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What schools will look like when they reopen: Scheduled days home, more online learning, lots of hand-washing

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What schools will look like when they reopen: Scheduled days home, more online learning, lots of hand-washing

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If school has been canceled and you’re stuck at home with the kids, you can still help them learn valuable lessons even if you’re not an expert.

USA TODAY

Imagine, for a moment, American children returning to school this fall.

The school week looks vastly different, with most students attending school two or three days a week and doing the rest of their learning at home. At school, desks are spaced apart to discourage touching. Some classrooms extend into unused gymnasiums, libraries or art rooms – left vacant while schools put on hold activities that cram lots of children together.

Arrival, dismissal and recess happen on staggered schedules and through specific doors to promote physical distancing. Students eat lunch at their desks. Children learn with the same peers every day – or teachers move around while students stay put – to discourage mingling with new groups.

Teachers and other education staff at higher risk of contracting the virus continue to teach from home, while younger or healthier educators teach in-person. 

Everyone washes their hands. A lot.

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Frequently touched school surfaces get wiped down. A lot.

That outline of a potential school day was drawn from interviews with more than 20 education leaders determining what reopened schools might look like come fall. New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports those plans and more: Teachers and older students should wear masks, especially when they have to interact in close quarters.

In the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, social distancing and hygiene will be important to limit spreading the virus. The question is how to successfully implement those measures in schools usually filled with crowded hallways, class sizes of more than 30 people and lunchrooms of hundreds. 

“The whole thing is overwhelming,” said Dan Weisberg, a former district official and the head of TNTP, a nonprofit formerly known as The New Teacher Project that helps districts recruit and hire more effective teachers.

“This is where federal dollars could help,” Weisberg said. “This is where state guidance could help. This is where galvanizing people behind the idea on how to plan for next year could help.”

When will schools reopen?Not soon, education leaders say, despite Trump’s declarations

The new CDC guidance on reopening the economy, a 60-page document released in the third week of May, recommends that schools place desks six feet apart, serve lunch in classrooms, close playgrounds, keep children in the same groups every day and cancel field trips and extracurricular activities. It also recommends daily health checks and temperature screenings of staff and students daily, if feasible.

Baby steps toward reopening

A few U.S. schools have cautiously returned to in-person instruction.

In California’s Marin County, three school buildings opened May 18 to serve the most needy students: those with disabilities, and those who had fallen off track in high school and were not participating remotely.

Teachers wearing masks worked with eight cohorts of 12 students across the three schools, officials said. Students washed their hands on arrival, and tape marks in classrooms reminded some to keep their distance. New cellphone sign-in systems track who comes in and out, which means contact tracing can begin promptly if an infection is detected.

In Montana, 11 schools reopened after Gov. Steve Bullock turned such decisions over to districts this month. 

Willow Creek School, located 40 miles west of Bozeman, reopened on May 7. The tiny K-12 school enrolls 56 students; only 37 returned for in-person instruction. 

On a recent afternoon, teachers supervised recess while wearing cloth face masks and holding 6-foot pool noodles. When recess ended, students lined up on orange circles spray-painted on the sidewalk at evenly marked intervals. As the line moved inside, each student was met at the door with a squirt of hand sanitizer.  

The school has implemented staggered schedules and separated desks. Younger students walk through hallways holding hula-hoops to prevent them from touching things. 

‘Economics will drive choices’

Reopening schools is critical to fully bring back the economy. More parents can work when their children are in school. Just as important: Many kids aren’t learning much at home. Those learning the least are students who lack devices and internet access.

‘Historic academic regression’: Why homeschooling is so hard amid school closures

Bringing kids back to school presents major worries about health, not so much for children – who seem to be less at risk for getting sick – but fortheir teachers and parents. Preliminary research has shown that children can carry and transmit the virus without showing symptoms themselves. 

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With the majority of schools closed for the year, students and their families try to create a home learning schedule that works for themselves.

USA TODAY

Many school buildings lack the space to keep children a recommended six feet apart. That’s why education leaders foresee a need to continue virtual learning, with kids attending school in person on alternating days or weeks.

And that’s only the start. Districts also must figure out food service, especially for the 52% of students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches and depend on those meals. Schools must provide enough qualified staff to teach students in smaller groups. They must provide emotional support to staff and students. And they need to develop measures to help catch up children who have fallen the farthest behind.

Then schools have to figure out how to pay for it all.

“Economics will drive the choices districts make,” said Marguerite Roza, a professor and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.

Superintendents from 62 of the country’s largest school districts have called on Congress to provide about $200 billion more in educational stabilization funds.

“Not only are we going to be faced in the fall with a shortfall of revenues, but we’ll have to be spending considerably more on transportation, on masks, on cleaning, on additional bus routes,” said Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large, urban public school systems.

Burdens of meal distribution

Schools have become a key resource for families needing food assistance, which will likely continue no matter what schooling scenario takes shape.

Many districts have lost money because they’re providing meals to needy adults as well as children, and they can only claim reimbursement from the federal government for student meals.

Without a federal bailout, school food programs will be forced to make cuts, meaning there may be fewer cafeteria workers to prepare meals. Schools will also have to figure out how to prepare and serve foods in buildings while adhering to social distancing measures.

“Most of our school nutrition directors have been working through their (non-perishable) inventory to make sure nothing is wasted,”  said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the nonprofit School Nutrition Association, “but that means that when they get back to school they won’t have any reserves.” 

Skylar Rispens with the Great Falls Tribune and Daphne Duret with the USA TODAY Network contributed to this report.

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2020/05/28/Pandemic Protocol-schools-reopen-online-homeschool/5194480002/

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