For Schools, the List of Obstacles Grows and Grows

The pandemic creates countless new challenges—but also the chance to educate some students better than ever before.

Students playing outside of reopened schools in Paris on May 14
Students playing outside of reopened schools in Paris on May 14 (FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

As schools around the world cautiously reopen, we in the United States are seeing an unsettling glimpse of our future. Some images filtering in from other countries are deeply depressing (French children cordoned off in white squares on a playground) while others evoke wary amusement (Chinese children in masks and handmade propeller beanies with four-foot wingspans). A few are actually inspiring (an outdoor music class in Denmark). Adults are now debating how and when American schools can safely reopen. What’s clear is that the educational landscape has incalculably changed, and not only in ways obvious from photographs.

To prevent the erosion of emotional and academic growth, especially in vulnerable children for whom school can be a lifeline, educators in the U.S. urgently need imaginative strategies that go beyond quirky hats and four-foot-square boxes. When children do return, K–12 schools and child-care programs should be guided by four core principles: knowledge of child development and all its variation; prioritization of the youngest and most vulnerable students; flexibility for families and teaching staff; and a shared sense of purpose and duty.

Whenever schools welcome students back, the logistical and pedagogical challenges will be enormous, and simply re-creating the pre-shutdown norm will be neither possible nor desirable. The pandemic has offered educators yet another reminder that the pre-coronavirus status quo didn’t serve every student well, and this tumultuous period might even offer new insights into how to remedy that.

Amid a rushed experiment in distance education, a small fraction of children appear to be doing fine—even better than when they were in school. An elementary-school principal in the Vermont town where my family lives recently used a farm analogy to describe the impact of remote learning on his students: Just as his chickens huddle in their coop on a rainy day, while the ducks, which are made for water, rush to get muddy, so do children differ in their reactions to this unexpected storm.

Children of all ages have suffered from the coronavirus shutdown, and each age group faces distinctive social, emotional, and academic losses. However, the effects of remote learning are the worst for young children, whose brains grow rapidly from in-person relationships and active, hands-on exploration. Their boisterous physical play strengthens not only gross and fine motor skills but also interpersonal relationships, problem-solving, visual-spatial thinking, confidence building, and stamina. Babies and toddlers are still learning to read social-emotional cues and need to see and feel unobstructed faces. The known adverse effects of screen time on the developing brain are clearly more damaging to young children, whose emerging language and literacy skills depend on plentiful, meaningful conversations with teachers whose mouths are unobstructed by masks.

Even if a vaccine were to unexpectedly become available at “warp speed,” as the White House has promised, it could be three or four years before the nation’s 50 million schoolchildren can be vaccinated safely on a wide scale. Treating young children like radioactive specimens until then is untenable, and adults will have to come up with other accommodations (such as testing protocols or the formation of smaller cohorts) to make possible the physical mingling and comforting hugs that are crucial elements in child-care centers and early-elementary-school classrooms.

The 7 million children receiving special education should also receive high priority for returning to in-person education, because caregivers without training or support simply cannot deliver specialized services, including those for physically disabled students. Children who are already struggling with their academic program are likely to lose more ground than other students when they cannot go to school.

As schools reopen, they will have to improvise in countless ways. Because maintaining physical distance among elementary-school students is particularly difficult, not all families will be equally comfortable in mid-August with the idea of sending their children back to school, and some families will have both the capacity and desire to care for their children at home during the day for at least part of the school week. Schools can help by offering parents of returning students some flexibility in scheduling. At a time when reducing physical density is in everyone’s interest, states should consider modifying truancy laws designed in the pre-pandemic era. This would require a shift in thinking about the primacy of school as a locus of learning; even in ordinary times, so much learning happens outside the classroom. Public schools have historically struggled with hybrid school models such as part-time homeschooling, but a willingness to make adjustments for children in the younger grades would benefit everyone during a pandemic.

Districts whose K–8 students are under one roof may have more leeway to bring younger children back first by experimenting with a shorter in-person week for the seventh and eighth graders, who can better manage independent learning (or staying home alone for short periods of time). Some preschools are experimenting with keeping children of health-care workers and also sibling groups together. These interventions are helpful because they consolidate and isolate risk. Staggered openings, temperature checks, more intensive cleanings, in-class lunchtime, and the closure of high-traffic areas during peak times are the basic precautions most schools should implement if more radical measures are deemed daunting or unnecessary.

Perhaps the most effective way to reduce infection transmission will be for teachers and students to spend more time outdoors. By happy coincidence, outdoor schooling has been shown to improve learning outcomes too. Fortunately, many of the biggest school districts in the country are in milder climates (such as Texas, California, and Florida), where providing outdoor experiences should be easy. Many urban schools have limited outdoor space of their own, but some may have access to public parks.

New cleanliness standards will undoubtedly cut into instructional and recess time. A new psychological approach to personal hygiene will be required of American children, who are used to wolfing down their lunch and racing back to class from recess with nary a thought to clean their hands. Even older students, who are accustomed to the freedom to manage their personal affairs, will need to adapt to some form of monitoring. One key problem is that many school bathrooms are cesspools—in some cases literally so—whose poor design and lack of cleanliness have terrorized generations of children.

Indeed, any successful reopening plan will have to take account of the disgraceful physical facilities in many public schools. In schools where space is so limited that children are instructed in hallways and trailers, the need for physical distance will be tough to accommodate. Millions of children already attend schools with poor ventilation, dangerous levels of mold and peeling plaster, and nonfunctioning toilets and sinks—all of which put them at risk for airborne diseases. Is this the school environment that policy makers and voters are envisioning when they imagine a straightforward return to school in the fall?

The list of potential obstacles grows and grows. Teachers already suffered high levels of stress before the coronavirus arrived, and many child-care providers for young children live in the same poverty as their students. Nearly 30 percent of American public- and private-school teachers are over 50, and some have medical vulnerabilities such as obesity or diabetes. An analysis from the American Enterprise Institute placed more than half a million teachers in the highest-risk category for COVID-19. Many of these individuals will need to be redeployed as a virtual teaching corps that provides online tutoring, mentorship, and instructional support.

Here are a few more dilemmas to consider: Will core academic subjects assume even greater prominence, as “specials” in art and music are pared down to accommodate modified schedules? Will children feel comfortable enough to learn when their school is in perpetual crisis mode? (Active-shooter drills are bad enough.) How can educators allay fears among the many students who had already suffered multiple adverse childhood experiences and whose baseline trauma has been amplified by recent parental job loss or death?

Yet even as the pandemic underscores how many factors can derail children’s education, it also reveals unexpected strengths, both across the student body and within individual students. Undoubtedly, some of the children thriving under lockdown have more resources for at-home learning: secure internet connections, available parents, inner resourcefulness and independence. Yet even some students facing major educational barriers—bullying, homelessness, poverty, and more—have had success while studying remotely. “There are a lot of kids this is really working for,” the principal of a dropout-recovery school in Wilmington, Delaware, recently told Education Week.

In the same article, a Bozeman, Montana, psychologist asserted that some students are faring well “because we have removed some of the things that have caused stress and anxiety.” Months of distance learning have alleviated many documented tensions of contemporary schooling: inadequate sleep, overprogrammed schedules with little downtime, and the pressures of standardized tests. The pandemic is forcing educators to consider anew which practices genuinely help students learn and which do not.

One of the biggest challenges ahead is managing expectations and creating a shared culture of duty and sacrifice among everyone with a stake in schooling. Parents need child care, but they may not get the hours they need. Teachers are stretched thin but may need to stretch even further to cope with new contingencies. No one—and children least of all—will get all that they need. Acceptance of this reality is hard in environments where families have been wary of educators and vice versa. Perhaps the common cause we are now seeing from our Zoom’s-eye view of one another’s vulnerabilities could carry over when the boundaries go up again.

American schools have recovered from other calamities—including two world wars and an epidemic of childhood polio that spread terror in mid-20th-century communities. Children show remarkable resilience when adults express interest and compassion. America’s challenge will be to reach deeply into its reserves—financial, emotional, and otherwise—to give children the education they are owed.