When Americans first began sheltering in place, they likely planned for a difficult month ahead. They couldn't possibly have imagined then that now, six weeks into national lockdowns, society seems to be moving even farther from normalcy. Schools recently announced closures for the rest of the academic year, stay-at-home mandates continue to be pushed back by entire months, and families are expected to manage jobs without childcare for the unforeseeable future.
As parents have begun to process those short-term implications of COVID-19, they are now confronting more far-reaching concerns. When will schools reopen? How will our children catch up on all the education they missed? What will classrooms even look like when — or, quite possibly, if — they are back in session come fall?
There are, like most things related to coronavirus, no clear answers. But the one scenario most experts agree on is that we won't see a turnkey return to business as usual when September rolls around. Here's why.
The Best-Case Scenario Is the Least Likely to Work
At this point, many parents are holding out hope that they will be able to send their kids back to school in fall 2020. "That's the best-case scenario," said Jose Ferreira, the CEO of Bakpax, an app that uses AI to read handwriting and grade assignments in seconds. He's a Harvard Business alum who has worked in educational technology for more than 20 years and founded several adaptive learning platforms that are becoming all the more essential during this time of forced distance learning.
"Far from things returning to normal this fall, they may instead just keep getting worse."
If we are to go that route, however, he predicts it won't be long before we're forced to revert back to some form of distancing. "Schools may open their doors, but they will promptly have to shut them again if the coronavirus resurges — if students, staff, or parents start getting sick," he told POPSUGAR. "By many accounts, we'll be lucky to have a vaccine by summer 2021, and schools are about the most efficient way you can think of to spread disease rapidly within a population."
He gave an example: "Airports might be slightly riskier per capita — though any parent of a small child might disagree — but they've got nothing on schools when you consider the sheer number of people involved. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson is the world's busiest airport with 110,000 annual passengers. The Atlanta public school system, by no means the largest in the country, has half that number of students every day."
If schools reopen, infection rates may likely soar. "The problem isn't that they get snot on their hands and then accidentally wipe it on their friends, though, of course, with this population that actually is a problem," he said. "But the big problem is that these schools are going to be hotboxes of live virus."
New York Times science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr., whose theories on the coronavirus's effect on our children and on our society have been painfully accurate, warned that "if you open schools, the children may be fine, but the teachers won't necessarily be and the children's parents and grandparents won't be."
And because of that, Ferreira predicts that educators will demand an alternative.
"Teachers aren't paid nearly enough to risk their lives for their jobs, and many teachers are themselves from at-risk populations," he said. "If schools open this fall, you may see teachers refuse to work unless they can work remotely, which would force districts to keep operating at least partially remotely on an indefinite basis. Far from things returning to normal and getting back on track this fall, they may instead just keep getting worse."
Parents Should Prepare For Staggered Schedules
More realistic timelines are complicated with so little information. Government officials are going to have to make decisions on the state and local levels, which might mean kids in Ohio having a radically different school year than kids in Illinois or Montana or California.
McNeil said on a recent episode of the podcast The Daily that "mayors and governors are going to have to decide, 'You know, maybe we're going to open school for two weeks and see what happens,'" but he thinks it is more likely that there will be a more distance-minded transition period. "Maybe we're going to let half of the kids go to school this week — but have them sitting six feet apart — and next week, the other half of the kids get to come to school."
"Maybe we're going to let half of the kids go to school this week — but have them sitting six feet apart — and next week, the other half of the kids get to come to school."
In fact, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently said he might require schools to implement similarly staggered schedules, with some students coming in the morning and others in the afternoon. Students would not be able to congregate during mealtimes — which, for many schools, includes breakfast, lunch, and a snack — and other school activities that involve larger groups, such as assemblies, physical education, and recess would have to be reformed.
"We need to get our kids back to school, we need to get our kids educated, and we need to deal with kids' mental health and that of their parents," Newsom said in a press briefing. "But we need to do it in a safe way, so that kids are not going to school, getting infected, and coming back home and infecting Grandma and Grandpa. So we have to be very, very vigilant in that respect."
Still, the sheer semantics of this reopening plan are troubling to even those proposing it. Newsom remarked that "deep sanitation" and "massive deep cleaning" would be needed to disinfect schools and playgrounds.
"You'd have to thoroughly sterilize them every night," Ferreira said. "You may as well just buy every kid a Chromebook instead — it would be cheaper."
And beyond the financial burden, he believes it will have other negative side effects: "It's a logistical nightmare to make it work without extending the school day, which means teachers would be working a much longer day and will have to be paid more. I'm not really sure what problem this ultimately solves. All those kids would still be going to the same school each day, with live virus on every wall and in every classroom."
Students May Need to Prove Immunity
Still, Ferreira said, "there is a more optimistic worldview" that "school returns more or less to normal and stays that way," but that's if effective testing procedures are put into place by the fall.
"Look out for a surge in 'coronavirus parties' as parents who just can't take it anymore deliberately get their kids infected."
"The only way schools are going to open in a way that isn't totally disruptive is if we have a really easy and efficient COVID-19 testing program in place," he said, insinuating that just as students have been required to provide immunization records before enrolling in public schools, they might soon be required to somehow verify that they have COVID-19 immunity before being admitted into their classroom. "That would still be very complicated because it would mean that students who had tested positive could return to school and those who hadn't would continue to be homeschooled by their parents."
If this happens, he said, "look out for a surge in 'coronavirus parties' as parents who just can't take it anymore deliberately get their kids infected."
McNeil also sees this form of strategic self-infection — most recently seen with parents deliberately infecting their kids with chickenpox with the best of intentions that they emerge immune — as a real possibility for parents desperate to provide childcare for their children.
"That temptation is going to be enormous," McNeil said, noting this immunity-seeking behavior also took place in the years before the smallpox vaccine. Although there was only a one-percent risk of a child dying from this maneuver with smallpox, McNeil maintained it's "very dangerous" with the unclear nature of the coronavirus, in which it's still unverified how long immunity lasts. "We know that there are people who are more at risk, but we also know that it's unpredictable," he said. "Young, athletic, healthy people, totally unpredictably, end up on a ventilator, and a few of them die."
Families Should Brace For Disruptions Until Fall 2021
Because experts believe a vaccine won't be available for another 15 to 18 months at the earliest, "we should expect massive disruption to continue until the fall of 2021 or until there's a vaccine," Ferreira said.
And that goes beyond where children physically go for school each day. As severe as the childcare crisis working families are trying to resolve is the impact of this pandemic on student education.
"You can't skip the last quarter of sixth grade math and then just start seventh grade math as if nothing is amiss."
"The fundamental challenge is that a lot of kids are falling behind," Ferreira said, noting that the past month's hastily assembled virtual offerings are only scratching the surface of what's needed. "We're seeing widespread reports of districts that have made the rest of the school year pass-fail or optional. Many have dramatically slowed or simply stopped teaching anything new. One thing that's becoming obvious is that when kids go 'back to school' in the fall, many of them will be up to a third of the year behind where they should be. Since everyone is still putting out fires, they aren't really thinking about what that means. But when you stop and think about it, you realize it's going to cause some big problems. For one thing, there is no way schools can just skip over that material. You can't skip the last quarter of sixth grade math and then just start seventh grade math as if nothing is amiss."
And, again, this is looking at kids who are in their own best-case scenario, with necessary resources — including time, parental support, and devices — available to them.
"Wealthy districts have more technology in the school and the students have more technology at home, but then what about the poorer schools?" Ferreira said. "A lot of kids in underfunded schools don't have computers or iPads at home. They can't just join a Zoom or a Hangout. How are they learning anything right now? The answer is, a lot of them aren't. These students, who already struggle with a 'digital divide' versus their peers, are falling even further behind than they already were. These problems won't have been solved by back-to-school time." He said parents should expect this fall to be "a mess," even assuming the unlikely event that campuses can reopen and stay open.
Schools Will Need to Fill the Gaps
That being said, the eventual 2021-2022 school year — the time when Ferreira thinks school will begin to look recognizable to pre-coronavirus life — will be heavily shaped by what happens leading up to the 2020-2021 school year.
"Schools may suggest or demand some kind of required summer work, which would reduce the size of the learning gap," he advised. "Schools could make up ground in essential material by sacrificing some nonessential stuff. Surely we can afford to lose an elective here or there to make sure our kids don't do worse than they should on the SATs. They could try to cram extra material into the 2020-21 school year or just gloss over the missed material and leave it to teachers and students to fill in gaps as best they can in a totally ad hoc approach. The latter is by far the worst option, and I fear that, absent real leadership, it is also the most likely."
And although he maintains that marginalized communities have the most at stake, he doesn't see any school-age child as exempt from these problems.
"I'd love to tell you that your kid is the exception because of her grade level, school district, or sunny disposition," he said. "And, sure, if your children are in kindergarten or pre-K, they'll be just fine. But I think just about every student from 1st to 12th grade is going to feel some effect. If your kids have major standardized tests coming up in the next two to three years, I'd be especially focused on remediating any developing gaps in their math and verbal skills. And I know how unwelcome that news is."
Ferreira — who has three kids, ages 11, 12, and 13, at home — was careful not to suggest schools put more educational responsibility on parents, who have already been tasked with overseeing homeschooling for months. "It's not sustainable to expect this to continue long-term," he said. "Parents are going to pay less attention over time, if only out of sheer exhaustion."
How This Might Forever Change the Nature of School
Although there's little optimism for the school system in the coming months or even years, there could be some long-term benefits in all this tumultuous change.
"Right now, our society is frantically building infrastructure to offer courses online and will continue to build it for at least the next year," Ferreira said. "That infrastructure includes adopting new education technology tools, building classrooms on Google or Microsoft, using videoconferencing for classes . . . But it also includes new habits and culture. For education, not all infrastructure is physical — a lot is behavioral. Once all this new infrastructure is built, why would we throw it away?"
"This could be the biggest disruption that K-12 education has seen since the development of free and compulsory public education itself."
He continued: "Some kids — and their parents — are realizing they do better in virtual classes. It might be because they're bullied at school, or have special needs, or because they're introverted and are able to focus more at home. Parents are incredibly effective advocates for their kids. Some of these parents are going to demand that their kids be able to do more classes from home. In other cases, you've got kids who ought to be doing a grade level ahead in, say, math, and a grade behind in English. Our current system isn't flexible, but online classes make that easier. Or, in two years, if you're the principal at a school that only offers Spanish and French, and a kid really wants to learn Mandarin, how are you going to say no to a parent who found an online course for her child? Once all that infrastructure is built, people are going to insist that we keep using it. So, longer term, this could be the biggest disruption that K-12 education has seen since the development of free and compulsory public education itself."
The coronavirus is, in essence, forcing leaders to create a more resilient and flexible education system.
"Assuming that things don't quickly revert to normal after the crisis passes, we should have some lingering benefits that become permanent parts of the system," he said. "In the long run, yes, the disruption could be for the best."