A Better Fall Is Possible

States with low rates of the virus are in a position to reopen their schools this September—but they should do so very carefully, and with a focus on younger kids.

Children playing outside
Dan Kitwood / Getty

The sirens have quieted in New York City. Each week, my husband, a nurse practitioner, reports fewer patients coming in for COVID-19 tests. We watch in horror as Arizona, Texas, and Florida experience the consequences of squandering the time they had to prevent an outbreak. Again, ICU beds fill. In the Northeast, by contrast, case counts are falling. On June 30, Massachusetts reported zero COVID-19 deaths.

What should these states do now? Massachusetts is moving forward with reopening businesses, and, despite indoor dining having been paused in New York City, northeastern governors’ goals seem to be relentlessly commercially driven. Leaders see economic suffering ahead if the federal government does not reinvigorate support for workers and families as federal pandemic unemployment assistance ends on July 30. By prioritizing reopening businesses, states are wasting an opportunity to ensure a better fall for children and families.

This is the wrong course. Instead of speeding forward with reopening their economies, these states should do everything in their power to make a return to school possible in the fall—especially for younger children. This must be the No. 1 priority, and all other “reopening” plans should flow from that. This means keeping the case counts of the virus as low as possible, via business closures (with unemployment assistance and stimulus to compensate) and required universal mask wearing.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we made a trade-off: Sacrifice school and day care, with women mostly picking up the slack, for public health. With little known about COVID-19, and knowing that many other respiratory illnesses are spread by children, this was a tough, unfair, but decent emergency bargain. In the Northeast, these sacrifices, alongside the efforts of health-care and essential workers, and the unemployment of millions—all of which have been borne disproportionately by people of color—have led to successfully driving down case counts.

But all of this progress can be reversed if we continue reopening as planned. Bustling bars and shops mean cases will likely rise again. And, because of the way this particular virus works, we won’t know we have a disaster on our hands until it is far too late to fix things easily, and many will die. Amid this, school districts across the country seem to be lumbering toward reopening in the fall by adhering to exactly what they have done in the past, COVID-19-style. That typically means school as we know it—but “hybrid,” with students taking classes in school part-time and online part-time from home. This maintains our demand for maternal sacrifice, and does not take into consideration the different needs and risk profiles by students’ age.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, evidence has emerged showing that younger children are at lower risk of getting COVID-19 and are not a major source of spread. However, no scenario is zero-risk, and although less likely, children could transmit the disease to adults. We can take advantage of children’s relatively lower risk only by keeping community transmission rates down and implementing a contact-tracing system.

In-person education is crucial for so many reasons. Students attending virtual school have lower test scores and are less likely to graduate high school—and the evidence comes from planned virtual schooling. Outcomes from emergency online education may be worse. Schools provide vital social-emotional support and safety-net policies such as food access, health clinics, and washing machines. Schools help detect child abuse and neglect. A virtual alternative risks exacerbating inequalities, such as access to devices, internet connections, quiet places to work, and adults to assist children in staying on task. The difficulties are greatest for younger children: They are at a higher risk of learning loss, are in a key period for learning how to read, are less able to have online social interactions, and need more supervision at home. School is important for the careers and sanity of parents. Many essential workers must work outside the home, and need school to help care for their children.

Reopening schools successfully will require tough choices, and the hardest, perhaps, is this: We will not be able to reopen for all children.

There are two important constraints. First, teachers and staff should be able to opt out of in-person school if they or their families have a health risk. This will limit the number of staff available. But an opportunity to opt out, along with a reasonable plan for reopening that prioritizes staff health, is both moral and necessary for staff buy-in. Second, teens may be more similar to adults than young children when it comes to disease spread. This limits which students can be safely brought back to school.

Where capacity constraints prevent a full reopening, and there’s an obvious difference in risk, learning needs, and supervision requirements by age, there’s one clear conclusion: little kids first. Elementary schools must reopen, spread out across all school buildings and grounds (for as long as the weather permits). Given the intense learning needs of students with disabilities and the difficulty of online alternatives, middle- and high-school students with special needs should also have priority for in-person attendance.

Elementary-school students should be assigned to the school building closest to their home to minimize time spent in transit. The goal in spreading out elementary-school students across campuses is not forcing students to distance from one another, but minimizing adult-to-adult interactions, the greater risk for COVID-19 spread. Classrooms should have a stable group of children, and adults rotating into the class, so that if contact tracing is necessary, close contact happens within a “bubble.” To support students returning to schools with different learning needs, small-group tutoring, with an AmeriCorps-style program providing both one-on-one attention for students and jobs for unemployed young people, should augment classroom teaching.

The downside of this is that most middle and high schools will need to be online, except for in-person services for older students with special needs. This is hard, really hard. All middle- and high-school students have needs that can be met only at school: an optimal learning environment, access to the school safety net, and interactions with peers. But prioritizing younger grades over older ones recognizes the reality of COVID-19, the unfair burden that having young kids at home places on women, and the capacity constraints that make a full reopening impossible.

To make this proposal feasible, we need to reorganize learning in the upper grades. We must trade the norm of individual teachers working in isolation for collective planning. For families that lack or opt out of in-person options, states, consortia of school districts, and large-school districts should provide centralized online-learning programs for all grades, including remote options for elementary grades, and fully online learning for upper grades. We should not be re-creating the wheel in each school building, when teachers could focus on supporting students.

A subset of upper-grade teachers should focus on content generation for these online platforms, and the rest of the teachers should be matched to small student groups to provide individualized coaching and tutoring. Reimagining online education in this way would alleviate some of the demands on parents (read: moms) to manage middle- and high-school learning, and improve the experience for students. Some teachers will have to teach outside their typical grade or subject to cover faculty who cannot teach in person because of health risks. And to alleviate the suffering of students who miss their friends and struggle online, school districts could offer small group activities for tweens and teens every other Friday (so a deep clean could occur over the weekend), and have younger children stay home that day so there is adequate space.

Families will also need to trade some of their individualism for the collective. Barring medical exceptions, adults must be required to wear masks at drop-off and pickup. Children must be required to be vaccinated for all illnesses if medically possible, including the flu shot. (Avoiding typical childhood illnesses means a lower likelihood of a coronavirus “scare” that turns out to be the flu, as well as protecting children from childhood diseases.) Families that can’t abide by these rules must use the online option.

Even this partial reopening will not be enough to fully support children’s needs. We should also focus on and fund compensatory support for children now and in the future, such as vacation academies, summer school, and tutoring, as well as student counseling.

This transformation will require sufficient funding. Schools are facing deep budget cuts due to lost state tax revenue. If a vaccine appeared tomorrow, schools would still have a fiscal crisis. With balanced budget requirements, states cannot step in: Only the federal government can borrow the necessary funds. The federal government must prioritize a bailout for schools and child-care centers that both covers budget gaps and provides additional funding to manage the special needs of educating children during a pandemic.

In some places currently in crisis, even this modified reopening plan may be unsafe. Instead, the focus must be on reducing community spread and caring for the sick. An alternative for these areas would be to delay the start of school and plan on a longer school year. Full school reopening may be possible in low-density areas with little community transmission. The key here is to be flexible based on community transmission and, if faced with a situation where not all students can return, to prioritize younger students and those with the most need.

A lot of this proposal might be difficult to fathom—prioritizing younger children over older, changing school culture—but the alternative is not a return to normal. A few communities have recognized this, and announced plans similar to what I suggest here.

This fall will be the strangest return to school in memory, and if we continue to reopen businesses as planned, it may very well be all online. When considering this proposal, or any other, we should compare it with reality, rather than magical thinking about returning to what school was like in February.

The other day I stood in front of the mirror and cut my own hair. Last month we ordered in from our favorite neighborhood restaurant for a date night at home. I would love to change this. But if the choice is between a haircut and reopening school for our neighbors’ kids and day care for our daughter, I choose children. If the choice is between a drink at the bar and supporting women who are trying to manage a career and parenting during a pandemic, I choose women. Let us be bold together and halt reopening the economy—and choose reopening schools, and a better fall for our families.