by Caroline Bottger
The debate over reopening schools amidst the coronavirus pandemic continues. The public is, in a word, nervous: According to a recent AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll, 56 percent of Americans are very or extremely concerned that reopening schools will cause a surge in COVID-19 cases. Furthermore, 46 percent of respondents said that “major modifications” will be needed in order to reopen schools for kids to attend in person. Here’s where the discussion stands, and what schools are exploring right now.
Parents, many who have been juggling work and childcare, seem accepting of later reopening: 56 percent said they would prefer opening schools later to prevent infection risk, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Teachers are wary of opening at all: according to a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll from May, one in five teachers said they are “unlikely” to return to their schools if they are reopened. Mark Weber, a music teacher in New Jersey, said that the cramped design of many U.S. schools makes social distancing nigh on impossible: “Expecting every student and staff member to maintain a three-foot bubble around themselves is not realistic given the way most school buildings are laid out.”
As for safety measures, face masks are a given, but schools are considering additional options. At the top of the list of measures in the AP/NORC poll is daily disinfecting of high-touch areas. Industry-grade disinfection companies are in high demand: in early July, San Diego-based disinfecting firm Hygienica secured $1 million in first-round funding. Cities across the world have also adopted the measure too. But there are critics of a disinfection-centric approach. Writing in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson reminded readers that coronavirus is an airborne threat, and that surface transmission has not been found to be a significant spreader.
Another measure is ‘cohorting.’ This is a method of separating students into smaller groups to limit exposure to the entire student body. For example, the Batavia school district in Batavia, NY is proposing five groups: two cohorts which attend school in person two days a week and switch off with each other, one cohort taking technical certifications, one cohort of students with special needs who will attend school in person every day, and one completely virtual cohort.
But as any parent knows, school isn’t the only place their kids go everyday. “Since students are humans and have lives outside of school, how are their outside-of-school lives going to affect the safety of themselves, their classmates?” asked Hayley Breden, a social studies teacher in Denver, CO. Interestingly, cancelling extracurricular activities was at the bottom of the list of safety measures in the AP poll.
Schools themselves are under pressure to reopen. The Trump administration has threatened to cut federal funding if schools don’t open, but critics doubt the federal government has that kind of power. The CDC is also encouraging schools to open, while emphasizing the importance of safety measures. Ultimately, like much of the U.S. response to the coronavirus, it will be up to the individual states and school districts to determine the best way forward.