Coronavirus Will Require Changes in Schools When They Reopen to Protect Students


Apr 16, 2020

Hallways are empty during school closures in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Milton-Union Exempted Village School District in West Milton, Ohio, March 13, 2020, photo by Kyle Grillot/Reuters

Empty hallways during school closures in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Milton-Union Exempted Village School District, Ohio, March 13, 2020

Photo by Kyle Grillot/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Fox News Channel on April 16, 2020.

This commentary originally appeared in the opinion section of

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently made the cautiously optimistic prediction that schools across the nation will reopen in the fall, after being closed this spring to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Regardless of the precise date school buildings reopen, when they do there will be a “new normal” for at least some time to come. Schools will likely need to modify their practices so that teachers, staff, and students maintain social distancing standards when they return.

Federal agencies could get ahead of another potential learning crisis in America's schools by developing guidance so that school districts can carry out social distancing.

School districts and state education agencies may not be best positioned to develop social distancing plans from scratch, since they are overtaxed with remote learning during the current crisis. And it could be unnecessarily duplicative for each state or district to create such plans on their own.

Social distancing practices in schools will be more complex than just placing desks six feet apart. Currently, there is neither good guidance nor much evidence about the effectiveness of particular school practices.

Social distancing practices in schools will be more complex than just placing desks six feet apart.

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But just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put out interim guidance about safety practices for essential workers, a federal agency could issue guidance for schools based on expert opinion and available knowledge about the feasibility of various social distancing practices carried out in the past.

I was one of the authors of a review for the CDC in 2016 of states' school health emergency plans. We located a total of 38 plans, since not every state had a publicly posted plan. We found that only 16 states had one or more practices for social distancing. None of these 16 state plans had substantive detail about how to implement their practices.

To elicit more social distancing options and experts' views about the practicality of those various social distancing measures, the RAND Corporation convened 36 focus groups consisting of district superintendents, school principals, teachers, school nurses, and state health pandemic planners in 2017.

Their answers revolved around five themes. Federal guidance could help on each.

For example, one theme is that schools need clear ways to communicate to staff and to parents what the social distancing practices are, why they are important, and who is involved.

Another theme is that schools want guidance about recommended combinations of social distancing measures to put in practice, rather than simply a list of options, such as canceling field trips or other events where large numbers of students congregate.

Depending on the state of disease transmission, schools may well need to enact some combination of hygiene practices like masks, handwashing, and disinfecting surfaces; new within-school practices like staggering activities such as meals, recess, and hallway transitions; and potentially reduced schedules like half-days or shortened school weeks.

These changes carry big implications for schools' required instructional hours per year, staffing, parents' work schedules, and transportation practices.

For example, keeping students in one class throughout the full day could have a profound effect on how schools deliver instruction—especially for middle and high schools, where students typically change classes during the day.

Staggering arrival and drop-off times could reduce the congregation of students on buses and in common spaces at schools. However, it would increase the number of buses required and complicate parents' work schedules, especially for families with multiple school-age children.

The good news is that schools' current trial-by-fire transition to online learning means that future combinations of face-to-face learning and remote learning are more feasible and less daunting.

Still, learning loss could be even worse if schools face another crisis this fall. To avoid another scramble, a federal agency could undertake the task of creating social distancing guidance (for example, by a taskforce). This would make it possible in the fall for educators to turn from emergency planning management to instead focus on what they do best: teaching students.

Heather Schwartz is the director of the pre-K to 12 educational systems program and a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.