Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Successful School Reopening Plans Will Have One Thing In Common

Plenty of folks have thoughts about the conditions under which schools should be opened. The CDC thinks desks should be six feet apart. The American Enterprise Institute suggests that districts might want to get all staff members over fifty-five to take early retirement. Senator Bill Cassidy has called for aggressive testing and contact tracing.

Over the next few months, we’ll see many plans floated for opening schools in the fall. The successful ones will have one thing in common.

They will be written—or at least co-written—by teachers.

Reopening schools will be the ultimate exercise in devil-concealing detail work. A recommendation like “put all student desks at least six feet apart” is easy to make, but it will take the people who actually know the configurations of rooms in the building to turn it into a workable plan

The plans will hinge on nitty-gritty details, not sweeping policy ideas. In a district with few students who walk to school, how do you get them to the building without stuffing them into a means of transportation? If you are, as some suggest, checking temperatures as they enter the building, how do you do it without creating a crowd outside? Where are the bottlenecks in your building, and how might scheduling help reduce them? If one source of bottlenecks is, in fact, the doorway into each classroom, how do you manage that traffic issue?

How will students move from class to class? How does an elementary teacher move a line of fifteen kids, all six feet apart, through the halls? In a high school, how do you dismiss different classes at different times without a crowd forming somewhere? The many detail question are all very specific to location, to student bodies, to staff.

What sorts of supplemental services will be needed, and which students are most likely to need them? How likely are local families to cooperate with health and safety measures, and how do you build trust with the community (some of those angry protestors you see on the news have children)? What physical objects pose a transfer threat (lab equipment, a single set of textbooks used by multiple classes, etc). These are not questions that anybody on the state or federal level can answer. 

There are issues that haven’t been fully thought through. AEI and Senator Cassidy have both, in their own way, considered the exposure of teachers to asymptomatic student carriers of the virus, and while that’s an important consideration, the transfer from student to student also seems concerning. Pat might pass the virus to the teacher, but Pat might also pass it to Chris, who will then take it home. 

Teachers can also point out that once you solve the policy and physical plant issues, you still have to face the human issues. You must somehow convince carefree seven-year-olds and rebellious sixteen-year-olds to go an entire day, every day, without hugging, kissing or contact playing with their friends. You must somehow create a school culture in which Rule #1 is to never be close enough to another person to touch them. Ask a teacher how difficult that will be, no matter how few students you allow in the building at a time.

Crisis schooling at home is not working for too many families, and reopening schools will present some nearly-insurmountable obstacles. It is time for policy makers, ed tech gurus, and bureaucrats to hand the problem over to the actual education experts in this country—public school teachers and administrators.


  1. The Dutch reopened schools May 11 with the recognition and acceptance that social distancing was not really possible and maybe not even desirable, nor do they wear masks (granted, they started with two days a week with half-class sizes) https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2020/05/30/how-dutch-schools-reopened-with-no-pupil-distancing-linda-van-druijten/

    That decision does not seem to have caused any spike in new cases or deaths, which in fact appear to still be going down substantially. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/netherlands/

    This country has had a rather impromptu experiment on the effects of not social distancing with the mass protests the past week or so. So far, we are also not seeing any major spiking, although our baseline rates still remain quite high. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/

    The next couple weeks will tell, of course, since it does take time for the virus to show up if people are infected. But if we don't see major spiking, and if rates continue to decline even as the country opens up, might it be possible that we would consider following the Dutch model? I personally hope so, because keeping children away from their friends and making everyone cover their faces sounds like a dreadful way to go to school.


  2. This is a problem with only one solution: an effective, mandatory vaccine.