7 Steps for Sending Kids Back to School

By Dian Schaffhauser


“Give families and teachers the option of full-time remote learning for elementary grades in the next school year; shift to an every-other-day schedule for older elementary kids and let K-3 students attend every weekday; limit classrooms and school buses to half-capacity; and require masks, lots of hand-washing and strict stay-at-home guidance for sick students. These are among the ideas proposed by Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham institute, in a recent column he wrote on how to send “elementary kids back to school and parents back to work.”

Petrilli prefaced his suggestions with three assumptions:

  • That the goal of “social distancing” was to reduce the spread of the virus, “not to reduce to zero the risk of transmission.” That means he explained, that those most at risk can’t be put in harm’s way, requiring that teaching and learning from home have to remain options.
  • That parents must be able to head back to work, which means the youngest kids who can’t be left on their own at home need to go to school each day for at least half a day, “though remaining at home must remain an option.”
  • And that “plans must be affordable,” although as Petrilli pointed out, there’s little “political appetite” for providing additional resources to schools even as schools will need to practice physical distancing “while also coping with major budget cuts.”

By providing both remote and in-person instruction, the physical distancing will be easier for schools to achieve, Petrilli noted. He envisions schools setting up their own online schools with “stay-at-home teachers” teaching the “stay-at-home students” or possibly outsourcing that option to online school companies.

Petrilli’s thinking about sending the youngest kids into school every day also includes having the older students (fourth and fifth graders) go in every other day. “While it’s hardly ideal, fourth and fifth graders can do some independent work and can be left at home during the school day,” he wrote. Besides, that would also allow for more physical distancing in classes and on buses.

In locations where the thought of leaving those grade 4 and 5 students at home isn’t palatable, Petrilli advised, perhaps districts could use middle schools or high schools to house classrooms for them, and have middle and high schoolers stay at home more often.

The article also advised a grouping process, where the same set of 10 to 12 children stay together, aside from on the bus or at recess. These groupings would be taught by teachers who moved from class to class (while still keeping their physical distance).

As a final step, schools need to have “a clear plan ready to go if an outbreak occurs.” While the approach Petrilli offered “should significantly reduce the risk of a ‘super-spreader'” outbreak, that could still happen, he acknowledged.

The article provides a prototype weekly schedule for a fictional school, Lincoln Elementary. The article with full details about the seven steps is openly available on the Fordham Institute website.”

“With those three assumptions in mind, here are seven steps toward the successful re-opening of elementary schools:

1. Give students and educators the choice of full-time remote learning for the 2020–21 school year. This is a moral and legal imperative, as some children, families, and educators have underlying health conditions that put them at high risk of serious illness or worse from COVID-19. Plus, some families will simply feel more comfortable keeping their kids quarantined until there is a vaccine, or may prefer the remote learning model to the in-person variety, especially given the modifications that will be necessary. And the more students that stay home, the easier it will be to implement social distancing for the others.

Most school systems will likely want to organize these “online schools” themselves, with their stay-at-home teachers instructing their stay-at-home students. But they might consider outsourcing some or all of this function to online learning providers.

Making the full-time online learning program as attractive and educationally effective as possible should be priority number one for most schools and systems, as it makes every aspect of social distancing more doable. The sooner parents make these decisions, the better. Schools might also consider whether to let families reconsider their decisions after the end of the first quarter or semester.

2. Shift to an every-other-day schedule for fourth and fifth graders, while allowing kindergarten through third graders to attend school every weekday. Younger students cannot be left at home alone, so they need to be at school if their parents or other caregivers are going to be able to go to work. Plus, given their maturity level and limited reading skills, they are least equipped to learn much independently. (See #3 for how grades K–3 could attend daily and still do social distancing.)

While it’s hardly ideal, fourth and fifth graders can do some independent work and can be left at home during the school day. An alternating schedule will allow for social distancing on school buses and in classrooms.

If schools or parents are concerned that fourth and fifth graders are too young to be left at home alone, and elementary schools don’t have enough extra spaces to allow for social distancing, then school systems might consider using middle schools or high schools to house fourth and fifth grade classrooms (maybe third grade, too). That would of course mean making the middle schoolers or high schoolers stay home more often, going to an every-third-day-at-school schedule, perhaps, instead of alternating days. But as other organizations and analysts have written, getting younger children back to school on a regular basis should be a top priority.

3. Keep all classrooms to 50 percent capacity, and don’t allow student groups to mix. This is where each school will have to work out its own logistical puzzle. The first key factor (as mentioned in #1) is how many students continue with full-time remote learning. The more who do, the easier this challenge becomes. The second is the physical layout of the elementary school. How many classrooms or other spaces are available that would allow for groups of ten to twelve students, and an adult, to maintain social distance? (This may include gyms and cafeterias that could be subdivided, plus art and music rooms.) The third is the school’s staffing model. How many instructional staff beyond classroom teachers work at the school? How many could be hired, so as to oversee groups of students when their classroom teachers are with the other half of the class? Are volunteers available?

Note that not allowing students to mix means having lunch in classrooms and spreading recess out over the course of the entire day (rather than, say, having all third graders on the playground at the same time). It also means cancelling field trips, assemblies, and other large-group events.

4. Run buses at 50 percent capacity or less. If lots of families choose the full-time online option, and fourth and fifth graders attend school every other day, this should be doable. But schools may want to encourage parents to consider walking, biking, or driving their kids to school, too, at least in communities where that is feasible. If that still doesn’t do the trick, systems might consider allocating more buses to elementary schools than usual, given the imperative of allowing young children to attend school every day so their parents can work. Or they might stagger start and end times every day.

5. Mask up, screen everyone, wash those hands, and tell everyone to stay home if sick! The evidence is mounting that masks can significantly reduce the spread of the coronavirus. And making little kids wear masks is more likely to succeed than keeping them at least six feet apart from one other. Schools should start looking for manufactured or home-made masks for students who need them. (Though the CDC guidance only suggests mask-wearing for adults.) Frequent hand washing is also critical, and will need to be managed tightly so that restrooms don’t become a source of contagion. That means setting a strict schedule for bathroom breaks for every class, and sticking to it. Schools might schedule hourly “hand sanitizer” breaks, too. Cleaning regimes will need to be intensified. And needless to say, schools should have a zero-tolerance policy about coming to school with any sort of illness. As the CDC guidance indicates, it will be essential to screen students and staff every day for symptoms or signs of exposure.

6. Use a mix of “man-to-man” and “zone coverage” when it comes to teaching. As mentioned above, children should be in the same group of ten or twelve students at all times, except when they are on the bus. And they should stay in the same physical location at all times, too, except for recess. Teachers and other staff, meanwhile, should circulate so as to provide the necessary instruction to students. (But they must be extremely careful to maintain social distancing to avoid circulating the virus themselves!)

Here’s how it could work for grades K–3, whose students attend school daily: Classroom teachers would be in charge of two groups of students—again, of ten to twelve kids each—and split their time half and half. Most likely it makes sense for them to use that time on English language arts and math. When students aren’t with their classroom teachers, they should be with the “specials” teachers (art, music, physical education, media, etc.), in a computer lab setting, or at recess, overseen by an instructional aide or other staffer or volunteer.

For grades four and five, whose students attend school every other day, the set-up is somewhat easier. When they are in school, students’ days will be relatively “normal,” as they’ll spend most of their time with their classroom teacher. They will have one to two “specials” a day, at which point classroom teachers could check in online with their at-home students, plan lessons, and grade student assignments. But when students are at home, they will mostly work independently. (See Tables 1 and 2 for examples of how the schedules might work.)

7. Have a clear plan ready to go if an outbreak occurs. If these suggestions are implemented with fidelity, it should significantly reduce the risk of a “super-spreader” event. But it won’t eliminate the possibility of a student or staff member bringing the virus to school and infecting others.

If someone in the school community tests positive for COVID-19, public health officials will likely require the school to close for deep cleaning. Students or staff who have come in contact with the infected person will also be tested and quarantined at home. Thanks to the social distancing measures, it should be a relatively small number of people who need to do this, not the whole school. Still, local public health officials may want the school closed for two weeks or longer—especially if there’s a flare-up in the larger community—so schools need to be prepared to go back to full-time online learning for everyone. For better or worse, that’s something they now have a lot of experience with!

These seven steps are not the Ten Commandments. As we learn more about the virus and good ideas evolve from schools, systems, and other sources.”