Despite best efforts, sometimes there’s no good answer to a problem.
That certainly seems the to be the case with how to start the school year during a public health crisis. Everyone agrees students need to go back to school, but the health and safety of students and teachers has to come first.
State health and education leaders told school administrators earlier this summer to plan for three scenarios when school starts again. None of the options are anything like pre-pandemic education. Students and parents will need to adapt to difficult and inconvenient plans. When distance learning ended in the spring, we hoped we wouldn’t have to confront it again.
Now the time has come. Guidelines, actually requirements, from the governor are expected next week. While waiting for the word from St. Paul, parents and school leaders have speculated if there will be a one-size-fits-all solution statewide, or if the rules will be applied district by district or even school by school depending on the local health situation.
Although school leaders like to talk about local control of schools, the Department of Education and Department of Health clearly identified which practices are requirements and which practices are recommendations. The state’s planning document says “Schools may choose to implement strategies that are more restrictive than the scenario established by the state, but may not choose to implement plans that are less restrictive.”
During the summer, schools were directed to prepare for three contingencies:
• In person learning for all students. But this is not school as we’ve known it. Requirements include social distancing throughout schools.
• A hybrid model with strict social distancing and limiting capacity to 50 percent in schools and buses.
• Distance learning only, like what was implemented for the last two months of the last school year.
Each of these options comes with a long list of challenges, higher expenses and need for more staff. Even if the year begins with in-person learning, there’s no guarantee the other two options won’t be implemented across the state or even within a building if Covid-19 metrics worsen.
Requirements for the first scenario – in-person learning – directs 6 feet of distance between students. To achieve this, class sizes may have to be reduced or other spaces used as alternatives. This affects not only classrooms but lunch lines, locker rooms and restrooms. On school buses, reducing capacity and adding buses and routes would be required.
The hybrid model limits capacity at 50 percent. Will that mean smaller classes with more teachers, alternating in-school days with distance learning or partial day schedules? Plans will be needed for contactless delivery of meals and school materials.
With either of the first two options, people will be in schools, so frequent hand-washing and disinfecting of surfaces will need to be part of the routine.
Beginning the year with distance learning, which may be necessary for health reasons, is the least attractive of the three options. Teachers would be starting the year with students they’ve never met or worked with in person. Parents, teachers and students rose to the challenge last spring, but that experience highlighted challenges when parents work outside the home and children attend different schools. For some children, distance learning worked fine, but students needing extra attention or special help did not fare as well. And nobody sees distance learning as an adequate long-term model for education.
Planning also has to accommodate the real possibility that some parents will not want to send their children back to the classroom until there is a vaccine and that some teachers and staff, who may have underlying health conditions, will not want to risk infection.
When a plan is announced, the community needs to focus on how to make it work by supporting school leaders and teachers. These are not easy decisions or simple solutions.
Meanwhile, the next time you leave home make sure you wear a mask. The price tag for a night of mask-less socializing with friends may turn out to be a very difficult school year.