In some places, if you were squinting, the start of this school year may have resembled the many that came before it: There were the gaggles of students, jittery with first-day nerves; the fleet of school buses; and the teachers with their revamped classrooms.
But look closer and the picture becomes more disturbing: face masks, webcams, desks six feet apart. With a pandemic still raging, this academic year will be unlike any before it. And some schools that reopened despite soaring cases of the coronavirus have already seen what everyone involved feared most. Students and teachers across the country have tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing hundreds into quarantine and complicating an already fraught plan to reopen schools.
In Greenfield, a small city east of Indianapolis, a student last week attended the first day of in-person classes at the local junior high. Later that evening, families were notified that the student, whose identity has not been released, had tested positive for the virus. It is unclear when the student was tested, the Indianapolis Star reported, but state guidelines recommend anyone awaiting their results to stay home.
In Mississippi, near the Tennessee line, a high schooler in the Corinth School District — the state’s first to reopen — tested positive, officials announced Friday, four days after classes began. By Monday, the district had reported two more cases at the high school, and on Wednesday officials reported cases in a middle and elementary school. “Just because you begin to have positive cases, that is not a reason for closing school,” District Superintendent Lee Childress said in a video address.
At least three school districts in Georgia, including the state’s largest, reported cases in either students or staff. In one, Cherokee County, an entire second grade class and its teacher must quarantine and switch to online learning for two weeks after a student showed symptoms and later tested positive, the Cherokee Tribune reported.
In North Carolina, a fourth-grade class from Thales Academy in Wake Forest was similarly fated after one of its students tested positive. The private school, which has several campuses, has been held up as a model. Vice President Pence visited a Thales Academy location in nearby Apex last week and praised it for being at “the forefront of reopening schools in America,” the Raleigh News and Observer reported.
The chaos early in the school year adds to fears voiced by many experts, who have long warned that reopening schools could accelerate the spread of the virus and endanger students and teachers.
The federal government has offered little guidance, said Tara Smith, a professor of public health at Kent State University.
“Everyone decides their own reopening plans, and it’s made it a real mess,” she said. “There’s no scenario here where everyone wins and everyone is protected.”