There's Literally No Way To Reopen Our Schools Safely––Here's Why

by Caila Smith
Originally Published: 
Little boy leaving for school during COVID-19 pandemic
Scary Mommy and. Imgorthand/Getty

In a normal world, families would typically be getting ready for summer break right now. Soon after, they’d begin planning for the next school year. Instead, after months of “crisis-schooling” remotely due to COVID-19, parents, children, and educators alike are feeling unsettled and unsure of what the 2020-2021 school year will bring.

We’ve successfully flattened the curve, all 50 states are in the early stages of reopening, but the novel coronavirus isn’t leaving. As the public catches wind of the suggested guidelines for reopening schools, which were released by the CDC recently, parents everywhere are starting to question just how attainable these standards truly are, as well as what this all means for student safety.

The lengths schools would have to go to to abide by social distancing guidelines would be drastic, not to mention costly. Anyone who has actually attended or worked in a public school may be feeling like these recommendations are a bit out of reach.

“They are suggesting that our kids don’t share anything,” Candace Smith, a second grade teacher in Indiana, tells Scary Mommy. “That means separate games, separate centers, etc. That is a huge burden on teachers. Where we would normally buy just a few sets of a particular activity, now we would have to purchase 25. That’s just not feasible.”

In addition to students needing separate supplies, it’s also been suggested by the CDC that masks be worn when able, cafeterias and playgrounds remain closed, children sit six feet apart, sneeze guards are installed, buses follow social distancing guidelines, and students stay inside of the same classroom all day long.

The problem is, American schools aren’t structured to accommodate these recommendations for COVID-19 safety. Schools will need to reopen eventually, and we all need to prepare for that foreseeable reality. On the other hand, if they are to reopen this fall, many schools will be doing so without the resources, space, or faculty needed to fully comply with the rules of social distancing, simply because they lack the time and funding.

“The guidelines that have been set out, while I’m sure they are reasonable from [the CDC’s] standpoint, are completely unreasonable from a teacher’s standpoint. And quite frankly, impossible,” Ashley Meyers, a third grade teacher who recently moved back to the states from Nigeria because of the pandemic, says in an interview.

Of course, these guidelines may vary from state to state, city to city, and even school to school depending on infection rates. But that’s the problem. Even in areas with the lowest COVID-19 cases, it’s concerning that children will not receive the full protection they need. All of this leading parents to question, how will this affect the students who will be attending?

To get some perspective, Scary Mommy asked several parents from across the globe for their opinion.

“For me, it’s going to take affordable effective treatment, zero cases, as well as rigorous continued testing before I will feel a modicum of safety allowing her to go back,” Jen, a parent from Belgium, says in response to schools reopening in a private writing group. “My son has asthma and we’ve seen cases on the rise here of the inflammatory disease affecting children which they believe is related to Covid 19. It’s ridiculous.”


Although newer reports have shown that kids without asthma are not more affected by COVID-19, asthma is still stated as a risk-factor on the CDC’s website. Nearly 20 people in the U.S. alone have asthma, with almost 9 million of them being children. Even if we don’t take into account the other risk factors which could potentially put one at a heightened risk for contracting COVID-19, that’s millions of children who are vulnerable to this misunderstood disease. For these high-risk kids, as well as the high-risk parents at home, the fear of schools reopening is that much more troubling.

“I would have felt safe-ish with something like what some of the other countries have done: a really full lockdown until we see new cases close to zero, followed by robust testing for those returning to work and contact tracing,” another high-risk parent, David, says. “Instead we’ve had flimsy stay at home orders that are not enforced, with a list of exceptions longer than my arm, and restrictions lifted or eased the second the curve seems to flatten rather than waiting until things actually get better.”

Because America has gone so wrong in the way it has protected its people from COVID-19, it seems that the only hope for many parents is the development and mass-distribution of an effective vaccine.

President Trump’s coronavirus task force estimated at the start of this pandemic that a vaccine could arrive within 18 months, but according to The New York Times, researchers have yet to create an effective vaccine for any disease in less than four years. Not just that, but researchers also warn the public that less than 10% of drugs entered into clinical trials are ever approved by the FDA.

Due to the president’s “reliability” in terms of sharing accurate information on the virus and its potential vaccine, some parents are wary about sending their children back to school at all with the elected officials currently holding power.

One parent, Jen, explained that it would take “a new, sane and honest President, widespread reliable testing, vaccine that updates year to year to stay ahead of mutations and, perhaps most importantly, a complete understanding of how the disease works, how it spreads, and an effective protocol on how to treat it for every patient.”

It could be years before there is a vaccine, if we even find one at all. COVID-19 is a virus. Worst case scenario, the novel coronavirus could fall into a group of other viruses with no proven immunizations, much like herpes, HIV/AIDS, or even RSV, and we could all still be waiting for immunizations after our child’s graduation date, according to a chart by The New York Times.

“I’m moving to California in a hot minute and hope that outdoor classrooms come into play,” another mother, Holly, told me in response to what would offer her more safety. “That, and staggered, lower population school days with, say, 10-15 kids, will make me feel better. I also think there should be no kindergarten next year, if that’s possible.”

Split schedules, where students would attend school at different times of the day and/or on different days, has been noted as a possible option for reopening schools by several states. But considering that COVID-19 can be asymptomatic among those who are infected, mass testing seems to be a more trending point of discussion in terms of what would offer American parents a better sense of security.

In countries like New Zealand, a nation said to have “effectively eliminated” COVID-19 with its mass testing, strict lockdown and strong contact tracing, schools are already back in session.

“NZ schools reopened on the grounds that there’s been no community [transmission] of the virus, as far as we can tell,” New Zealand mother, Elen, told me. “I felt pretty confident sending my preschooler back with this knowledge as well as other good hygiene and health protocols they have in place.”

America has tested millions of people, but mass testing would require us to test millions upon millions and more. We would have to test, keep testing, and continue to do so until daily cases dwindled closer to zero than the thousands each day. But because of a lack of resources and government funding, as of now, the U.S. struggles to process even 100,000 tests per day.

Even though parents are fearful to send their kids back to school without fully knowing how and where COVID-19 continues to spread, many families don’t have the privilege to homeschool their children, despite how badly they may want to. More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic, and on an average day (non-pandemic times, that is), 21% of all kids in the U.S. live with families who are below the federal poverty threshold. For them, their back-to-school plan will be painfully simple: either they can keep their kids at home, away from exposure, and hurt for money, or they can send them to school, hope for their safety, and continue to provide for their family.

Parents have been making it work for the time being, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t seriously struggling. At some point, schools will have to reopen for the sake of our economy, the benefit of individual families, and to nurture this generation’s learning. If and when that happens, it’s important that those without alternatives feel and are protected from the full exposure to COVID-19.

For parents who are able, this might mean that they keep their children at home and continue homeschooling. Not just to protect their own kids, but to protect their children’s classmates as well. If fewer students physically attended school, this could allow for proper COVID-19 safety measures to take place. Teachers could space out their students six feet, buses could make their routes without the added trips, and educators could potentially manage their budgets more realistically if given the funds to do so.

This isn’t to say that homeschooling would be a convenience for those with the means — not in the slightest bit. But, if it’s possible, this may be the way that many parents intend to go, both for the benefit of their child, and their child’s peers too.

Still, it’s hard to say how a higher number of students being pulled out of public school could impact funding when schools’ budgets are measured by the number of students who are currently enrolled. It’s been proven that students do better when schools have more money to spend. But given the extra costs it would take to educate students while social distancing, it’s worrisome that further budget cuts could have negative consequences on the children who will be attending. So could the answer be that schools offer families some options? That we would be able to choose to keep our kids at home and continue remote learning, or send them to learn in a classroom setting — whatever that may look like?

Honestly, parents and educators are unsure. This is an unprecedented territory we are crossing, and in order to make it work, it’s going to take our continued flexibility.

The thing we have to remember is, schooling may look different for everybody.

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