Rumor has it that the Delaware public schools will fully reopen at some point, with real life interaction between teachers and students, school sports, and lots of other neat stuff. But the timing and details remain under discussion, and don’t expect things will be back to anything approaching “normal” for a while.
This subject is of particular interest as three of our grandchildren are affected, two 9th graders and a 4th grader. There are no clear-cut answers, but on balance my sense is that they need the stimulation and social interactions that are involved in attending school. And more generally, I’m convinced that the reasons for sending children back to school – not just virtually but physically – outweigh the risks involved.
In a nutshell, school age children are far less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19 than their elders, there are offsetting health and social risks from keeping the children at home, and virtual instruction hasn’t proven effective. No wonder so many European countries closed their schools initially, but have since reopened them using a variety of approaches – including several countries that have experienced overall incidence rates for the disease comparable to the US experience. Why it’s (mostly) safe to reopen the schools, Avik Roy, Wall Street Journal, 8/7/20.
Iceland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Germany, Finland, France and Sweden reopened schools in April and May, and their experience has been largely positive. Every European country that reopened schools in the spring plans to start the fall school year on time.
Contrast this record with what’s been going on in the US, and in particular here in Delaware. Rather than starting with the premise that reopening the schools is desirable and the question is how to minimize the risks involved, the burden has been placed on proponents of school reopening to prove that this course of action should be followed rather than waiting until a 100% effective vaccine is developed (a highly unlikely development) or whatever.
For months after the Delaware schools were closed in mid-March, state officials and other interested parties engaged in extensive review and discussion of “how do we safely return students and educators to Delaware classrooms?” The result was a 40-page pamphlet issued by the state Department of Education (DOE), which detailed recommended practices for three alternative scenarios; (1) minimal community spread, (2) minimal-to-moderate community spread, and (3) significant community spread.
Reopening of school buildings for in-person instruction was only clearly accepted in the lowest risk scenario. Delaware was said to be experiencing “minimal-to-moderate community spread as of July 2020, however, and judgment was withheld as whether or when the reopening of school buildings would be permissible.
At a later date, Governor Carney, in consultation with [Department of Public Health], will announce his decision on whether or not schools will start the year in person. Districts and charters will then implement their plans based on the scenario that aligns with current health conditions, understanding there may be some regional variability. The DOE pamphlet provides ample detail about precautions to be taken in allowing access to schools and the use of school buses to get there – which are basically the same for scenarios 1 and 2. COVID testing – daily self-evaluations of students and teachers – social distancing (ideally 6 feet, but at least 3 feet) – wearing of masks – handwashing – cleaning of facilities – emotional health and well-being (basically focused on anxieties of children returning to schools versus anxieties related to being cooped up at home). There was also a lengthy section concerning educational equity planning and monitoring. As for how on-line learning and classroom instruction should be combined in a hybrid learning mode, it didn’t seem that any definitive conclusions had been reached. In short, the DOE study focused on identifying practices to be avoided (further differentiated between “should nots” and “must nots”) versus on providing positive guidance on how to get the schools reopened. Governor John Carney confirmed in early August that the minimal-to-moderate community spread scenario was in effect, meaning that schools should “use a hybrid model of remote learning and in-person learning options with precautions in place.” But it still wasn’t clear how such a hybrid model might operate.
“Hybrid learning may look different across each district, charter or private school,” but “the safety of all of Delaware’s students, educators and staff will be our top priority.” And many thanks to all for working so hard to help devise this “science-based” approach.
Meanwhile, what had the school administrators who actually run the schools on a day-to-day basis been doing? Many of them were probably marking time while awaiting guidance from state government. Thus, the Brandywine School District (where two of our grandchildren go) delayed the school opening date until September 16 (with some fancy footwork to avoid adding makeup days at the end of the school year) on grounds that they couldn’t complete their own plans without a basic decision from the state.
About two weeks after the governor’s decision, BSD announced that all schools in the district would operate on an all remote learning basis through the end of the first marking period (November 6). Although about half of the parents had expressed a preference for classroom instruction, it had been concluded – after considering the DOE requirements for social distancing in school buildings and on school buses – that a hybrid model wasn’t feasible.
Simply put, BSD would need more physical classrooms and more teachers in order to make any kind of in-person instruction work at this time. As much as we tried, we could not accommodate the number of requests for in-person learning within the mandated restrictions. As a consolation prize, it was promised that the remote learning programs would be improved over those that had been in use in the spring and also that, as the first marking period progressed, “we will slowly begin to bring small cohorts into the buildings to receive specialized support.” Many other school districts and charter schools reopened with an all remote learning approach in September, subject to reconsideration as the school year progresses. See, e.g., Colonial School District changes course, drops fall in-person learning, Natalia Almadari, News Journal, 8/15/20.
Delaware did leave room for experimentation, however, and some schools may move a bit more quickly. Catholic schools, for example, developed approaches calling for a quick return to in-person instruction in some cases (notably younger students) and a hybrid approach in others.
Thus, St. Marks High School, where one of our grandchildren is a freshman this fall, reopened during the week of August 24. The instruction will be basically 50% classroom/ 50% virtual, with students alternately attending or participating remotely. This arrangement will facilitate social distancing, yet maintain the experience of live classroom participation. And it’s planned to review the situation in mid-October with a view to determining the feasibility of a full return to classroom instruction. All things considered, I’m skeptical of the claim that Delaware’s cautious approach to school reopening is “science-based.” More likely it’s based on political considerations, e.g., trying to please as many people as possible without unduly upsetting others. Look for the pace of school reopening to pick up after the November elections.