Every aspect of how children learn is being discussed right now, as public and private schools across the nation try to figure out how to safely get children back in the classroom. And it seems, the devil is entirely in the details.
What will education look like this fall? The answer is complicated.
Colleges are slowly coming up with plans, but school districts across the country are talking it out and discovering there's no easy answer.
Music Watson, Chief of Staff for the San Diego County, California, Office of Education, said, “We’re looking at things like how do you physical distancing in a classroom? If students need to be 6 feet apart or can they be closer if they’re facing the same direction or if you add some shields or use a space that’s not traditionally a classroom like a library, could you have a class in there?”
Most county offices like hers are an intermediary between local school districts and the state. They're now discussing new guidance from public health officials and from the California Department of Education, and they're trying to interpret that for local school districts.
“Like symptom screening seems like a pretty easy thing, right. You come to school. You answer questions, get your temperature taken and go in,” Watson said, “except if you have a school with a thousand kids and you need to screen every single one. There’s a lot of logistics involved with that.”
For symptom screening, you'll need thermometers, a way to record information, and a way to keep students apart. On buses, if you're distancing, then you're reconfiguring how many students can be on that bus at a time.
“This is a huge, multi-faceted problem and so we can’t just do it on our own. We have to get employee associations, labor groups, parents involved,” Watson said. “We have to work with public health. We can’t do it on our own.”
The California Department of Public Health is handing out more than 47,000 thermometers, 2 million face shields, 143,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, 123,000 N95 masks, 16 million disposable masks, and 14 million cloth face coverings for staff and students. All of those will be distributed statewide.
At the Lakeland School System in Memphis, Tennessee, Superintendent Dr. Ted Horrell said those face coverings “may be the 2020 equivalent of ‘I forgot my pencil’ and the teacher comes up with a pencil.”
Which means, schools have to be ready for that. Lakeland Schools are already installing plexiglass shields in reception areas and putting hand-sanitizing stations in every classroom. The district is getting Chromebooks ready in case there's a need to do distance learning entirely.
Everyone wants a safe environment and there's still a lot of unknowns. When asked about a harsher cold and flu season and whether schools will be shut down again in the fall, Watson said, "It’s entirely possible that if we see a surge, that schools may need to go back to distance learning or may need to take some other tools out of their toolbox, which is why it’s important now to plan for every possibility, because it is much easier to start at 100 and ramp down to 70 and then go back to 85 than start at 70 and then go back to 100.”
All of these decisions are difficult for everyone, and it seems there's no middle ground. Many districts across the nation are sending out surveys asking for feedback about returning to school or doing a hybrid model. In areas without connectivity, parents may receive a physical handout. And, at the end of the day, educators want kids at school, but they won't do it until they know the nation's children are safe.
“Have a little grace. We’re all doing the best we can, but things are changing quickly, new guidance continues to come out and some of this will change and we have to be flexible and have a little grace, because we’re all in this together and all trying to make it through,” Watson said.