By Deepthi Sathya
As the end of summer vacation draws near, many uncertainties remain for local leaders tasked to safely reopen schools, businesses, and other facilities. One thing we know for sure—school this fall will look very different than usual. Some schools are offering a blended in-person teaching schedule, where students can go to school in-person for a few days per week. However, this leaves many working parents concerned about child care options.
Teachers and administrators, on the other hand, are worried about the lack of funding in some schools, and how it will affect the availability of PPE to students. In a survey by the American Federation of Teachers, 1 in 4 educators were not comfortable with returning to school, even with safety precautions. A survey of parents found that two-thirds were reluctant to send their kids back to school this fall.
Yet, one of the biggest dilemmas that all school districts face is that while opening schools virtually is the best way to keep students safe, many are not benefitting from virtual learning. Younger students in elementary schools are less likely to have the capacity to pay full attention in virtual classes.
The Push to Reopen Schools
In May 2020, the House of Representatives passed the “Heroes Act” that allocated about $100 billion toward childcare and education. On July 27, the GOP introduced the “HEALS Act,” which would allocate $105 billion to funding education, $70 billion of which toward K-12 education. Most of this funding is only available to schools with plans to reopen, with at least minimal in-person instruction.
The Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is pushing for schools to reopen and resume in-person learning. While some state governments are deciding these plans, others are leaving the decision to school districts themselves. States like Florida, Texas, and Utah have decided on returning to school in-person this fall. However, states including New Jersey and North Carolina are pushing for a hybrid plan, with some days at school and some days at home.
Some colleges and universities have announced their decision to welcome students back to campus, while others, like Harvard University and the University of California system, have decided to stay online this fall semester. Many universities have a large population of international students, who may face a higher risk of contracting the virus due to excess travel. As such, many colleges have decided that e-learning is the best option to stop the spread of the virus.
Safety Considerations and PPE Needs
The CDC has recommended factors for school districts to consider as they start implementing reopening plans. Schools have a high risk of spreading the virus if they continue to offer full in-person classes, activities, and events. Students who are not distanced at least six feet apart, or with adequate safety measures, are at higher risk of getting infected. Some recommendations for schools as they decide on reopening this fall include:
- Stay home when appropriate
- Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette
- Cloth face coverings
- Signs and posters to educate students and parents
- Cleaning and disinfecting regularly
- Being aware of communal spaces and reducing contact in those environments
Another key consideration is the cost of obtaining an adequate amount of PPE for students and teachers. One doctor, Dr. Clark Godshall in Buffalo, NY, says that expenditure on PPE for each student will come to $400, considering masks, face shields, and cleaning supplies. The Schools Superintendents Association estimates that schools across the country will have to spend up to $25 billion on PPE and cleaning supplies to ensure maximum safety. Many districts are using collaborative bidding programs for PPE to secure affordable PPE in bulk. In Tennessee, about 27 million disposable face masks have been ordered for students as well as teachers. Schools are also in the process of replenishing hand sanitizers and other PPE.