Kids across America are putting on masks and backpacks and heading back to school this spring as the country continues its hopeful but fragile march toward recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
As welcome as these unusual first days of school are for many students — and parents who were thrust into the role of amateur educators this year — they come with a lot of uncertainty. Many school districts are still operating on a hybrid model, with each student attending school in person only part time; a few remain entirely remote. We still don’t know when children will be able to be vaccinated. And a rise in cases and the spread of variants has cast the next few months into doubt. A lot of families are wondering: What will happen in the fall?
Many districts haven’t announced firm plans yet, which is understandable given the unknowns involved, but public health and education experts say there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic about in-person school in the fall. Teachers and staff will be vaccinated — around 80 percent have already received at least one dose. Research shows that mitigation measures, especially masks, work well to reduce transmission in schools, and researchers say that’s likely to hold true even as variants spread. New CDC guidance allowing just 3 feet of distancing in schools, rather than 6, should allow more students to come back each day, too.
That doesn’t mean that school districts don’t face challenges as they update reopening plans to new public health guidelines, or that a variant or another major surge couldn’t still change the outlook for the fall. “It’s a tricky virus and we don’t know what it’s going to do,” Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a research organization at the University of Washington, told Vox.
But we do know what metrics districts should be using to make their decisions, experts say: vaccination of teachers, vaccination of older students, and overall spread of the virus in communities. And even with cases rising for now, the success of the vaccine rollout and promising research on in-school transmission are cause for optimism in the months ahead. “I am counting on our kids being back full time in the classroom come next fall,” Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and the director for the Center for Digital Health at Brown University, told Vox.
Schools around the country are reopening — slowly
In the year since school buildings in all 50 states closed their doors to combat the spread of Covid-19, the picture around the country has changed dramatically. Today, most districts are offering in-person learning, at least some of the time; in a March survey, CRPE found that 57.1 percent of districts were offering full-time in-person school, up from 47.3 percent in November. An additional 20.6 percent of districts were using hybrid schedules, and 10.7 percent were fully remote.
Urban school districts have generally been slower to reopen, but even there, the trend is clear, with 28.2 percent offering full-time in-person instruction (up from just 7.8 percent in November), and 32 percent all-remote (down from 53.9 percent in November). Many more urban districts have reopened since the March survey was completed, Lake said, with just 11 percent still fully remote as of April.
Despite these trends, however, schools in America have a long way to go before they’re anything approaching normal. For one thing, some districts have been slower to open their buildings to middle and high school students, who appear more likely than younger children to catch and spread the virus. In New York City, for example, high schools reopened on March 22 though elementary schools had been open for months.
It’s not clear when many schools operating on a hybrid model will be able to offer full-time in-person instruction again. (Hybrid models are more common than the CRPE data suggests at first glance, since a lot of the places offering full-time in-person learning are smaller, rural districts with fewer schools and students.) “Districts are holding their cards pretty close right now,” Lake said. “We’re not seeing a lot of public announcements about what fall will look like.”
Reopenings have been contentious and confusing in places like San Francisco, which has plans to bring back younger children in person but no date yet for when middle school and high school students can return. Even school officials who are optimistic about the fall are also hedging their bets. Grant Rivera, superintendent of schools in Marietta, Georgia, told the Washington Post his district plans to offer in-person class five days a week in the fall, but said, “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.”
It’s not clear when more school districts will release their plans for the fall, but experts say there are a few basic indicators that officials will — or at least should — be following when making their decisions. The first is vaccination rates among school communities: teachers and staff, but also older students as the vaccine becomes available to wider age ranges. The second is the overall rate of Covid-19 in those communities.
Vaccine hesitancy and problems with access certainly have the potential to slow the reopening process. “The vaccines are only as good as the arms they actually get into, so if we see low rates amongst people that are returning or participating with in-person school, we will likely face all the same decisions we faced over the past year” when it comes to school closings, Ibukun Kalu, a pediatric infectious disease physician and professor at Duke University, told Vox.
But by the same token, high vaccination rates should make a return to full-time in-person school more likely. And at least so far, the news on vaccines has been encouraging.
By the fall, essentially all teachers will be vaccinated. Older kids may be, too.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced a new deadline of April 19 for states to make all adults eligible for vaccination. In many states, teachers and school staff have been part of priority groups and have had the opportunity to be vaccinated already. But even where that’s not the case, essentially all adults in schools should be able to be vaccinated by fall. “With vaccination of teachers and staff, I would hope that all teachers and staff can be back in the building,” Ranney said.
For students, the picture is more complicated. In general, children are at lower risk of severe Covid-19 than adults and are believed to spread the disease less readily — but they still can spread the virus and experience severe effects, making a vaccine for them critical for a full return to normalcy.
Currently, the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for people 16 and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are only for those 18 and older, as Katherine Harmon Courage reports for Vox. But companies are testing their vaccines in children, with Pfizer announcing last month that its vaccine was safe and effective in a trial of 12- to 15-year-olds, with no Covid-19 infections in the group that got the shot. And Pfizer and Moderna are both studying the shot in children as young as 6 months.
Ranney is hopeful that “by early summer we’ll be able to be vaccinating age 12-plus” against the virus. That would help get middle schoolers and high schoolers back in the classroom. And as more students can get vaccinated, it could mean a relaxation of the distancing restrictions that have kept many schools on a hybrid schedule.
Distancing guidelines could shift, and masks will remain effective
For much of the past school year, the CDC recommended that schools keep 6 feet of distance between students. For many schools, especially in urban areas, it’s impossible to maintain that distance and have all students attend in person at the same time — classrooms and school buildings just aren’t big enough. The distancing requirement has been one of the biggest obstacles to full-time in-person instruction.
Then, in March, the CDC updated its guidelines to state that 3 feet of distance was enough as long as masks and other mitigation measures were in place. Some recent research supports the move, like a recent study showing no difference in Covid-19 rates between Massachusetts schools that required 6 feet and those that only required 3 feet, CNN reported. The change was hailed by public health experts and school officials alike as a major step toward reopening schools full time.
But it hasn’t quite worked out that way yet. A lot of districts have not updated their protocols or schedules to reflect the new guidance, Lake said. That’s because to reopen in the first place, even on a hybrid basis, districts had to come up with complex plans covering everything from desk spacing to busing, some of which had to be submitted to state authorities or negotiated with teachers unions. “Everything was designed with 6 feet as the central assumption,” Lake said, and shifting to the 3 feet “means changing everything” — a process that will take time.
It may also require renegotiating union contracts. Union leaders have expressed skepticism around the 3-feet guidance, with Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, writing to the CDC that the union was “not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements” (Weingarten appeared to soften this view somewhat in an April interview with the New Yorker). And in general, union negotiations have been a source of controversy around school reopenings in recent months, with teachers and parent groups sometimes publicly at odds over safety and the needs of students.
But some of these controversies seem to be subsiding as vaccination rates go up. Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, the site of heated debate between the teachers union and parents, recently announced it would reopen full time in the fall.
It’s not yet clear how many districts will be able to reopen fully under the new 3-feet guidance and how many would still need to use hybrid schedules to maintain that spacing. But it’s something district leaders are already working on. A superintendent in Guilford County, North Carolina, told the Washington Post that the new guidance would allow a full-time in-person schedule, possibly with some modifications to busing and class times, while a spokesperson in Greenville, South Carolina, said the district there was examining whether it could fit all high school students back in buildings and maintain 3 feet of space. “I think we will be able to solve that unsolvable problem,” he said.
And even 3 feet isn’t forever. Once students can be vaccinated, distancing may no longer be necessary, experts say. And the CDC could relax the distance requirements before children are vaccinated if circumstances permit. “We all are sort of waiting for guidance to change as we see both vaccination rates go up and community rates of infection go down,” Kalu said. “I think both those things have to happen for us to see some flexibility around school-based guidance.”
The spread of variants could complicate the picture somewhat — there are reports of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, for example, spreading more readily among children and potentially causing outbreaks in youth sports. “B.1.1.7 is tremendously concerning to me because it is so much more transmissible,” Ranney said. “So if there is one case, it is going to cause a lot more cases.”
The good news is that the vaccines approved for use in the United States appear to offer good protection against this variant. So do masks, experts say. Indeed, research on a group of North Carolina school districts that adhered to strict masking, hand-washing, and other simple protocols found low in-school transmission even during the winter surge when variants were more prevalent, Kanecia Zimmerman, a professor of pediatrics at Duke who helps lead the research program, told Vox. “Variants don’t escape masking,” Zimmerman said. “Things like masking, distancing, hand-washing, are still going to be very, very effective in preventing spread.”
That’s one reason masks will be a mainstay for schools, at least in the near future. “Masking will still be in play for the next few months, maybe the next school year,” said Kalu, who also helps lead the North Carolina program.
Many places will still offer a remote option
Even with mitigation measures in place, there will still be families who want remote education for their children, experts say. The reasons vary: For example, some children have underlying conditions that could put them at higher risk of serious illness from Covid-19. Meanwhile, in many communities, Black and Asian American families are choosing remote learning at higher rates than white families — in New York City, about 12,000 more white students were attending school in-person as of February, even though there are more Black students in the district. And Asian American students made up just 12 percent of children back in person, even though they make up 18 percent of all enrolled students.
These trends likely stem from a number of factors: the higher rates of Covid-19 cases and deaths in Black communities, racism that Asian Americans have faced during and before the pandemic, a lack of trust in schools stemming from years of discrimination and neglect. “These issues run much deeper than Covid,” Zimmerman said.
In the short term, many districts are likely to continue offering a remote option in the fall for those who want it. District leaders in Marietta and San Antonio told the Washington Post they would offer such an option, for example. “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,” Brian Woods, superintendent of San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District, told the Post.
But schools will also need to work with families and communities to build trust, both during the pandemic and into the future, experts say. When it comes to making it feel safe for students to come back, transparency is key. North Carolina districts have had success with reporting Covid-19 numbers on public dashboards and holding community meetings where families can voice concerns, Zimmerman said.
Beyond that, schools, districts, and society as a whole need to address the underlying problems of bigotry and inequity that the pandemic has made even more glaring. “There are people who aren’t going back to school not because they’re scared of Covid, but because they’re finally realizing, ‘I’m not being bullied,’ or, ‘I’m not having to deal with systemic racism,’” Zimmerman said. “We have to think very much about all of the things that have contributed to people not going back, and think about how we can fix them.”
Schools will have more resources to help keep people safe
As they try to figure out how to welcome students back, schools will have something they didn’t have at the beginning of the last school year: help from the federal government. Last fall, Trump was tweeting threats at schools that failed to reopen, but Congress had apportioned little federal aid to help them do so. This time around, though, the recently passed American Rescue Plan contains about $125 billion to help K-12 schools meet the challenge of education amid Covid-19.
Schools and districts can use that money to upgrade their ventilation systems and make other physical improvements to help limit transmission, Lake said. “An expectation from families should be that school boards are wasting no time to use the summer to take advantage of those new resources to make sure the buildings are safe.”
The money could also fund expansions to existing learning hubs and other programs that provide child care, supervision, and sometimes other services for kids whose schools are remote or hybrid, Lake said. That could help more parents get back to work even if schools aren’t open full time in the fall.
The money can also be used to help address the learning losses many students have experienced after more than a year of school disrupted by the pandemic. That could include tutoring programs or targeted diagnostic testing to determine who needs the most help, Lake said. Some school districts, like Cypress-Fairbanks in Texas, are also offering in-person summer opportunities to help students make up for lost time.
Overall, experts agree that reopening schools in the fall is possible — and that it’s just the beginning when it comes to addressing the pandemic’s impact on kids and the inequities that Covid-19 has highlighted.
“We can’t go back to the way things were,” Zimmerman said. “How can we fix schools, public schools in particular, to respond to the things that Covid has basically laid bare?”