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Opinion This summer, we can test-drive best practices for safely reopening schools

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Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Parents, educators and students are wondering whether, and how, public schools will reopen in the fall. It’s a daunting challenge. But with real investment and planning, the next few months could provide an opportunity to test-drive best practices for safely reopening schools. If safe to do so, school districts might offer voluntary summer school, adhering to public health protocols to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. This could help students catch up on lost learning as well as get needed social and emotional support.

The covid-19 pandemic closed schools practically overnight. Absent other choices, distance learning ramped up almost as quickly. Although teachers have done remarkable work, the past two months make clear that remote learning is no substitute for in-person classroom learning and interaction. Many parents have newfound respect for the craft of teaching, and students say they can’t wait to get back to school.

The covid-19 crisis has exacerbated some glaring inequities. Rural and low-income students often lack broadband Internet, laptops, tablets or phones with which to work. They have missed opportunities to connect with their teachers and classmates. English-language learners and students with disabilities have been at a disadvantage, as have students facing housing or food insecurity.

As much as 70 percent of the achievement gap between affluent students and their less-advantaged peers can be attributed to the “summer slide.” This year’s unprecedented “spring slide” is certain to worsen that gap. But studies also show that students who participate in high-quality, voluntary, multiweek summer learning programs make significant gains in reading and math, as well as experiencing social and emotional benefits.

Reopening schools is a key part of overall reopening, but it must be done safely and thoughtfully. The fight against the coronavirus is far from over, and the second wave of the 1918 flu was worse than the first. Absent a vaccine, no one knows what the future will bring. Adhering to public health safeguards is critical.

Unfortunately, federal guidance on reopening has been spotty and contradictory. But other public health experts, including in my own union, have offered guidance on safe reopening that could be put into valuable practice in the next few months.

Whether this summer or later on, caution must be paramount. Studies have shown that as many as half of the people who tested positive for covid-19 were asymptomatic. The trend of children developing symptoms similar to Kawasaki disease and toxic shock syndrome must also be carefully watched.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

All students, teachers and staff must be well protected. Different ages, health conditions and home environments mean different vulnerabilities. Every school will need nurses and health screening measures, ample hand-washing stations, proper building sanitizing protocols, and masks for use when and where necessary. Some schools may need to stagger class schedules or days; split bus routes; reformat classroom seating; and utilize gyms, theaters and outdoor space to ensure proper physical distancing. Some might use a blended model of in-person and distance learning.

Summer programs — whether in person, remote or a hybrid approach — can serve as an important bridge to fall reopenings, enabling officials to develop plans based on experience, not hypotheticals. Students could review and start new math and English lessons as well as enrichment activities such as coding, creative writing and arts education. They could work on capstone projects to sum up things they learned over the school year: compositions about books, virtual debates or research on topics they want to know more about. This is another opportunity for districts to partner with youth after-school programs, which are already looking at how to close the summer learning gap through hybrid enrichment activities; play-based camps could also be hugely beneficial for students who have been isolated and traumatized by this stressful time.

Public schools do more than educate students; many students also rely on schools for meals, health care and Internet access. Teachers and school staff have worked to meet these needs: turning bus routes into food distribution hubs, transforming school parking lots into WiFi hot spots and meal centers. Some have recorded lessons to air on local TV. But these are stop-gap measures.

Of course, summer learning — like any plan to safely reopen schools — will require additional resources, and likely more teachers and school staff, to operate programs in physically distant formats and to keep buildings clean and safe. The $100 billion in education stabilization funds proposed in the House-passed Heroes Act is a vital start. The needs of our new reality are far greater, though, and will require engagement from the entire school community, including parents.

Public schools anchor our communities. They are where children learn to build relationships, engage in democracy, and gain the skills and knowledge to achieve their dreams. In this scary and uncertain time, public schools need investment to support all of America’s children. That starts this summer.

Read more:

Danielle Allen: We’ve wasted enough time. We must figure out how to reopen schools this fall.

Leana S. Wen: Six flaws in the arguments for reopening

Alex M. Azar II: We have to reopen — for our health

Lanhee J. Chen and Vanila M. Singh: Here’s how college students can return to campus in the fall

Jeb Bush: It’s time to embrace distance learning — and not just because of the coronavirus