Experts Predict What School Will Look Like Next Fall

It has been said again and again that the 2020-2021 academic year has been an “unprecedented” one for children, an adjective that for teachers, parents and children who have struggled through the past year feels … insufficient.

Millions of American kids have not stepped foot in a classroom since last March. Others have adapted to hybrid schedules, plastic partitions and regular reminders to keep six feet away from their friends. Kindergartners are learning phonetics online. High school seniors are doing college tours remotely.

Remarkably, parents and caregivers have found ways to navigate those changes as best as they can, many with one thought in mind: Get through this year and next year things will be better.

But is that so? HuffPost Parents spoke with several experts about what the 2021-2022 academic year might entail for children and families. Here is what they had to say:

There’s a good chance most kids will be back in the classroom five days a week by fall.

First, some essential caveats: Public health officials and school administrators do not know what will happen between now and September. Vaccines have arrived, but the rollout has been slower than anticipated. There are new strains of the virus, raising new questions about vaccination and immunity.

That said, every expert interviewed for this piece expressed cautious optimism that a majority of K-12 students will be back in the classroom, full time, next fall — if not sooner.

“The president-elect has vowed to try and open schools by May 1, and the modeling would suggest that is theoretically a possibility in some places,” said Eili Klein, an associate professor in the department of emergency medicine with Johns Hopkins University. He has been working on modeling the pandemic and predicted in a video on the Johns Hopkins website that we could be looking at a “fairly normal fall.”

And Klein told HuffPost Parents that he felt “certain” several states will reopen in full this academic year, and that by the fall “we will probably be approaching normalcy.”

“The next school year, starting in August or September depending on where you live, I do think we’ll be in a much better place than we were last year when it comes to the COVID-19 virus,” echoed Dr. Tanya Altmann, a California-based pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

But children are unlikely to be widely vaccinated by then.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have not been approved for use in children, though kids are now being included in trials. (Down to age 12; younger children are not being studied at this point.) Once those trials are complete, the next step is for the FDA to approve the vaccine or vaccines for use in children — assuming they are shown to be relatively safe and effective.

That’s a process that can take months, which is why groups like the AAP have been emphasizing what they see as a pressing need to study vaccines in children.

“This research takes time,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, chair of the AAP Committee on Infectious Diseases, in a press statement in November. “If this does not begin soon, it will be less likely a vaccine will be available for children before the next school year.”

At this point, it appears unlikely that younger elementary school students will be able to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before the start of the 2021 academic year. So they’ll depend on widespread adult vaccination to keep them safe and healthy.

“If we can get a national strategy with really good distribution, we should be able to vaccinate all adults and young adults in this country by summer, which would be amazing,” said Altmann. “That would actually dramatically decrease the numbers and protect the children.”

Altmann added that she hopes a vaccine for younger children will be approved by next cold and flu season, but emphasized again that no one really knows.

While experts hope that most students will be in the classroom five days a week, some schools may adopt a hybrid model — and some families may chose to keep their children remote. 

Masks aren’t going anywhere.

By the time school starts again in the fall, some of the prevention measures currently in place might be unnecessary. For example, Altmann said some districts will likely have to stick to a hybrid schedule in order to maintain social distance protocols, but others may be able to return to a full-time schedule.

Even in those cases, experts believe it’s unlikely that simple preventive measures, like masking, will go away.

“Everybody is going to need to have different risk mitigation measures in place,” said Dr. Megan Collins, an ophthalmologist with Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a faculty member with the Berman Institute for Bioethics who serves on a cross-disciplinary team aimed at providing schools with guidelines about when to ethically reopen and close.

“Kids are going to be wearing masks, teachers are going to be wearing masks,” she said. “I think that’s an absolute at this point in time, and there are going to be modifications to the school day, whether that’s on the bus or how kids eat in the lunchroom or how they engage in sports activities. Those are going to be around for a fair bit at least until we get a large amount of the population vaccinated.”

We should have some clearer thresholds for opening, reopening, etc.

One of the factors that has made this current academic year so challenging for students, parents and school administrators is the total lack of uniformity on the measures that should be used to trigger various restrictions. In New York City, for example, all public schools were shut down when the average precent positivity rate cleared 3% — a figure the mayor decided on months before. He then changed that rule. Now public schools remain open, while the average positivity rate is somewhere around 9%.

Experts believe that by next year, that will be different.

“I think that by the fall, the numbers will be much lower and we will have specific cut-offs for when schools can open and when they need to close, kind of like weather reports,” Altmann said.

“There’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all formula, but I think we’re heading towards consensus guidelines and best practices,” Collins said.

She added that the lack of clear thresholds has put schools in an unfortunate situation. “They are meant to be places of education and to promote child welfare,” she said. “They don’t have public health expertise, and they’ve been forced to try and answer all of these questions with a lot of uncertainty in the data.”

Schools and districts will have to contend with learning loss …

Throughout the pandemic, academic experts have struggled to estimate what kind of learning loss children will have experienced. Some have said it may not be that bad; others warn children will have lost nine months of learning by the end of this year. Virtually all agree the pandemic will have significantly worsened existing disparities.

Educators will have to find ways to accurately gauge where students are when they return to some level of normalcy next fall, and to make up for that loss, whether that takes the form of summer instruction, high-intensity tutoring or something else.

“Now is the time for school systems to prepare post-pandemic strategies,” said a recent report by the consulting group McKinsey that urged schools and districts to work on a plan for the fall and beyond.

… and to build on the few positives of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s difficult to point to any bright spots from a year that has brought so much trauma for children and families across the U.S.

But Collins said that schools and districts have found new ways to connect and engage with parents and families — and that is a strong base upon which they will continue to build next year.

“I think schools will spend time trying to figure out: ‘What have been the successes of virtual learning, and what have been the successes of being engaged in a virtual world with parents that schools had not previously done?’” she said.

For example, schools and districts may have experienced success booking parent teacher conferences remotely. Or they may have found new ways to engage parents and caregivers in student feedback.

“There’s been this need for constant communication with parents,” Collins said, and she expects that next year schools will look to strengthen that bond with children and caregivers even further.

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