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.
Read: The pandemic is a crisis for students with special needs
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.