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Ten Weeks Until School Starts—What Now?

More than a few school leaders are publicly insisting that, absent a huge new influx of federal dollars, they can't afford to open schools. A fifth of teachers are saying they won't go back in the fall, and plenty more are expressing discomfort. A sizable number of parents currently say they don't want to send kids back to school until there's a vaccine. In short, it seems like there's a vocal, influential constituency inclined to justify continued school closures in the fall. 

At the same time, for those of us who believe that education matters, this spring's remote learning experiment was a mess—a shoddy stopgap that addressed, at best, a piece of what we want schools to do. Even worse, it wasn't clear that things got a lot better over time. The Center for Reinventing Public Education has looked at 477 school districts and reports that just 1 in 3 expected all teachers to deliver instruction and that less than half communicated an expectation that teachers would either take attendance or check in with students regularly.

My AEI colleague Nat Malkus tracked a national sample of hundreds of districts and found that, even as the school year ground to an end, less than half of districts offered even a little bit of real-time instruction. For most of the rest, "remote instruction" meant some combination of websites with links, downloadable worksheets, and canned resources. Education Week has reported that teachers say more than 1 in 5 students went absent without a trace when schools closed. And parents report that kids' work is less rigorous and that there seems to be less of it.

So, where does that leave us?

One way to square this circle is by quaintly hoping that remote learning this fall will be vastly improved from what we saw this spring.

But I wouldn't bet that way.

For one thing, plenty of educators have pointed out that we've spent this spring teaching students that remote learning doesn't have real expectations or real grades, and that it involves a lot less meaningful work. That will be a tough norm to unlearn.

For another, teachers this spring actually started with a huge advantage—they'd been in classrooms with their students for six months. All the disappointing, chaotic experiences came despite that foundation. Teachers are justifiably wondering how they're supposed to manage this fall if required to start cold with students they know only as pixels and email accounts.

I could go on. But the upshot is that this means a lot rides on the hope that new resources, supports, and training will make a huge difference. That's possible. But I've seen that promise fall flat too often to put a lot of faith in it this time around.

If public-health officials indicate that schools can open this fall, school systems need to find a way to do so. And, right now, it appears that schools will have the green light across most of the land. In many (or most) places, reopening may require modifying schedules or routines due to the dictates of social distancing. It will require attention to cleaning, COVID testing, and other measures. Moreover, some staff are exceptionally vulnerable, and schools will have to respond accordingly. Some parents may not want to send their kids to schools come September, and that will require accommodations. This will all carry a monetary cost. That's understood.

But, if you're like me, you've seen increasing numbers of middle schoolers playing hoops, high schoolers hanging out, and college kids having lawn parties. Youths are inevitably going to gather in close proximity, without adult supervision, and if schools stay shuttered, they'll be doing it without learning anything. That's why school closures were billed as a temporary measure and why nations around the globe have already been reopening schools.

Easy answers are in short supply. And none of this is meant to minimize the challenges of teaching in schools next fall. But, in a nation where adults are increasingly giving themselves leave to venture out, those inclined to keep schools shuttered next fall need to proceed with no illusions about what that means.

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