Getting schools re-opened — lots of questions, almost no answers

If this were an academic test we were taking we would be on the verge of failing miserably, with the clock on the wall showing we are running out of time.

The hardest dilemma to resolve as we collectively live with and work through the pandemic is the question of how best to get schools reopened for the country’s 56.6 million students. This post offers no magic solutions, just an attempt to focus on what needs to be put together to get the education system up and running again over the next six to twelve months.

We all collectively start with the propositions that it is essential for the educational, mental health and social benefit of students that schools get re-opened as soon as possible; and that the safety of students, faculty, staff and parents is vital. That will be much easier said than done.

Donald Trump and his supporters say just do it. In a CNN interview this past Sunday Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered incredible gibberish, endlessly repeating her prepared talking points while demonstrating that she has no plans, guidelines or suggestions for how to navigate the this critical matter. Trump wannabee/Florida Governor Ron DeSantis meanwhile suggests that there is no more a problem with getting schools re-opened than it is to go shopping at Home Depot.

Think about that for moment. The person with the highest ranking position in education in this country is basically saying “take a risk, good luck, and don’t blame me if your efforts fail.” She is comfortable with risking the health and well-being of students and the adults involved in the educational system. The go-along Florida Governor’s whole approach to the pandemic has been totally clueless.

Overshadowing all this are guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control which the Trump administration says they will dummy down. That does not really matter, because the CDC in this whole pandemic crisis has become effectively ineffective. At the end of the day whatever Trump and DeVos say is irrelevant. All important decisions about reopening schools will be made at the local level, right down to the kitchen tables of families who have school-age children.

There is a wide range of options for re-opening schools, each with multiple variations, including:
• The idea of dividing a school’s population in half in some manner and then splitting the instruction week of the two groups is a common suggestion. This could be achieved by doing half day sessions or by alternating days in school. That could mean that teachers would be teaching the same material twice in a week, which would then considerably impact and diminish the work that can be covered.
• Offering a hybrid approach of having students attend in person for half a week and then getting online instruction for the remainder of the week, with one half of the students present at school on any given day. That could avoid the teaching-twice problem.
• Totally online instructions through at least the end of the year. That would mean school districts would need to guarantee that all students had computer and internet access, an issue that was not satisfactorily resolved in the recent March through June period.
Then there is the question of child care, as parents of school age children return to their jobs, perhaps with some staggered arrangements for them as well.

There are a lot of numbers thrown around these days speculating on all sorts of things that are complicating our lives. That being said I will with proper skepticism pass on some numbers that I recently came across about the costs that a moderately sized school system might need to spend to put proper precautions in place to re-open school.

The numbers, taken from the Association of School Building Officials, suggest the following additional cost considerations for a school district with approximately 3,600 students and eight separate facilities, so scale these numbers up or down depending on the size of a school district you are focusing on.

The financial issues, which are also operational issues, include:
• $116,950 for various sanitizers and disinfection of classrooms other facilities
• $66,394 for sanitizing buses
• $194,045 for various PPE supplies
• $448,000 for additional custodial staff for the buildings and buses
• $400,000 to provide at least one nurse in every public school
• $384,000 to provide one aide per school bus to screen students before boarding
• $168,750 for before and after-school programs with social distancing

The total for all these activities is $1,778,139. I’ve had some direct experience in operational management of a school. The above numbers would probably be higher.

All this begs the question of school system funding. Will there be more federal aid? How big a cut in aid will be passed down from the state? What about raising property taxes? All important questions, all without answers at this time.

There are a multitude of operational questions that must be resolved on a state, or district, or building basis about things like how far should you or can you separate children in their classrooms? What about on buses? What about barriers for teachers and staff? Mandatory masks for everyone? Can the schools even acquire sufficient PPE? When/where will children get their meals and snacks? How will children who depend on schools for their daily sustenance get fed on days when they are not in attendance? How are bathroom use issues going to be resolved? What do you do with social activities and athletic programs?

Will you be able to recruit additional personnel for the cleaning and separation issues and bus driving? What if current teachers who are over 60 or have underlying medical issues decline to come in for face-to-face teaching?

Then there is the issue no one has an answer for at the moment: what happens if one or more students, teachers, staff or parents contract the virus? What process will the school use for tracing if someone tests positive for COVID-19?  Does the infected person quarantine for two weeks? Does the affected classroom quarantine for two weeks? Or might a whole school need to be quarantined for two weeks?

All of these things also apply to re-opening colleges and universities. It has been suggested that college campuses, which thrive on social interaction, are the on-shore younger-set version of a cruise ship, a veritable petri dish for the virus.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), American Association of School Administrators (AASA), and the School Superintendents Association have weighed in on the issue at hand. “Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”

At the end of the day, it does not matter what Donald Trump pontificates about or what Andrew Cuomo decrees. The answers to all these questions will evolve through trial and error in the thousands of schools districts and institutions of higher education throughout the country. As Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, “it’s not going to be easy because we’ve never done it before.” Yes, indeed.

4 thoughts on “Getting schools re-opened — lots of questions, almost no answers

  1. This post is the most detailed analysis I’ve read. And so scary. It’s more than infuriating to know that we could be in such a different place as a country if there had been leadership from the beginning in getting the pandemic under control. I hope you and your family are well. Everyone in my world is still basically self-isolating, though brother Bill drove to Buffalo to visit people. My trip to Sicily, which has been in the works since mom died 10 yrs ago, was of course canceled.

    Thank you for this analysis.

    Rosemary

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  2. This whole thing is ridiculous. First off the number of cases is increasing but the number of people experiencing symptoms and the deaths are dropping to be no greater than the yearly flu. We are reaching herd immunity. Second, there are no documented cases of children getting the Chinese Wuhan Bat Flu Stew and there are no documented cases of children passing this illness to adults. If there are cases, then they are very small. Third, who is going to pay for all these things the School Bureaucracy and the Teachers Union want because I sure as heck done want them send me a letter to pay more in school taxes. Those teachers and Administrators can either show up for work or look for another job but don’t expect more money from me or anyone one else that doesn’t have spare thousands of dollars they can allocate to increased taxes. There aren’t a lot of questions if you tell these spoiled government employees to return to work or their fired. Fourth, there will never be a cure for the Chinese Wuhan Bat Flu Stew because its a form of Influenza and as we all know Influenza mutates every year…and every year we get a new strain so you better get used to it and deal with it…with or without masks…because nothing is going to get shut down a second time. The damage to children and to unemployed adults and to people suffering from closed hospitals and bankrupt businesses is far worse death toll than can happen from Wuhan Influenza or any Influenza. Seriously…this constant fear mongering just to try to run up the democrats poll numbers (by influencing people to think Biden would handle it better than Trump) is turning everyday people into Nazi collaborators and vigliantes trying to self enforce other peoples behavior.

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  3. Interesting how no one needs a mask to create an autonomous zone and declare independence in Seattle and Minnesota from the US. Interesting how no one needs a mask or special needs to riot, to murder, the commit arson, to act acts of violence but we sure as heck are willing to shut down the economy, bankrupt your business, evict you from your apartment, keep you from church, force you to be unemployed…while govt workers and teachers get full pay and benefits then demand millions in order to agree to go back to work. If there is one standard for rioters and protesters…and another standard for law abiding citizens then there is something wrong with our society. Go back to work or you get no federal funds for education. Go back to work and dont ask us taxpayers to increase our taxes for your pointless demands

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  4. So 80 infants under 1 year old in Texas tested positive for covid 19. Huh.
    I am so grateful I don’t have a school aged child, I have no idea what I would do. We have such a lack of understanding of this virus. Who can say with any certainty that those infected and recovered won’t have health problems later in life? Think papillomavirus. Twenty years later we find out it can cause cervical cancer.
    Like it or not our governor has done a good job of following the science and flattening the curve while other states are spiking badly.

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