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What Back to School Might Look Like in the Age of Covid-19

socially distanced kids

What Back to School Might
Look Like in the Age of Covid-19

An illustrated guide to how schools will try to control the coronavirus when students return to their classrooms, this fall or in the future.

A typical American school day requires proximity: High school lab partners leaning over a vial. Kindergarten students sharing finger paints. Middle schoolers passing snacks around a cafeteria table.

This year, nothing about school will be typical. Many of the nation’s largest districts plan to start the academic year online, and it is unclear when students and teachers will be back in classrooms. Others plan hybrid models, while some are determined to go five days a week.

When school buildings do reopen, whether this fall or next year, buses, hallways, cafeterias and classrooms will need to look very different as long as the coronavirus remains a threat. Even teaching, which has evolved in recent decades to emphasize fewer lectures and more collaborative lessons, must change.

“This is the biggest adaptive challenge in my career, and in the history of public education,” said Cindy Marten, superintendent of the San Diego public schools.

Education decisions are largely made at the local level, and leaders are relying on a host of conflicting federal, state and public health guidelines. There is still considerable uncertainty and debate over how easily children of different ages contract and spread the virus, and whether some of the recommended safety guidelines would help or are even necessary.

As a result, schools are adopting a wide range of approaches for the pandemic era. But those recommendations largely agree on at least some adaptations, and they all come down to eliminating one factor: proximity.

Riding the Bus

For about half of American students, the school day typically begins with a bus trip.

For many districts, getting children to school will be one of the most difficult logistical challenges during the pandemic. Parents will be asked to consider whether they can arrange other forms of transportation, like dropping their children off or arranging car pools.


Families should not cluster at the bus stop, as they might have in the past. And parents will be told: Do not send children to school if they have a fever, cough or other symptoms.


In non-pandemic times, a typical bus might carry 54 children.


Enforce strict social distancing guidelines of six feet, and you’re down to eight.


Some state guidelines sketch an alternative scenario in which masked students sit in a zigzag pattern to allow more on board.


Options are expensive. Schools in Marietta, Ga., plan to spend $640,000 to hire 55 monitors to check students’ symptoms before they board. Dundee, Mich., expects to spend over $300,000 to add routes. In Odessa, Texas, there are plans for buses to run on continuous routes, like city transit, with students arriving and leaving school at staggered times.

Entering the Building

When students arrive at school, most will be checked to see if they are running a temperature or showing other symptoms. If adults are dropping off children, they will likely remain behind a barrier.

Public health experts agree that a key step in keeping the coronavirus out of schools will be limiting the number of visitors inside.

Temperature checks run the risk of missing asymptomatic or atypical coronavirus cases, raising false alarms about ordinary illnesses and taking up valuable time that students could spend learning. Nevertheless, most districts plan them.

About 60 percent of American schools did not have full-time nurses on site in 2018, but many are hoping for additional federal stimulus money to rectify that amid the pandemic.

Students who fail the symptom check should be isolated while they await a caretaker to pick them up, guidelines say. Doing so may require real-estate-strapped schools to designate both safe indoor and outdoor locations to hold ill and potentially contagious children.

In Elementary School Classrooms

Young children may be the hardest to keep apart, given their frenetic energy, need for hands-on play and affectionate nature. And most guidelines acknowledge that it is not realistic to expect them to wear masks all day.


Many schools will try to keep students in pods by limiting class sizes to about 12 students and by reducing interaction between classrooms. That way, they can avoid shutting down entirely if a single pod has a positive case.


Some schools will use X’s to indicate where students should sit for story time.

Some guidelines suggest clear face shields as an alternative to masks for teachers. Seeing an adult’s mouth move helps children understand the connections between spoken sounds and the written word — a key concept in early reading.


Two students may sit at tables usually used by four or six, with individual boxes of materials that are typically shared, like art supplies — an expense that schools, teachers or families will have to bear.

Many schools plan to repurpose large spaces, like gyms and cafeterias, for socially distanced academic work. Students will eat in their classrooms, either bringing food from home or receiving a boxed lunch. No buffet lines.


Districts are investing heavily in cleaning and hygiene supplies, such as hand sanitizer and portable air filters. Adults will disinfect surfaces several times a day. Federal guidelines recommend that soft toys that cannot be easily cleaned, like stuffed animals, stay off limits.

Teachers, who are likely at greater risk from the virus than most young students, typically come into contact with many people in the course of their daily work: children, parents, other educators. To help reduce risk, staff planning meetings and parent-teacher conferences can be held remotely.

But many educators, like those who work with children with special needs, are stationed inside classrooms with other teachers, where they must attend to students in a hands-on way. Text messaging or in-ear communication within the classroom may help, with masks to provide protection.

Teachers will be encouraged to keep classroom windows open to promote air circulation. Some districts are upgrading heating and cooling systems to install filtration features, a much more expensive fix.

Moving instruction outdoors when possible would be one way to reduce the risk of airborne transmission of the virus. In Marietta, some elementary school students will bring their own folding lawn chairs to class. Athletics and singing are activities that, if they occur at all, should be done in the open air, experts say.

In Middle and High Schools

Older students typically move between classrooms during the day for different subjects. Instead, health guidelines call for them to remain in self-contained pods to the greatest extent possible. Schools will have to figure out another way to deliver an individualized curriculum.


Teenagers may be more at risk from the coronavirus than younger children are, recent research suggests, so physical distancing will be more important with this age group. Some districts are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on plexiglass desk dividers for classrooms in which students cannot stay six feet apart.


Some students could be remote learning even while in class. An algebra lesson could be taught at the front of the room, while those who have moved onto pre-calculus use laptops to participate in an online lesson in the back.


Schools are not planning to follow a traditional bell schedule. Instead, individual pods of students will travel through unidirectional hallways at specific times, including, in some cases, for prescheduled bathroom breaks.

Teachers who have adopted a more project-based style say they do not want to spend the whole year delivering lectures. To get around that, group work could be done online from home, with teachers focused on introducing concepts and answering questions while in the classroom.

In some countries that have reopened schools using similar guidelines, distancing measures have been relaxed within months as infection numbers have remained low. The United States is different from much of the world because some schools are trying to reopen while infections are still high in their communities.

Dr. Ronald E. Dahl, an expert on adolescent health and development at the University of California, Berkeley, suggested that a key factor in making the reconfigured school day work would be for students to feel invested. To accomplish that, teachers could engage them in group discussions about the science of the virus and the importance of physical distancing, and brainstorm ways of enforcing new social norms among peers.

“It will be very challenging,” Dr. Dahl acknowledged, given the natural desire of children and teenagers to interact with one another, jostling, teasing, flirting and pushing boundaries. But young people also have a strong sense of right and wrong, he said, and are motivated to help others, which could inspire them to embrace rules that keep their friends and teachers healthy.

If the new practices “honor their desire to be respected and admired,” Dr. Dahl said, “young people can shift their behavior quickly.”

 July 29, 2020

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