Amy Davidson Sorkin has a smart, measured piece working through the huge issue of school openings in fall 2020. Another term (at least) of school closures would have devastating effects on many students and parents, but that doesn’t solve the problem of how to open schools without causing outbreaks that would cause schools to get shut down again anyway:
In a time line of the coronavirus crisis, Sunday, March 15th, is listed as the date when New York City’s public schools were ordered closed, but that’s not quite how things went. Earlier that day, Mayor Bill de Blasio had said that schools should remain open, despite teachers’ unions and public-health experts asking him to close them. As a result, little planning had been done, and students and parents went to schools throughout the week to pick up laptops and learning materials left behind the previous Friday. Until at least that Thursday, teachers were required to come in for group training sessions, where some learned of colleagues who were already sick with covid-19.
As schools across the country think about how they might reopen, that disorderly week in New York City’s schools—the nation’s largest system, with more than a million students—is worth looking back at, if only as a reminder that openings and closings are not simply a matter of turning a key. Many of the complexities are reflected in guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, which were released last week. Among other measures, they advise, if “feasible,” spacing desks six feet apart, having children eat lunch at their desks, and preventing younger kids from sharing toys. Texas is allowing schools to offer in-person summer school starting June 1st, with classes limited, for now, to eleven people. On Thursday, Tony Thurmond, California’s superintendent of public instruction, hosted a virtual meeting with representatives from a thousand of that state’s school districts, discussing outdoor instruction, smaller classes, and hybrids of remote and face-to-face learning. California will call for disinfecting facilities more frequently, and mask-wearing, but, as in many other states, local districts will have considerable autonomy. Difficult decisions will have to be made everywhere about sports and extracurricular activities. Last week, Mayor de Blasio said that “plan A” is to have schools fully open “as normal” in September, but that “there’s a plan B, a plan C and a plan D. You can do all sorts of things, from alternating days, staggered schedules.” Still, he said, remote learning might also be an option.
For many families, it is unthinkable that schools won’t open, although there are sharp divisions; a Politico/Morning Consult poll of registered voters last week showed that a plurality think that remote instruction should continue in the fall. The cost of keeping children out of classrooms is high, educationally and socially. Lost instructional time is hard to recapture; some high-school students may drop out. Schools provide meals, social services, and, for many students, a safe haven, and they allow parents to go to work. (Many schools still do; New York City offers grab-and-go breakfast and lunch, and child care for some essential workers.) Remote learning is a pale substitute, and its burdens are unfairly borne. But, without a vaccine, which is not expected to be widely available until next year, many schools may stay closed—or be forced to close abruptly in the face of a second wave of infection.
She doesn’t reach a clear answer because non exists, but it does help think through some of the relevant issues.