Lessons learned as classrooms reopen

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: going back to class.

After an abrupt transition to online learning in the spring, schools across the country are grappling with the safest way to reopen in the fall. Distance learning worked well for some students, but many others fell behind.

NICK EICHER, HOST: School administrators are looking for answers to a host of questions. And one of the best places to find them could be overseas, in countries that have already transitioned back to in-class instruction.

Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Finland began reopening schools in April. Israel began on-site classes in May and will continue its school year through mid-July or early August. WORLD’s Jill Nelson reports now on how the lessons they learned can inform our own move back to the classroom.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Guy Faigenboim didn’t mind having his four kids learning from home during Israel’s two months of quarantine. They range in age from 6 to 15, and they all kept up with their lessons.

But when their Tel Aviv schools reopened in May, they packed up their backpacks and went back to school. Faigenboim signed a form each day verifying his kids’ health. And their schools implemented social distancing to keep kids and families safe:

FAIGENBOIM: Sixty percent of the kids in one classroom. In order to do it, if they didn’t have enough class size, the kids came to school only a few days a week and the other kids came on the other days.

Online learning has been challenging for many students and parents. During a May press conference, President Trump said we need to get kids back into the classroom.

TRUMP: The schools should open. And one thing you should be careful of is when instructors are over 60, especially if they have a problem. But the schools should definitely open in my opinion. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus poses a very low risk to kids under 19, and deaths are rare. But some disease experts are concerned children could transmit the virus to others and create a resurgence of COVID-19.

Others disagree. According to the American Enterprise Institute’s John Bailey, kids aren’t the super-spreaders we once feared. Bailey recently wrote a follow-up report to the think tank’s Blueprint for Back to School. He says we should watch for emerging research in the coming months concluding that transmission does not dramatically increase when schools reopen.

BAILEY: I don’t think it points to greater spread. I think what you see in countries that have reopened is that there’s been localized hot spots that have popped up and what has been used in each of those individualized cases is that they’ve closed the schools. But they don’t do it across the whole country, they don’t do it across the whole state. They do it in the area where the hot spot has emerged. And I think that will be the rhythm we need to get used to going into next school year.

Some schools abroad quickly shut down after identifying positive cases among students and teachers. In early June, Israel’s Ministry of Education claimed more than 200 students and school personnel were infected with the virus. South Korea encountered similar challenges. But none of these countries have reported a significant resurgence.

Still, Bailey said many parents are not sending their children back to school despite assurances from government officials that classrooms have been modified and their kids will be safe.

BAILEY: We’ve seen it in France. It definitely happened in the U.K. where after opening for two weeks they had to close it all down because parents just weren’t sending their kids back to school. And a lot of teachers were concerned as well that they may be vulnerable and things weren’t quite as safe.

This mirrors what Faigenboim experienced in some of his kids’ classrooms in Israel. But after a few weeks, the trend reversed.

Bailey says these trends point to an important lesson for American school preparations.

BAILEY: I think the lesson for U.S. schools is to over-index on engaging parents.

We should also be polling teachers, Bailey adds.

If teachers don’t feel safe returning to the classroom, schools need to know that now so they can reassign them to different roles and fill vacant positions. A recent study by the American Enterprise Institute concludes that more than half a million teachers in the United States fall into the high risk category due to age or underlying health problems. Bailey says few states and teachers unions are addressing this looming crisis.

But many schools are hustling to provide better online platforms for parents who prefer distance learning. Some larger schools are considering hybrid models similar to Israel’s. And around the world, administrators are redesigning schools.

BAILEY: There’s remarkable consistency across all the countries about physically distancing kids from one another during the school day. So that often means spacing out desks by 6 feet, turning hallways into sort of one-way directional, it’s minimizing student movement so often students will eat in a class as opposed to going to a cafeteria, there’s frequent hand washing throughout the day, they’re cleaning the classes throughout the day…

Some schools across the country will have few if any interruptions next fall, while others may experience numerous closures throughout the year. And Bailey notes one more lesson from abroad we could apply when outbreaks force schools to send students home:

BAILEY: What Israel did is they brought back their special needs students to school, because with the school being empty, they could space out those students and give them more individualized instruction. Super smart and something every school in the U.S. should be thinking about as part of next year.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.


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