Reopening Rollercoaster: Stay Open, Go Home, Come Back?

(Image credit: Unsplash: Kelly Sikkema)

As coronavirus cases surge across the U.S., school districts have had to respond quickly to local outbreaks. Approaches range from going completely virtual through the end of the calendar year to only closing affected schools and grades to shutting down for a few days and reopening for certain students, particularly those with special needs.

In New York City Public Schools, the nation’s largest school district, it was announced in mid-November that all schools were being closed and instruction would be fully virtual. Then this past week, the district reversed course of sorts, deciding that students in pre-K and elementary grades would return to in-person classes starting on Dec. 7. Currently, almost 335,000 students are in hybrid learning, according to The New York Times, and rather than shuttering all schools if the Covid test positivity rate exceeds 3%, only those buildings with multiple confirmed cases would be closed.

This mirrors the approach some districts are taking in only bringing back younger students because there’s a growing consensus that in-person classes are safer for them and more crucial to their development, according to the Hartford Courant. Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are among the districts currently planning to first bring back the youngest students when schools are eventually reopened.

Baltimore City Public Schools started the year virtually and reopened 27 of its schools on Nov. 16 to provide in-person instruction for nearly 1,200 students who are academically at risk, The Times also reported. The move has stirred tensions between the city’s teachers’ union, education leaders, and parents amid questions about student success being tied to in-person classes and the effort to keep students and teachers healthy.

Many districts are using the upcoming holiday break as an opportunity to reset learning environments or implement new school schedules and reopening options.

Jackson Public Schools in Mississippi recently announced its Smart Restart plan, which is set to start in January after the holiday break. The district will resume classes virtually starting Jan. 5, and after a two-week self-quarantine period, students who opt to do so will return to in-person classes on or after Jan. 19. Elementary students will have in-person, traditional instruction Monday-Friday with appropriate social distancing and enhanced cleaning, while middle and high school students will have the option to participate in a hybrid instruction program on alternating days to allow for better social distancing and enhanced cleaning.

The School District of Osceola County, Florida, is offering its Ready. Set. RESTART! plan for the spring semester. In it, parents have three options: face-to-face instruction with comprehensive health and safety precautions in place; digital learning following a traditional school day schedule (although students who were digital learners for first semester will be required to have earned letter grades of A, B, or C in all classes, have a 90% attendance record, and be at grade-level proficiency on standardized assessments); or virtual learning through Osceola Virtual School, which allows for learning during non-traditional school hours. 

Ultimately, every district’s plan is subject to change as the only certain thing during the pandemic has been constant uncertainty.

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.