Covid school closures: what happens in the fall?

The shift to remote learning this spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic was a disaster for many students and families — so much so that in recent weeks, many public health experts have called for schools to reopen if possible.

It’s increasingly clear, however, that in many communities, it isn’t possible — at least not yet. As cases of Covid-19 continue to skyrocket around the country, school districts from Los Angeles to Nashville to Houston have announced that they will begin the fall term in an online-only format.

The question on the minds of many parents, students, and educators is this: What now? How will schools handle the learning losses and inequities that emerged with remote education in the spring, and how will parents cope with even more months of trying to work or find jobs while children are at home?

Experts, from classroom teachers to epidemiologists, have begun offering solutions to these problems. They range from incremental (but still important) fixes, such as making sure teaching assistants have laptops so they can support special education students virtually, to more sweeping changes, like a nationwide corps of child care providers or a universal basic income so more parents could care for their kids at home. And in addition to strategies for coping with a mostly online fall, public health experts have advice for getting the country back to a point where in-person learning will be possible again.

But most of these solutions will require buy-in from policymakers at the local, state, and federal level. And while some officials are beginning to offer families help — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, announced on Thursday that the city will provide child care for 100,000 children when school begins in a partially online form in the fall — many school districts are racing to figure out the best ways to teach kids.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, continues to offer little leadership when it comes to suppressing the virus and helping schools open safely — instead, the president has threatened schools that fail to reopen with funding cuts, even as Covid surges in many states. And in states like Georgia and Iowa, governors have pushed for a return to in-person school without putting policies in place to reduce transmission of the virus.

Getting kids back in school “takes resources and planning, and it also takes having informed conversations between school districts and teachers and members of the public,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins who has written about the issue of school closures, told Vox. But “this whole issue has become so unfortunately politicized that I feel that it’s hindering these conversations.”

Expand child care options for parents

With schools around the country closed this spring, many parents were suddenly faced with the challenge of caring for their kids all day and supervising their online learning while also trying to do their jobs.

Those with the ability to work from home, especially in two-parent households, have sometimes been able to cobble together schedules that allow them to care for kids while working — often putting in hours of work late at night or early in the morning. But parents who work outside the home have been left with few options, especially if they’re raising kids on their own. And with many schools remote-only in the fall, or operating on a hybrid model in which kids will still be home multiple days per week, there’s little relief in sight.

In response to this problem, many have proposed creative child care solutions. For example, Elena Tuerk, a child psychologist at the University of Virginia, has proposed a corps of child care providers, potentially paid for by states or the federal government, that could supervise children when their parents are at work.

Such an effort could be administered through the existing AmeriCorps program, and families could apply based on their work schedules and financial needs and be matched with trained caregivers in their communities, Tuerk told Vox. Ideally, those caregivers “would see this as an opportunity to serve, which it really is,” she said.

However, any such program would require significant coordination and a huge staff, since there are about 48 million children under 12 in the United States. And so far, there has been little interest at the state or federal level in such a broad-based solution.

Others have noted that existing child care services could be expanded in the absence of in-person school. Even as schools closed, many daycare centers remained open to take care of the children of essential workers, said Nuzzo. And in the fall, school districts could offer “the equivalent of daycare for older kids,” in which children who aren’t physically in school are instead supervised in small, consistent groups, perhaps modeled on summer camps and aftercare programs.

Such an arrangement, while not without risk, would be safer than a school with potentially hundreds of students going in and out, Nuzzo said. Keeping numbers low “reduces the probability that an infection will be introduced,” she explained, and, “if an infection is introduced, it just limits the number of people who get it.” And caring for children together in small groups would provide at least some of the socialization that kids missed out on this spring when schools were closed.

At least one city, New York, appears to be offering such a program. On Thursday, Mayor de Blasio announced the city would expand its sponsored child care programs to care for some children in the fall, when students will only attend school physically one to three days a week. However, the program will only serve a fraction of the city’s 1.1 million students, according to Politico, and it’s not clear how families will be selected or how much care will cost.

Meanwhile, some families around the country are making plans on their own to take care of kids together in the fall. “I have a lot of friends who have talked about signing their kids up in the public school but as remote learners and forming their own sort of cohorts,” where parents trade off supervising kids, Sarah Mulhern Gross, a high school English teacher in New Jersey, told Vox earlier this month. That way, “There’s an adult there to help, but it’s not all on one person’s shoulders, plus it’s socialization for kids.”

But not every parent has other trusted families nearby with whom to share child care in this way — or a work schedule that permits it. And in much of the country, there continues to be few options for parents who need to work while their kids are out of school. “I think we’re sort of taking for granted that parents are going to make do the way they might have in the spring,” Tuerk told Vox earlier this month. “But the amount of disruption that is causing to people’s work lives, and in particular to women’s work lives, is not okay long term.”

Pay parents to stay home

While child care programs would allow parents to get back to work, other solutions would help them take time away from work to care for their kids. One possibility, for some, is paid leave. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, parents are already entitled to up to 12 weeks of leave at partial pay if a child’s school or daycare center is closed due to the virus.

However, as with other paid-leave provisions in recent legislation, many employers, including those with over 500 employees, are exempt from the requirement, Pronita Gupta, director of the job quality program at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), told Vox earlier this month. And employees have to negotiate leave with their employers, which could make it difficult for them to get the time they’re entitled to, especially if hybrid schooling in the fall necessitates a complex child care schedule.

The paid-leave requirement expires on December 31; CLASP argues it should be extended as well as expanded to cover workers not currently included, Gupta said.

Meanwhile, others have proposed broader-based solutions to help parents care for kids during the pandemic. “Anyone who doesn’t have an essential job needs to be given basic income to be able to stay at home with their child,” Jillian Johnson, the mayor pro tempore of Durham, North Carolina, told Vox. She recently proposed a slate of reforms to help Americans deal with school closures, one of which was universal basic income, which she recommends not just for parents but for anyone in nonessential jobs.

“There are tons of people who are out working in retail shops and all of these places that we don’t need to be open right now, that are not critical to anyone’s survival,” Johnson said. “Those places should be shut down, and the workers should be paid to stay home.”

Any universal basic income would require federal action, unlikely under the current administration. But the idea has been gaining traction in recent years, with the presidential candidacy of Andrew Yang and pilot programs planned in a variety of cities.

And while a lot of conversation right now is focused on how to get parents, and all Americans, back to their jobs, the pandemic is a time to rethink work itself, Johnson said. “A lot of work is not essential,” she told Vox. “This is a moment for us to think about what’s really important in terms of what work needs to get done to keep us going as a society in this time.”

Invest in technology and close the digital divide

One of the biggest problems with remote learning has been inequality of access. About 17 percent of students nationwide lack a computer at home, according to a 2019 analysis by the Associated Press. Eighteen percent lack broadband internet access. Low-income families and families of color are especially likely to be without these resources, according to the AP.

Some school districts tried to help by sending iPads or other devices to families, but it didn’t fully fix the problem. For example, families with multiple kids didn’t always get a device for each child, Ronald Richter, CEO of the New York-based child welfare agency JCCA, told Vox. And kids without internet access at home sometimes ended up working on iPhones, which weren’t ideal for many types of classwork.

To remedy the problem, officials need to ensure that every child has access to a computer they can use to learn online, Johnson said. Some districts are already at work on this, with Durham schools planning to purchase 20,000 Chromebooks to distribute to students who don’t have them.

Meanwhile, “In order to do video calls and watch the kind of video content that we know kids are going to need to access, you’ve got to have fast internet,” Johnson said. To provide this, she advocates for making broadband a public utility, subsidized at the state or federal level and available at affordable rates to all Americans. Lawmakers in California and elsewhere have proposed legislation to promote affordable public broadband, but laws in many states actively block efforts to provide public internet access.

“For some reason, we’ve decided internet should be a private utility, even though it’s something that everyone needs, even before Covid,” Johnson said.

And it’s not just about students. The Houston Federation of Teachers is pushing to make sure that all teaching assistants, in addition to teachers, are provided with laptops and internet so they can assist students with online learning, Zeph Capo, the union’s president, told Vox. Fully equipping TAs for online learning would be especially helpful for special needs students, who haven’t always gotten the support they need during the pandemic.

“If our teachers’ assistants actually had the equipment they needed,” Capo said, “they could be supplementing what our teachers are doing by providing the one-on-one support, even if it’s social and emotional support, to those students,” as well as “helping provide a second set of eyes and ears for the parents during this time.”

Improve the online school experience — beyond academics

Lack of access to technology is likely one reason students around the country saw significant learning losses in the fall, with Black and Latinx students as well as students in low-income neighborhoods disproportionately affected. But beyond the digital divide, educators and others are also looking to improve kids’ experience with online school to help them learn better.

“We spent most of the spring focused on learning the platforms and how to upload our lessons and get the basic fundamentals to work,” Capo said. “We didn’t spend near enough time actually focusing on the adjustments or changes to pedagogical practices to facilitate better virtual learning.” Now, union members are “shifting rather intently to being better online teachers,” with the union offering a webinar devoted to the pedagogy of virtual learning. Experts around the country are beginning to offer tips for more successful online teaching during the pandemic, from being flexible around deadlines and assignments to rethinking the ways educators measure student progress.

Meanwhile, districts may need to reexamine their curricula as well. “There are some curricula that are much better and more flexible for online learning,” Joshua Sharfstein, a pediatrician and a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, told Vox. In a recent paper, he and Christopher Morphew, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, especially recommend curricula that incorporate both in-person and remote strategies, since students may have to switch between the two at various points this year.

And improving online school isn’t just about academics. Especially for kids with existing mental health issues, remote learning makes it hard to ensure that their mental health needs are being met, Richter said. And the pandemic has been an enormous source of anxiety and grief for children, many of whom have seen loved ones or community members become very ill or die from Covid. To help kids mentally and emotionally, JCCA offers remote and in-person services for Medicaid-eligible families in New York that “are meant to address traumatic experiences that kids and families have,” before those experiences cause lasting mental-health problems.

Schools should also hire additional counselors, social workers, and nurses to help students deal with the stress of the pandemic, Sharfstein and Morphew write.

“It’s a really challenging time to be a kid,” Johnson said. “I would never devalue the role of academics, but what I think is even more critical is making sure that our kids feel supported, are taken care of, that their social and mental and emotional health needs are being met.”

Close the bars. Reopen the schools.

In recent weeks, many epidemiologists have argued that the biggest thing America needs to do in order to open schools safely is to reduce community transmission of the coronavirus. “Everybody’s been asking the question, ‘How do we open up schools safely?’” Ashish Jha, the faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told Vox’s German Lopez. “My argument’s been: Live in a community that doesn’t have a big disease outbreak. That’s how you open up schools safely.”

In order to keep the disease under control so schools can open, many have advocated for closing down other indoor venues like bars, restaurants, and gyms that seem to be contributing to a lot of spread. “Reopening businesses that pose a major risk of community spread should be a lower priority than reopening schools, for which continued closure carries far greater harm,” Nuzzo and Sharfstein wrote in a July 1 op-ed in the New York Times.

Unfortunately, coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in many areas even in the few weeks since then — and in many places, even shutting down bars and restaurants now is unlikely to make schools safe by the beginning of the fall. But officials could still make decisions now that could allow kids to come back at some point in the future, if not right away, experts say.

In Maryland, for example, where case numbers have begun to rise but are not yet at the high levels seen in other states, “I think if we made it a priority it would be possible to bring our case numbers down further and have safety protocols in place in the schools to allow kids to have some form of in-person instruction,” Nuzzo said.

It will also take action from political leaders, some of whom have actively opposed strategies to mitigate the pandemic. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, for example, has pushed for in-person school in the fall — saying in a news conference Friday that “I am a believer that kids need to be in the classroom.” And yet just the day before, he sued the city of Atlanta to prevent it from enforcing a requirement that residents wear masks — a simple precaution experts say could reduce viral spread and thus get children back into the classroom faster.

When it comes to making schools safe to reopen again, “Ultimately, it’s going to come down to what governors of states choose to do,” Helen Jenkins, an epidemiologist at Boston University who has been vocal about schools, told Vox.

And some fear that a lack of leadership at the federal level could hinder any local response. While state and local officials have called for additional funding to help them reopen safely, the Trump administration has offered no solutions and has instead threatened to cut funding to schools that don’t reopen — even in the face of rising case numbers.

“I can imagine a scenario where schools would be able to reopen safely,” Johnson said, “but it’s not one where Trump is president.”

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