What Will School Look Like in September?
Three months of lockdown has taught us this much: For the kids to be all right, they need to be With. Other. Kids. “The social-emotional needs of children to connect with other children in real time and space, whether it’s for physical activity, unstructured play or structured play, this is immensely important for young children in particular,” Dr. Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, Director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital told NPR.
So, what is the best we can hope for in September? The CDC recently released guidelines for reopening K-12 schools, but notes these are “recommendations” to be followed “as feasible.”
As we saw with summer camps, the decisions that most directly impact our kids’ lives will be made by state and local health officials and school administrators themselves. To sort through the many possibilities, we’ve compiled an alphabetized list of likely adjustments students will be facing this fall. Here, the new ABCs of pandemic living.
A is for assemblies. The CDC recommends that communal-use shared school spaces be closed. That means no auditoriums. No playgrounds. No gyms for PE. No cafeterias. To ensure social distancing, schools will likely prohibit large gatherings of any kind. Say goodbye to fall concerts, square dances, pep rallies and talent shows. And as for lunch table cliques, there will no longer be an in crowd—because there won’t be any crowds at all.
B is for blue light. Most schools anticipate re-opening with a “hybrid model,” where kids will go to school on site for a few days a week and then do distance learning the other days. But particularly for our youngest students, there’s a point at which screen-based education shifts from being instructive to, well…kind of insane. Every family, in partnership with their teacher, must decide where to draw the line. Otherwise, our screen-bonkers kids will draw it for us. Probably all over the walls.
C is for CDC.org. The NIH’s Dr. Anthony Fauci is now America’s Sweetheart (Need proof? He just took over Julia Roberts’s Instagram). And the CDC web site is our new TMZ. All rumors about school re-openings, procedures and plans mean nothing unless they have been vetted and verified by central command.
D is for desks. The CDC recommends children’s desks be placed six feet apart, all facing in the same direction. Students will no longer be allowed to share objects, including books, toys and games. No more communal tables or desks pushed together in clusters to promote collaborative learning. Each child will bring his own lunch from home and eat at his desk (adhering to food allergy restrictions, as always). There will be no more buckets of markers or bins of Legos. High touch, sensory play stations (water tables, sand boxes, block areas) will likely be removed from classrooms, as they would need to be sanitized after every use. The computer lab also presents a problem, as the CDC advises: “Avoid sharing electronic devices.” Sharing is caring? Not anymore.
E is for extra-curriculars. Musicals, cooking, gymnastics, dance. It will not be business as usual for any of the after-school activities and clubs that enrich our kids’ days. During school hours, the teachers of “special” classes like art and music could potentially come to kids’ classrooms or deliver lessons via video, rather than have the kids travel through the school building to visit their studios. All field trips will be virtual.
F is for flow. Expect to see tape on school floors directing traffic—in only one direction—through the hallways. Traffic cones will appear to aid with social distancing and signs will remind kids to practice good hygiene. Doors and windows will remain open to promote air circulation. Plexiglass partitions may separate bathroom sinks.
G is for gardening. Outdoor learning may become the cornerstone of science, literature, social studies and even math classes. Silver lining: A greener curriculum.
H is for hand-washing. According to Reuters, elementary students in Taiwan are “asked to disinfect their shoes and hands before entering the school’s premises, while a security guard takes their temperature.” In the US, teachers will likely be the ones to vigilantly oversee longer and more frequent turns at the sink and sanitizer stations. Not all heroes wear capes.
I is for isolation room. The CDC advises schools designate an area to separate anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms that present during the school day.
J is for jungle gym. Expect all climbing equipment to be off limits or sanitized after every use. In Denmark, where some schools have reopened, only five children are allowed on the playground at a time. According to NPR, students there play “shadow tag” where they tag each other’s shadows so they never come closer than six feet. France has also reopened schools but—mind-bendingly—mandated "no games at recess."
K is for Kindergarten. In several European countries and in Israel, the youngest students have been the first to return to school. The US may follow suit, as our lower grades typically stick with one main classroom teacher anyway, requiring fewer logistical and staff adjustments. As a parent though, you have to wonder how 4- and 5-year-olds will fare during their first full-day school experience—already a separation-anxiety powder keg—after months spent in isolation. They’ll be starting school in a new building they may not consistently be able to enter, with a new teacher they cannot touch. They will also be wearing masks and prohibited from touching their faces. (We’ll wait while you compose yourself.) Parent volunteers, “mystery readers” and special birthday guests will likely be banned from classrooms—and sorely missed.
L is for lower numbers. Cutting down class sizes (to 10 students or fewer) will be a huge priority.
M is for masks. The CDC recommends cloth masks for all students, teachers and staff. Even they admit this will prove challenging for younger kids.
N is for “the new normal.” If we had a dollar for every time we read this phrase in an email, article or headline, we’d have enough money to quarantine in the Hamptons with a private tutor.
O is for one teacher. The CDC recommends “Groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days and groups do not mix.” Some districts are considering “looping” classes, meaning students would again be placed with the same teacher from the 2019-20 schoolyear, likely a familiar and trusted presence.
P is for pods. Also known as “cohorting” this is another buzzword for the small group of students that stays together all the time with one teacher and doesn’t interact with anyone else. Let’s just hope everyone in your child’s pod gets along swimmingly.
Q is for quarantine. If there is a virus surge or an outbreak in the community, families will go back into isolation and schools may be shuttered—continuing with remote learning—until the facilities can be safely disinfected and the virus contained.
R is for report cards. “School districts across the country have adopted new grading systems…driven by concern for students who face hardship from the coronavirus and its economic fallout,” reports the New York Times. “Some districts have dropped letter grades altogether, while others are guaranteeing A’s in most cases, or ensuring that students’ performance during the pandemic will not count against them.” Teachers are finding it challenging to assess young children’s developing skills and progress remotely. Priorities are shifting. The CDC recommends schools “Consider not having perfect attendance awards, not assessing schools based on absenteeism.” Parent-teacher conferences may no longer be conducted in person.
S is for staggered schedules. Students will likely be dropped off and picked up from school by parents or caregivers at different arrival and departure times and locations. They may attend school on alternating days. So one group could come in on Monday/Wednesday and another on Tuesday/Thursday, with alternating Fridays. Or there may be morning and afternoon groups. The goal is to reduce large crowds gathering at the same times (9 AM and 3 PM) each day and to cut down on the number of people in and around the school building at any given time.
T is for testing. High schoolers in Germany are self-administering Coronavirus tests twice a week in tents set up in the schoolyard. But that kind of screening system is not on the horizon here. In fact, in most states there are still test shortages, according to a study by Harvard researchers. And unfortunately, according to a pediatrician we consulted, antibody tests are no silver bullet, due to unreliable accuracy. It is also not yet known if having had Covid-19 confers immunity and if so, for how long. In other words, a positive antibody result “is not your passport to start interacting like crazy,” UCSF infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Chin-Hong M.D. told the Times. Schools may instead rely on daily temperature checks before students enter the building. And they will certainly be counting on parents to monitor their children’s health and police themselves.
U is for uncommon. The alarming pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome (called MIS-C or PMIS) that tragically took the lives of four US children is understandably causing much fear around sending children back to school. But the medical community continues to emphasize the relatively low numbers of kids impacted. “Experts say that parents shouldn’t agonize over the condition,” according to the New York Times. It’s a point confirmed by Elizabeth Lloyd, M.D., pediatric infectious diseases physician at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital: “This condition is extremely rare.” Parents do need to stay vigilant and watch for symptoms, as most children can avoid serious complications if the illness is caught early.
V is for Vacations. We may see more flexibility in the school calendar. K-12 schools may take their cues from colleges, shifting start dates, running classes throughout the summer, and adjusting schedule breaks to respond to outbreaks. We wish V was for vaccine.
W is for Working Parents. “No credible scientist, learning expert, teacher, or parent believes that children aged 5 to 10 years can meaningfully engage in online learning without considerable parental involvement,” writes Dr. Christakis in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, of which he is editor-in-chief. Imagine the logistical jiujitsu facing a working parent with multiple kids at different schools. Each child, theoretically, could have different drop-off and pick-up times, different designated school days, and otherwise require assistance with remote learning. With carpooling and after-care programs potentially off the table, pandemic playdate politics fraught, and caregivers and grandparents still at risk, there aren’t enough head-exploding emojis in the world to convey this quagmire.
X is for the X factor. Will there be a second wave of the virus this fall and winter? Will fewer high schoolers apply to college if it’s online only? Student athletes and those pursuing arts scholarships are facing unprecedented complications and delays. Are students with learning differences falling behind due to a lack of in-person support? Are teachers missing signs to flag kids for early intervention services? What about the digital divide? Schools and families will be dealing with the fallout of this crisis not just next year, but for years.
Y is for youth sports. The CDC urges schools to “minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to players, families, coaches, and communities.” But sports are by nature high touch, sweaty and intimately interactive. Safety guidelines from the US Olympic and Paralympic Olympic Committee suggest players bring—and exclusively touch—their own equipment, practice outside wearing masks, and maintain distance. But no matter how you slice it, the most popular school sports—basketball, football, volleyball, baseball, soccer, gymnastics, hockey and tennis—are still classified as “moderate risk.”
Z is for Zoom. It’s the remote learning platform we love to hate and hate to love. And we cannot wait to kiss it goodbye.