As the threat of COVID-19 spread this past spring semester, schools shut their doors with little warning. Districts scrambled to get their students the technology they needed. Teachers rushed to prepare virtual lessons and assignments. Students were forced to own their learning in new ways. Parents confronted what it meant for their kids to learn from home (and often found new empathy for teachers).
The school schedule as we knew it was upended. And while everyone did their best, we were reactive. But as we enter summer and districts review their local and state regulations, and hopefully the CDC guidance on reopening schools, schools can work to be proactive, even with lingering uncertainty. To do so, they must prepare for multiple scenarios and equip themselves to adapt as the landscape changes. Below we’ll dive into the most common emerging options and some considerations districts will take in making their choices.
Option 1: Fully In-Person
Students return to school fully in-person, largely similar to life before the spread of COVID-19. In most cases, we’ll see the addition of protocols for cleaning and physical interventions to help lower the risk of spreading the virus, like wearing masks, minimizing larger student gatherings, and additional social distance where possible. We’ll most likely see this in communities that have been less impacted by COVID-19 and in schools that already had lower class sizes, where social distancing at full-capacity is less of a challenge. It’s also likely that more schools will feel comfortable with this option as the school year progresses, assuming the spread stays under control.
Option 2: In-Person with Limited Movement
Students and staff return to school, but schedules are altered to avoid students from mixing groups. Students stay in the same room when possible, even to eat lunch. Teachers rotate between rooms only when necessary. Where possible, class sizes are reduced and planning periods are moved to a common time at the start or end of the day when students aren’t present to avoid the need to cover classes. This option is more feasible for elementary schools given they often spend the majority of the day with a specific teacher already, with middle schools adopting a version where teachers move between classrooms to fixed groups of students. High schools are less likely to adopt this schedule, as courses are less fixed by grade level.
Option 3: In-Person/Virtual Split by Day
Here, schools split their students into two groups (A and B) where they’re instructed in-person instruction on one day and virtually the next, with no more than half the population at school on any given day. Most schools will assign one group to Mondays/Wednesdays and the other to Tuesday/Thursdays, with Fridays alternating between them. This allows for smaller class sizes where students can remain farther apart in classes. This scenario is best for schools that don’t yet feel comfortable with their entire student population on campus at once but want to have some semblance of “normal” return, and especially in high schools where some other preventative measures are more challenging.
Option 4: In-Person/Virtual Split by Week
Similar to option 3, students are split into A and B groups, but switch on a weekly, instead of daily, basis between in-person and virtual instruction. This limits the reliance on constant cleaning and sanitizing of spaces because the same student interacts with a particular space for a longer period of time, though daily cleaning should still take place. It also allows students to settle into a routine for consecutive days where possible, which could be helpful for younger students, though this schedule could pose challenges for working parents of students too young to be home alone.
Option 5: Fully Virtual
Students and teachers remain at home, much like this past spring, but with more structure now that updated policies, schedules, and technology should be in place. Students will likely have more independent time than in “regular” school since teachers can teach larger groups online and pull smaller groups based on need. We’ll see this in areas where the spread of COVID-19 has not been quelled or the cost and logistics of returning in-person are too cumbersome. It’s also likely that schools with older students, who are presumably more independent, can successfully choose this path. We’ll also likely see this in more densely populated areas and those with strong wifi and technology access.
While most schools should plan for multiple options, additional consideration should be given to students and teachers with the highest risk for contracting COVID-19, exploring options for these groups to remain fully virtual even if the district chooses an option with some in-person time. Many districts are also waiting to see what teachers and families decide over the summer regarding their own level of comfort returning to a school building. According to a recent EdWeek survey, up to a fifth of teachers are considering leaving the teaching field given the risk, especially those eligible for retirement, given the circumstances. It’s also unclear how many families might move to homeschooling to avoid going back to in-person settings.
At this point, the only certainty we have is that things will continue to change. I suggest we learn from the successes and challenges of last semester so schools are prepared for a variety of options and have the ability to transition between them more intentionally than we witnessed this past spring.
James Bacon has an MSEd from the University of Pennsylvania and more than a decade of experience in education, having worked in urban and rural communities across six states and two continents. He currently heads outreach and operations for Edficiency, an online scheduling software that automates in-person and virtual intervention blocks for middle and high schools across the US.