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Students are led onto the bus after the school day ends at Kratzer Elementary School in Allentown, Pennsylvania, April 13, 2021.

‘We’ve learned a lot of lessons’: How schools plan to navigate a new year

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Facing a new phase of the pandemic – and updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting mitigation strategies such as masks – schools in the United States are again at the center of the debate about where and how students should currently be learning. 

By the end of this week, roughly 25% of K-12 students in the U.S. will have started school, with openings continuing past Labor Day. Some schools in Mississippi have already had to temporarily shift to virtual learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The governors of Texas and Florida have reconfirmed their commitments to prohibiting mandatory face masks in schools, though judges in some areas have blocked or overruled such measures.

Why We Wrote This

What does the return of mandates and masks mean for the start of another school year? Educators focus on lessons learned in the past year, amid pointed public debate, to bring students back to the classroom.

Even so, dedication to reopening schools in person remains strong among many education leaders, says Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University. Schools learned lessons last year about safely reopening and are now better supported with $122 billion in federal relief funding from the American Rescue Plan, he says. 

“We’ve got a year’s worth of experience. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work,” says Mr. Toch. “We can do it well and safely, and it’s important for both academic and social and emotional reasons to get back to school.”

Principal Arria Coburn has embraced the word “pivot.” She despised it during early pandemic lockdowns since it always meant a shift to the unknown. But with a year of pandemic schooling completed, she’s confident that teachers and students at her school can adapt again if necessary. 

“In the event that we do need to pivot, we have so much experience that I’m ready,” says Dr. Coburn, who leads The Springfield Renaissance School, a public magnet school for grades 6-12 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The school plans to open for full in-person schooling on Aug. 30. “We haven’t necessarily started to look at a hybrid plan or a remote plan, but we have it on file.”  

Back-to-school season is here, with school buses revving up and renewed debates over masking, distancing, and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies that many educators and families had hoped to put in the rearview mirror. 

Why We Wrote This

What does the return of mandates and masks mean for the start of another school year? Educators focus on lessons learned in the past year, amid pointed public debate, to bring students back to the classroom.

By the end of this week, roughly 25% of K-12 students in the United States will have started school, with openings continuing past Labor Day. And even as pandemic concerns grow, dedication to reopening schools in person remains strong among many education leaders, says Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University in Washington. Schools learned lessons last year about safely reopening and are now better supported with $122 billion in federal relief funding from the American Rescue Plan, he says. 

“We’ve got a year’s worth of experience. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work,” says Mr. Toch. “We can do it well and safely, and it’s important for both academic and social and emotional reasons to get back to school.”

On July 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance about school reopening, including that all students and school staff wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC recommends that students return to full-time in-person learning and advises schools to adopt “layered prevention strategies” including masks, COVID-19 screening testing, improved ventilation, hand-washing, and promoting vaccines for those eligible. 

Randy Hoeft/The Yuma Sun/AP
Aide Perez, cafeteria manager at Palmcroft Elementary School, helps a young student find a place to sit and eat breakfast before classes Aug. 2, 2021, in Yuma, Arizona.

As of Aug. 10, 87 of the 200 largest K-12 districts in the U.S. mandate masks for all students and 102 do not (the others are undecided or vaccine contingent), according to Dennis Roche, president of Burbio, a website that tracks school data.

Whether schools will – or can – follow the updated CDC guidance depends in part on geography. New York City, for example, with the largest school system in the country, is still on track to reopen with masking in September. But elsewhere, several states have banned schools from setting mask mandates. The governors of Texas and Florida reconfirmed their commitments to prohibiting mandatory face masks in schools – though some districts in those states say they plan to defy those expectations. On Tuesday, two Texas judges issued local rulings allowing officials to require masks in public schools and buildings. In Arkansas, on Aug. 6, a judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing a ban on mask mandates.

Some schools reopening in early August have already had to change course: Carter County Schools and Martin County Schools in Kentucky delayed school reopening, and three schools in Mississippi’s Lamar County temporarily shifted to virtual learning after COVID-19 outbreaks, according to local news reports.

This year “a little more complex”

Kristen McNeill, superintendent of the Washoe County School District, which includes Reno, Nevada, oversaw in-person learning last school year in the district of about 62,000 students, which reopened with in-person and remote options last August. This school year began on Aug. 9, with the vast majority of students returning in person.

“I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons from what we were able to go through last year … whether it’s around distance education, connectivity, or how we engage our families,” says Dr. McNeill. “I don’t want to say it’s easier [reopening this year] by any stretch of the imagination. One of the things that every school district across the country is dealing with right now is the change with the delta variant and that’s making opening a little more complex.”

Parents, at local school board meetings and on social media, have fiercely argued for and against continued pandemic protocols at school, and anxiety is rising again about balancing work and child care responsibilities if schooling is disrupted. Polls also show some parents continue to prefer remote learning, with Black and Hispanic parents most hesitant about returning to school in person. 

“As long as it’s safe enough and I’m comfortable enough, they’re going back,” says Toyin Anderson, a mother of 14- and 11-year-old students in Rochester, New York. She wants her kids back in school and desires extra school counselors to help all students readjust. But she’s also concerned about crowds with more students in the building than last year when school ran on a hybrid model. 

“This COVID thing does its own thing. It’s leading and we’re following. To be honest, I fear you can make plans for today, but tomorrow you have to change them,” Ms. Anderson says.

Scientific studies during the 2020-21 school year indicated that transmission of COVID-19 in schools was not higher than community transmission rates when safety protocols were in place, according to the CDC. A July 2021 report on COVID-19 in K-12 schools by Resolve to Save Lives, led by former CDC Director Tom Frieden, stated closing schools is “deeply detrimental” and “abundant evidence shows that transmission and risk of outbreaks in schools can be reduced using layered mitigation measures.”

Success Academy, a large public charter school network in New York City, opened all of its 47 schools for in-person learning on Aug. 2. The network serves 23,000 students, the majority of whom are Black and Latino, and operated remotely for all of the previous school year. 

“It is scarier than typical to open during a pandemic,” says Eva Moskowitz, CEO and founder of Success Academy, “but we’ve been planning for months and months.” The network required vaccinations for all school staff, except those with a religious or medical exemption, and reached near 100% participation. New school furniture – such as individual tables instead of oblong shared tables – was ordered to accommodate social distancing.  

Success Academy is offering a remote option to students through the end of the first marking period in early October. As of the first day of school, 90% of students signed up for in-person learning. Dr. Moskowitz attributes the high return rate to calls administrators made to every family who initially opted for remote to discuss the benefits of in-person schooling. Those choosing remote learning fell from 40% to 10% before school started. 

Hesitancy to return

How many students return for the 2021-22 school year remains to be seen. Public school enrollment fell by 3% during the 2020-21 school year, with the largest drops in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten. Home-school rates doubled overall, including jumping from 3.3% to 16.1% among Black families, and some parents are exploring hybrid home-schooling options for fall. 

“Part of the challenge, given the great concern in recent weeks about the delta variant and rising incidents rates, is it’s going to require schools to work very hard at getting kids into school,” says Mr. Toch of FutureEd.

Last year’s pandemic schooling experience showed how much parents want to be involved with changes, says Principal Coburn in Springfield, whose students are largely Black and Hispanic. She learned early on that parents weren’t happy about finding out about decisions second hand or not being clear on the rationale behind changes. 

This year, Dr. Coburn is making a list of a cohort of parents who want to be point people for input when big decisions are necessary. The parents, about 10 from each grade level, are on a group text chat. She and her administrative team are also calling the family of every student over the summer to make sure they received their back-to-school welcome packets and answer questions.

Many educators have also learned over the past year how to make classrooms feel warm and inviting despite pandemic restrictions, says Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute in Palo Alto, California, and president of the California State Board of Education. 

“I think there are things that aren’t great. You’d like to see each other’s faces, you’d like to see how kids are enunciating their words,” says Dr. Darling-Hammond. “But lots and lots of kids and teachers have learned how to do this and be engaged, social, happy about the learning environment.”

Caitlin Yang, a rising high school junior from Boise, Idaho, is relieved that her school reinstated its mask requirement. She wishes class sizes could be smaller, but is still looking forward to school starting mid-August. 

“I’m happy to have more structured and prepared classes,” she says. “I’m excited to see my friends and have teachers naturally handle their classes this year because last year was a struggle.” 

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