic over and, you know, we go back to normal,” he said. “And that’s just not a reality for some families. They don’t see the world that way.”