School Re-Opening: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

cc photo by J. Delp

[Note: the thoughts and ideas in this blog post are my own and are not intended — in any way — to represent my employer. This post represents my thoughts as an individual and I do not have any personal insight into what July will bring — yes, our students return to school in July]

Difficult decisions lie ahead.

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the world into disarray. It has caused illness and death; job loss and business closures; and it has disrupted life’s daily routines. As some states seem to be on the downward slope of the virus’s first wave, others (like Arizona) have seen an alarming spike in cases — seemingly failing to slow the spread.

And now, we are just a few weeks away from the 2020-21 school year. Unfortunately, this has become a divisive topic, for a wide variety of reasons.

  • Legitimate concerns related to student access and success during a quarter of distance learning
  • The need for parents to get back to work and a place for their kids to spend the day
  • The necessity of adequately addressing the social-emotional needs of students
  • Unknown long-term effects of contracting the virus
  • Disagreements and mixed messages about the best ways to avoid transmission of the virus (i.e. masks)
  • Disagreements and mixed messages about the severity of the virus
  • Concerns for child safety in potentially abusive circumstances
  • The emotional toll that isolation is is taking on kids (and people, in general)
  • Issues of equity related to access to health-care (mental and physical), food, and learning opportunities
  • Concerns for the health and safety of the adults that work in schools — and their family members
  • Guidance from national and state officials that is vague and passive, and is nearly impossible to implement given current staffing and resources available to public schools (see CDC’s Considerations for Schools, and COVID-19 Guidance and Suggestions from the Arizona Department of Education)

My frustration lies with the last bullet point — the “guidance” provided by national and state officials. For all intents and purposes, “the buck” as been passed from the national level to the state level, to the local level. While it makes sense to allow local school districts to determine what is most beneficial for their students, this only works if they are given the resources and flexibility to implement a safe and effective plan.

At Governor Ducey’s June 17, 2020 press conference, Dr. Cara Christ reviewed slides 27 – 29 in this presentation – Questions to Consider Before Leaving Home. Imagine these questions being asked of students and educators.

  • How many people will you be interacting with? (less people > more people)
  • Can you keep six feet of space between you and others? Will you be outdoors, or indoors? (outdoors > indoors)
  • What’s the length of time that you will be interacting with people? (less time > more time)

Do you see the concern? It is hard to imagine that schools will be able to meet these most basic safety protocols without significant investment and modifications. At the very least, they will need funding safeguards to allow for flexibility in learning opportunities, student absences, length of the school day, and length of the school year. Right now, at least in Arizona, those assurances are not in place.

It feels like the state has essentially thrown us into the middle of the ocean, and said, “You figure out how to get to shore.”

Another challenge of beginning the school year during a pandemic is the difference of opinion related to the viral impact on children. Some argue that children will be fine, so we shouldn’t worry about sending them back. Others are less certain.

It is evident that the coronavirus has not had a significantly negative short-term impact on children. This does not mean that kids do not get infected, or spread the virus, or suffer from its effects, but the research on this is relatively inconclusive (partly because this is a “novel” coronavirus). This article from NPR’s Goats and Sodas (what an awesome name) seems to provide some positive news with regard to children and the virus — Coronavirus Mystery: Are Kids Less Likely To Catch It Than Adults Are? 

A quick Google search will allow you to find examples of schools in other countries that have opened (following strict health guidelines) without issue, as well as schools that have had to shut-down due to outbreaks. It is not entirely the same, but recently my beloved Kansas State Wildcats have suffered a COVID outbreak among their athletes (this has also occurred at schools like Alabama, Clemson, and Texas). This is concerning when you consider the amount of funding and resources these programs have to prevent the spread.

While I do not think that there is enough information to conclusively determine that schools should not be opened solely based on student health, I have previously suggested that we should not forget about teachers and other adults who work in the building when making decisions. A return to school will certainly impact them, and their families.

There are a lot of stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, families, and community) and there is a lot on the line. The virus doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, so schools need to be prepared for any number of possible scenarios. In order to do this, they are going to need the flexibility to provide options and to be able to scale systems and instructional methods up, or down, based upon community health trends. In Arizona, that flexibility (in the form of funding safeguards) has not been granted.

Our schools have significant decisions to make, a wide variety of opinions to consider, and the ever-evolving science behind a relatively new virus. Once again, we find ourselves with elevated expectations and limited resources. Should we open as normal? Open with the precautions that are reasonable (and that we can afford)? Provide a hybrid model? Continue with distance learning?

We honestly don’t know what effect opening schools will have on our students, families, community, and the state because we don’t know how school interactions will impact the spread of the coronavirus (or if it will). I thought this quote by Dr. Megan Culler Freeman (from the Goats and Sodas article referenced above) was both hopeful and a bit concerning.

“It does seem that kids are less affected than adults. But I think their role in community spread is still somewhat untested,” she says. Around the world from Abuja to Aruba to Arkansas, schools were shut down in the early stages of the outbreaks. “So we don’t know how things are going to change if that variable is back in play.”

Some countries have started to reopen schools, but that is mainly in places like Hong Kong and New Zealand, where transmission levels are incredibly low.

If schools reopen in places where transmission levels remain high, it may give a clearer picture, Freeman says, of how much transmission is driven by children.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want to be the school to test out that last statement. However, if the state of Arizona doesn’t get their act together, it seems likely we may find out.

So where does that leave schools?

It leaves them between a rock and a hard place.


If you are interested in reading more about my thoughts on school re-opening, check out these posts:

As We Plan for a Return to School – Don’t Forget the Teachers

Thoughts on a New School Year, Part 2

Moving Forward: Thoughts on a New School Year

What Will Next School Year Look Like?

I’ve also mentioned that I really like the COVID-19 Reintroduction Model created by the Boulder Valley Public School System in Colorado. It provides a scalable framework that could be adjusted to meet the needs of students and the community based upon existing conditions.

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