'A lose-lose situation': Schools try to plan their reopening amid conflicting coronavirus guidelines

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

School leaders are being challenged to navigate different public health guidelines while also weighing risks associated with not reopening buildings, including students falling behind in learning. - JOSE F. MORENO/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — A month into planning what fall might look like for the 2,700 students in his Gloucester County school district, Jim Lavender tore through 104 pages of guidance from the New Jersey Department of Education.

By Wednesday, Lavender had spent days, nights, and a weekend scouring every page three times, trying to figure out how he could safely meet social distancing, masking, and health requirements — to say nothing of teaching and learning.

“It’s almost an untenable task,” said Lavender, superintendent of the Kingsway Regional School District.

After an abrupt transition this spring to virtual learning that left many students and families struggling, schools are trying to craft plans to reopen while navigating a series of questions that don’t have clear answers.

Will kids keep masks on? Should temperatures be checked? And how much distance should schools maintain between students, from classrooms to bus seats, if those requirements mean some students will have to stay home?

Agencies, researchers, and advocacy groups have weighed in on returning to school during the coronavirus outbreak, but the guidance sometimes conflicts. Experts say children are less likely to be severely impacted by the virus, and also less likely to spread it.

Yet the evidence isn’t uniform, and schools are staffed by adults — many of whom are older, more at risk of illness, and not all comfortable with returning. Reopening schools involves evaluating those risks and balancing them against the pitfalls and child-care complications that emerged during months of remote instruction that widened achievement gaps and challenged families.

Education officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as in some other states, have called for at least some in-person instruction, but haven’t mandated a specific approach, leaving the reopening decisions to local school leaders.

“It’s a lose-lose situation,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “Superintendents know that whatever they do, people are going to be unhappy, kids and staff are going to get sick. It’s going to be an incredible year, unfortunately.”

With easily more than a million students and parents waiting on their decisions, few schools in the area have finalized their plans; Philadelphia, like many districts, has said to expect guidance later this month. Administrators say they are weighing options and collecting feedback from parents, who often have widely differing views.

Teachers’ unions have also been surveying members, urging schools to commit to cleaning protocols and other measures. “Even once public health officials deem it safe to reopen, doing so without the necessary precautions could be deadly,” American Federation of Teachers officials wrote in their national reopening plan.

In a letter to families in his district last Monday, West Chester Area School District Superintendent Jim Scanlon noted that the Pennsylvania Department of Health had rules setting capacity at restaurants, but no similar requirements for schools. “As an educator who doesn’t have a medical background and is being asked to make significant public health decisions,” he wrote, “this is extremely frustrating.”

Pennsylvania schools learned Friday that the universal masking order put into place this week applies to children in school buildings. The Health Department said students who cannot wear masks due to medical conditions or disabilities are exempt — and masks can be removed if children are six feet apart.

Schools have received differing guidelines on spacing students. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, has called for schools to space students at least six feet apart “when feasible.”

Others suggest lesser distances may be safe. The American Academy of Pediatrics said that three-foot spacing “may approach” the benefits of six feet, “particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic.” Keeping children out of school, the group noted, makes it harder to spot other important issues for kids, including child abuse, substance use, and depression.

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David Rubin, director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab, said his group was sticking with the six-foot recommendation while acknowledging that some schools, particularly within cities, may not be able to accommodate that. “We recognize there is no one-size-fits-all solution here,” he said. “You’re really trying to protect the teacher and family members.”

Districts across the region have taken note of guidance from the Bucks County Health Department, which has told its schools that “six-foot distancing is not required for classroom seating” and that they should strive for a minimum spacing of three feet, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

New Jersey’s Education Department has said students should be spaced six feet apart, but the Kingsway superintendent noted the conflicting distance guidelines for other activities,

“Kids can’t sit less than six feet away from each other in math class, but they can put on a football helmet and play a contact sport in the fall?” Lavender said, referring to fall sports guidelines.

He isn’t yet sure how he will manage the state standards, including requirements that schools “visually check” students for symptoms when they come to school, or confirm with families that their children are symptom-free.

“You’re asking teachers and educators who are not medically trained to look for symptoms in children that are asymptomatic,” he said. “I’m just left kind of scratching my head on how we’re supposed to do this.”

Kingsway expects to release a plan by Aug. 1. Among its challenges is transportation. Lavender anticipates only 22 students will be able to ride a 54-passenger bus.

“I have a lot of kids who can’t get to school if there’s no bus,” he said.

And then there’s the cost: The national superintendents’ association has estimated that educating during the pandemic will cost districts an extra $480 per student, meaning millions tacked on to school budgets. Some federal aid is available, but superintendents say it’s not nearly enough.

In Lower Merion, administrators are telling parents to drive their children to school if possible, saying they can’t maintain social distancing on buses.

The district has been leaning toward bringing half its students to schools on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the others Thursdays and Fridays. Buildings would be cleaned on Wednesdays, with remote learning on days students are not in school.

Also under consideration is six-foot spacing, “which would take most classrooms down to about half their current number of students,” spokesperson Amy Buckman said.

West Chester has been considering bringing all students back to school buildings at the same time, keeping them at least three feet apart. In his letter last Monday — sent before Pennsylvania’s masking order — Scanlon said that students would be required to have a mask available “in case 3 feet separation can’t be maintained,” such as when a teacher approaches a student’s desk.

Bucks County’s health department had said last month that student masks in school “will be optional,” in part because children may use them improperly and touch their faces more frequently.

That ties back to social distancing. Given likely “imperfect compliance” with virus prevention measures, six feet between students “may be more appropriate” than three feet, according to a report by the Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

It also said that “dividing students into smaller groups” that don’t attend school full-time was “likely to substantially slow the rate of infection spread.”

Upper Darby administrators have four plans, two of which would divide the district’s 12,000 students into cohorts that would rotate between in-person and online learning for half or full days.

When the district started assessing the models, it had “very little guidance,” said Superintendent Dan McGarry. “Now you’re hearing doctors and people saying, ‘Get everybody back.’”

Still, McGarry isn’t sure what that changes for his district. Even spacing students three feet apart would be a challenge in the 3,800-student high school. Normally, 1,000 students rotate through its cafeteria at a time — well over Pennsylvania’s current limit on gatherings of 250.

Like others, Upper Darby is planning a virtual option for students this fall. Depending on how many students opt in, the district may reassign teachers to provide live, online lessons. But if not enough do so, students might be left to do remote work at their own pace — “not the best virtual learning environment,” McGarry said.

After the pandemic and the protests that swept the nation, as he and school leaders everywhere debate the logistics of reopening — What happens if a student won’t wear a mask? Will there be enough substitute teachers if staffing falls short? — McGarry knows this fall will be unlike any other.

The coronavirus “was real here. Social injustice has happened,” McGarry said. Schools “need to be equipped for both.”

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