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It’s time to accept that school won’t be normal in the fall

But we can still make this pandemic school year better than the last.

A student and adult walk through school gates, on which hang signs promoting hand-washing and social distancing.
A student enters Heliotrope Avenue Elementary in Maywood, California, on April 13, 2021.
Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Not too long ago, it seemed possible that the 2021-22 school year would be a “normal” one for American kids. Parents and experts alike hoped that vaccination rates among adults would drive down community spread of Covid-19 to manageable levels. There was talk that vaccines for younger kids would arrive, giving them the same protection as adults.

But now fall is upon us, and neither of these things has happened. A combination of lagging vaccination rates and the spread of the delta variant means that a majority of counties in America are considered to be at “substantial” or greater risk of Covid-19 transmission, according to the CDC. Vaccine approval for kids under 12 could still be months away. All of that poses big challenges for school districts that are planning to welcome students back in person, five days a week.

The challenges aren’t insurmountable, though. Perhaps the biggest feat is for lawmakers, school officials, employers, families — indeed, everyone involved — to accept that the pandemic is not over, and act accordingly.

Many public health experts say masking, virus testing, and other mitigation factors can make a return to in-person school safe and feasible, but the problem is many districts are not requiring masks this year — and some states are even forbidding mask mandates in schools. Add to that the fact that vaccinations lag far behind the rate experts say is necessary to curb spread, with rates especially low in some of the same places that won’t be requiring masks.

Then there is the concern for children’s health and the ongoing disruption to family life. While most children are not at high risk for severe Covid-19, and the availability of vaccines for adults — which dramatically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from the virus — may blunt the impact of school outbreaks, parents are still understandably concerned about their kids getting sick. The constant quarantines if caseloads are high in schools also place a big burden on working parents, many of whom lack paid sick leave and have spent much of the past 18 months trying to manage remote school while holding down a job.

That’s especially true for mothers, who have borne the brunt of child care and homeschool duties throughout the pandemic. “I’m hearing a lot of moms panicking,” Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at the University of Washington, told Vox.

There are solutions that could make schools safer and family life more livable this fall — from masks in schools to employer policies that allow flexibility to care for a child. As Kanecia Zimmerman, a professor of pediatrics at Duke University who has studied Covid-19 in schools, told Vox, “We can do this, and we can do this safely.” But these solutions will require a level of coordination, political will, and acceptance of the reality of the situation that, during the many months of this pandemic, haven’t always been in evidence.

Here’s what experts say schools need in the delta era

The delta variant has thrown a wrench into everyone’s plans for this school year. But the good news about delta, if there is good news, is that strategies developed for older variants of the virus should still be effective to fight it. The most effective, experts say, are vaccines.

For teachers, staff, parents, and children 12 and over, vaccines are important for Covid-19 safety in all settings. “Everyone, regardless of whether they’re in school or not, who is eligible for the vaccine, should just be getting the vaccine,” Yvonne Maldonado, a professor of global health and infectious diseases at Stanford University, told Vox. “This virus is not going to go anywhere until we have a highly, highly vaccinated community.”

For children under 12, though, vaccines may not be available until mid-winter, so for now, the best protection is masking. Schools that used masks well were still able to keep transmission low last year, Maldonado emphasized. And masks still work against delta, Zimmerman said, but with the variant more transmissible, it’s more critical than ever for schools to be meticulous about compliance. “It can’t be that there’s a slippage, or it’s hanging down at your chin for 10 minutes.”

Schools should practice distancing — the CDC recommends 3 feet, if possible — but not at the cost of keeping kids on hybrid or remote schedules, Zimmerman said. “It’s better to have people in the school building than not.” If schools can’t adhere to distancing, masking compliance becomes even more important.

Proper ventilation can be helpful too, though there’s not yet perfect data on exactly what that means, Zimmerman said. Experts do know that Covid-19 transmission is much less likely outdoors, so schools should do what they can to mimic an outdoor environment, such as opening windows. But even some urban schools in North Carolina with decades-old ventilation systems still managed to keep transmission low, she said. Their secret: “They were very adherent to masking.”

Overall, schools will need to be vigilant about face coverings until their surrounding communities achieve a combination of high vaccination rates and low rates of community spread, Zimmerman said. Before delta, “we were talking over 70 percent” as a vaccination threshold; now, she said, “we may be talking over 80 percent.” Measures of community spread are a little harder to pin down, but the CDC’s standard for “lower” transmission — less than 20 new cases per 100,000 people over the last 14 days — could be one benchmark. “The combination of those two things is likely a scenario where things would be safe enough to eliminate masking,” Zimmerman said.

Where we actually are as we head into fall

Unfortunately, the country isn’t where it needs to be when it comes to vaccines or masks. Vaccination rates have picked up across the country in recent days, likely in response to fears about delta, but many areas remain far off target. In Missouri, for example, just 41 percent of people are fully vaccinated. Rates like that coupled with the transmissibility of the delta variant have led to high levels of community spread across much of the US.

Schools can stay open even in areas of high community spread, experts say — if everyone wears masks. But mask policies in schools remain a mixed bag. Of the 100 school districts tracked by CRPE, about a third plan to require masks, a third will make them optional, and a third have yet to announce a policy, Lake said.

Many of the same areas with low rates of vaccination also lack mask mandates in schools — and eight states outright ban such mandates. In Arkansas, for example, just 37 percent of people are fully vaccinated, and cases are surging. But a state law passed earlier this year bans districts from requiring masks.

That leaves parents worried for their kids’ safety. “I just feel like they have taken away the only tool they have for the younger kids who can’t get vaccinated,” Arkansas mom Jennifer Carter told NBC News. (The ban has been challenged in court, and last Friday, a judge temporarily blocked it.)

For families who don’t feel confident in their school’s mitigation measures, it’s not clear if remote options will be available. Many districts, like New York City, have said they will not allow students to choose full-time remote learning in the fall, even though a large number of families, especially in communities of color, have said they prefer remote learning for now.

Quarantines and testing protocols are another big unknown. With community rates of Covid-19 high going into the fall, cases are bound to pop up in schools. In the past, that’s meant quarantines and closures of classes, grades, and even whole schools for up to 10 days — a move that aimed to reduce the spread of the virus but also caused disruption for parents and students alike. The CDC now says that as long as all students are masked and maintain 3 feet of distance, students do not need to quarantine from school if exposed to an infected student. However, some districts, such as Los Angeles, are still planning to require quarantines regardless of masking, Zimmerman said.

And in districts that don’t offer a remote option, it’s not clear how students will be able to learn if they’re sent home to quarantine. “There is no contingency plan in most places as far as I can tell,” Lake said.

Across the country, planning for the fall remains a patchwork, with guidance from state governments limited and issues like masks highly politicized. Advice from the CDC, too, “has been pretty slow in coming and fairly hands-off,” Lake said.

Despite more than a year of experience with pandemic learning, this summer looks a lot like last summer, she added, when many districts rushed toward normalcy without adequate plans for how to backtrack. “It is shocking to me that we’re in the situation that we’re in,” she said. “But on the other hand, it feels very, very familiar.”

Here’s what that means for families

It’s not yet clear whether the delta variant causes more severe disease in children than earlier versions of the virus, Zimmerman said. In general, delta’s impact on severity is still being studied. But since it’s more transmissible, more children are catching it, and some of them will become severely ill. “Kids get sick” from Covid-19, Zimmerman said. “That has never been a question.”

That’s not a reason to keep schools closed, Zimmerman said. Shutting school buildings again “should be the absolute last thing that people do.” But failing to use the tools we know work, like masks, puts kids — and adults — needlessly at risk. As Zimmerman put it, delta shouldn’t change the calculus around schools unless “people are not going to do the things that are necessary to protect children and protect staff.”

And while kids getting sick is a major worry on parents’ minds, it’s not the only one. They also have to contend with the uncertainty inherent in another year of pandemic schooling. For students, another year of subpar planning for quarantines and remote options could mean more instruction time lost, already a big concern among education experts. After two school years impacted by Covid-19, “the academic losses are really high,” Lake said.

For parents, meanwhile, another year of quarantines means another year when they may be unable to work for days or even weeks at a time because a child can’t go to school. Known Covid-19 exposures aren’t the only issue. The ordinary coughs and colds that are part of children’s lives have taken on a new seriousness, with parents often needing to pull kids out of school for multiple days until they can get a negative Covid-19 test.

And the burden of these pandemic-era school disruptions tends to fall disproportionately on moms. In one survey last October, 63 percent of mothers said they were primarily responsible for their children’s online schooling, compared with just 29 percent of dads. Over the last 16 months, “Who was figuring out the schooling situation? Moms. Who were the main communications going to? Moms,” Susannah Lago, a mother of two and founder of the group Working Moms of Milwaukee, said. “That’s really hard.”

Women have disproportionately dropped out of the workforce over the last year, with child care likely a factor. After all, mothers with kids under 12 spent an average of eight hours a day on child care last year, the equivalent of a full-time job. And many say that ongoing uncertainty over school in the fall is keeping them from going back to work. “I can’t ask in an interview: ‘Do you mind if I take off two weeks with no notice,’” Bee Thorp, a mother of two in Virginia, told the New York Times.

For those still working, meanwhile, the delta variant and schools’ inconsistent policies just mean even more of the juggling, stress, and confusion that some hoped they’d left behind when the vaccines arrived. Parents are saying, “I can’t do this again,” Lake said.

Making the coming school year safer starts with letting go of “normal”

The situation this fall isn’t what anybody hoped for. But there are still ways for district officials and other decision-makers to help students, staff, and families have the best school year possible. The first is, very simply, to follow the science.

For now, that means masks in schools, Maldonado said. In places where state or city officials haven’t mandated masks, districts may need to take the lead. “If they go beyond what the states or the counties are mandating, then so be it,” Maldonado added. “They may need to be the guardians of the safety of their children.”

That could be a challenge in places where mask mandates are banned. But at least four school districts in Florida have said they will require masks in the fall, in defiance of the state’s ban, according to the Washington Post. “Now is a good time for folks to kind of dig deep and really think about what are student interests and what do we have to do to protect those interests,” Lake said.

Promoting vaccines — not just in schools but around the country — is also crucial, public health experts say. So far, few districts are planning to mandate vaccines for students or staff, and some teachers’ unions have opposed mandates. But even without a mandate, parents can help protect themselves and their communities by making sure they and any eligible older children get the vaccine. “Get everyone in your family who can be vaccinated vaccinated so that you can, at least, protect your bubble as much as you possibly can,” Zimmerman said.

Beyond mitigation measures, districts need to communicate with parents clearly and with as much notice as possible about what they can expect for the fall, Lake said. “As the pandemic has shown us, they’ve got to be able to respond to changing conditions quickly and communicate to families how that’s going to work.”

Meanwhile, employers will need to be understanding of the fact that for working parents, this fall won’t be back to normal. They need plans in place to make sure workers can take time off if their kids are home from school, and they need to offer mental health support to parents who are dealing with the stresses of a pandemic for yet another year. More than anything, they need to demonstrate the same level of flexibility that families are being asked to show in dealing with the uncertainties of school in the Covid-19 era.

“That goes two ways,” Lago said. It’s “not just families being flexible for Covid; it’s employers being very flexible to support the people that make their company run.”

Indeed, everyone involved may need to acknowledge that, yet again, school isn’t going to look the way it did before the pandemic, and everyone needs to plan for that. “Let’s not pretend that things are back to normal,” Lake said. “We’re not out of this yet.”