Des Moines Public Schools custodian Tracy Harris cleans chairs in a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School, Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. Getting children back to school safely could mean keeping high-risk spots like bars and gyms closed. That's the latest thinking from some public health experts.
School districts race against the clock, coronavirus and Trump’s tweets to plan reopening
“It’s an excruciatingly heavy lift."
By Wallace McKelvey/PennLive
(Harrisburg) — President Donald Trump shone a bright spotlight on America’s K-12 schools this week with a threat that he “may cut off funding” for any schools that don’t reopen in the fall.
The president’s comments are problematic (more on that later) but he’s using his bully pulpit at a pivotal moment for an issue the public should be paying attention to: the nation’s school districts — including 500 in Pennsylvania — are actively deliberating how students will be instructed in the fall. Most will announce their plans in the weeks ahead.
Schools have three basic options: full online instruction, full in-person instruction or a hybrid model that combines some of both. And, while a cadre of government agencies and politicians are weighing in with guidance, the ultimate decision and its consequences rests entirely with district administrators and elected school boards.
“It’s an excruciatingly heavy lift,” said Mark DiRocco, director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “Administrators and school boards are making potentially life-or-death decisions and they’re doing the best they can with the information they have.”
And the choices don’t stop at the classroom door.
Silvia Izquierdo / AP Photo
Rafaely de Melo puts on her protective mask during a class at the Pereira Agustinho daycare, nursery school and pre-school, after it reopened amid the new coronavirus pandemic in Duque de Caxias, Monday, July 6, 2020.
District officials must decide what to do about food service, transportation, extracurricular activities, sports, special education, career and college planning, payroll and even contract negotiations. And each decision ripples out since schools are often the first line of defense against child abuse, hunger and neglect for at-risk students. And there are still many unanswered questions about how coronavirus spreads among children, their status of vectors spreading the disease to others and the long-term effects of COVID-19, even if the child is asymptomatic.
Most districts started planning for the fall many months ago, organizing their own task forces in the absence of clear advice from federal or state officials. More recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Education unveiled guidance of their own.
“It’s not like they’ve been procrastinating,” said Annette Stevenson, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which organized the various stakeholders and put out its own 150-page report on the subject last month.
At this stage of coronavirus’ spread, most authorities are calling for a tentative reopening with an assortment of caveats and exceptions.
Gov. Tom Wolf, for his part, emphasized reopening although he noted that some districts may need to use a mix of online an in-class teaching.
Cesa Pusateri, 12, and her grandfather, Timothy Waxenfelter, principal of Quigley Catholic High School, leave with his collection of speech and debate books after the recent closure of the school in Baden, Pa., Monday, June 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)
“As far as the state is concerned, all schools are going to be open,” he said Thursday. “We’re going to lose a lot in our economy, our society, our political system, if we deprive our kids of an education.”
There’s a great deal of uncertainty baked in to the process.
Pennsylvania has, for the most part, tamped down the epidemic within its borders but most public health experts still anticipate a resurgence in the fall. And local areas — most recently, Pittsburgh and its suburbs — have seen the spread ebb and flow.
“Let’s face it: There’s a lot that’s unpredictable and unknown,” Stevenson said. “It’s not like the update today is the final one.”
And schools are having to feel their way toward reopening amid contradictory messages from leaders.
The CDC’s guidelines advised schools to keep student desks six feet apart and for children to wear masks. They also advised closing playgrounds and cafeterias, thus having children eat in their classrooms, and installing sneeze guards where necessary.
But on Wednesday, Trump contradicted the agency, calling the CDC’s recommendations “very tough” and “expensive.” On Thursday, CDC Director Robert Redfield said the agency had no plans to revise the guidelines, although it would release more detailed guidelines.
Meanwhile, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said Wednesday that the country has to regain control of the pandemic’s spread to get students back to school.
All of this uncertainty, some of it inherent to a pandemic and some of it due to political brinksmanship, is playing havoc within school districts.
“Every time we think we know what the guidance is, something gets updated or we find out something new about the virus,” DiRocco said. “This thing could be fluid right up until the start of school.”
Ross D. Franklin / AP Photo
Kristina Washington, special education staff member at Desert Heights Preparatory Academy, walks past desks and chairs at the closed Glendale, Ariz., school in early June.
If there’s one certainty, it’s this: The lived experience will vary a great deal from one district to the next.
Across the state and the country, districts are mulling some fairly innovative solutions, including staggering instruction days so students divide their time between home and school or transforming high schools into elementary schools to accommodate social distancing while having the older pupils continue to learn from home. Others have considered reopening old, mothballed facilities.
Stevenson said the schools themselves will probably adopt many of the solutions familiar to anyone who’s shopped at a grocery store in recent months: directional hallways, sneeze guards and strict occupancy limits.
The ability for a school to social distance, she said, is tied to its resources and physical floor space. Smaller, well-heeled districts may be able to reopen to full-time instruction with minimal adaptation. Districts that are already grappling with large class sizes or limited space will have a lot more trouble with that. Likewise, the virus has had a disproportionate impact — at least so far — on urban versus rural areas.
“Even within the hybrid version, there are all sorts of different solutions based on the number of buildings, number of students, staff sizes and what resources there are to send students home with equipment,” Stevenson said. “It’s quite the complicated equation.”
And, of course, there are wildcards, like the president’s Twitter account.
Despite his claims, Trump cannot unilaterally cut federal funding for schools. For one, federal funding accounts for roughly 10 percent of school funding and that money is generally the domain of Congress. But Trump may be able to restrict emergency pandemic funds he approved via the CARES Act — a move that would undoubtedly be challenged in court — or refuse to sign future emergency funding bills Congress sends to his desk.
Wolf, when asked about the possibility on Thursday, was fairly dismissive of the idea that Trump would cut funding.
“I find it hard to believe that at a point when we’re all recognizing . . . how important education is that anyone’s going to do anything in a partisan way to attack education,” he said. “I don’t really know what to make of it.”
For most school officials, the president’s running commentary is mostly seen as an unnecessary distraction.
“Let’s help local school leaders to make the decisions,” Stevenson said. “Any other behavior that’s unsupportive or threatening — that’s just not productive. At the receiving end of all this are our students.”
The most important thing parents and guardians can do now is to be patient and stay engaged.
Stevenson said most districts have designated emails or sections of their website to send out information about their reopening plans and to take input. Whenever a district sends home information, she said, parents should take the time to read it and to ask questions.
“It’s tough to be patient when the topic of discussion is your children,” she said, “but it’s important to have good communication.”
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