Students and teachers were smiling under their mandatory masks when the Green County, Ky., school district opened its doors for in-person instruction on August 17.
But after a spike in COVID-19 cases in the area, the district was forced to close after just five days of instruction, giving teachers, students, and parents only 72 hours notice.
"Everyone knows student learning is best when they're here, but you have to balance that with student safety," said William Hodges, the superintendent.
Green County is not alone in managing this kind of abrupt shift. More than a dozen school districts have opened their doors for in-person learning, only to switch, at least temporarily, to full-time virtual learning, according to published reports. Some made the switch for just a few days, while others say they don't know when they'll bring students back to brick-and-mortar classrooms.
Several of the districts contacted by Education Week closed because of a surge in cases in the surrounding community. Others closed only when teachers, other staff members, or students tested positive for the virus. In some cases, superintendents made the call, in the absence of clear direction from the federal government, or their state, or because they felt that the state guidance didn't fit the local context.
District leaders are finding their way through what has become an "untenable situation," said Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
"Superintendents are under an incredible amount of stress," he said. "There's been very little guidance in terms of what to do and how to do it. It's been very contradictory at times and very confusing."
The Trump administration is pushing for schools to stay open. But officials haven't offered much assistance on how to make that happen, he said. And some governors have followed suit, urging local districts to open their doors, but not providing much in the way of direction or resources.
That's left it up to district leaders to navigate pressure on both sides, from parents who want their kids back in class, and from other families who want to shield their children as much as possible from the virus.
"Superintendents are beside themselves. they know whatever they do, they're going to get hammered by one group or the other," Domenech said.
And that is especially the case when districts start with in-person classes, and then make a quick switch back to full-time remote learning.
That is why some districts, especially large urban ones, are choosing to start with full-time remote learning. They want to avoid having to make continual assessments, and the problems that come with transitioning back and forth. In fact, only 9 percent of urban districts chose to open for in-person instruction this fall, according to a report released in August by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
But smaller rural districts were more likely to welcome students for face-to-face instruction, according to the same report, with nearly two-thirds offering classes in person.
That means those districts have to enforce rules, such as mask wearing, and keep track of how the virus is spreading, both within their schools and local communities. Some districts have elected to do their own contact tracing to figure out which students have been exposed to the virus, so that they know who must quarantine in the event of a positive test.
Initially, Green County, which has about 1,700 students, gave families a choice between virtual and in-person learning. But the vast majority, 80 percent, decided to go with traditional instruction.
That's partly because of practical problems with connectivity. "South Central Kentucky is not a great place for internet access," Hodges said. The district has tried to remedy that, working with T-Mobile and Bluegrass Cellular to create access points around the area. But many students still have difficulty logging on.
The district planned for in-person instruction, with school buildings set up for social distancing. Each classroom was equipped with the number of desks necessary to keep students six feet apart. Students and teachers were required to wear masks.
If a class had too many students to fit in a regular size classroom, students were slated to take turns doing online instruction in larger spaces such as the gym, library, or cafeteria. Even though they weren't in the room with a teacher, that move allowed children to be supervised by adults and get access to the school building's broadband.
But, despite the preparation, the time for in-person instruction was short lived.
Hodges developed his own index system to monitor COVID-19 cases in the community. ("I'm an old math guy," he said). The area saw a spike when a number of patients tested positive at a long-term care facility. Many of the students have parents who work at the center, or relatives who live there, so it made sense to close schools for in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8.
Parents were aware of the index ahead of time, Hodges said, and knew that going all virtual was a distinct possibility. "They could see the index climbing, every day they knew it was coming," he said. "Obviously, they wanted their kids in school, but they were very understanding."
Although brief, the time in the school building helped prepare the district for what could be a largely remote school year. Teachers were able to use the time to assign Chromebooks to their students, for example, and gave teachers an opportunity to get to know their students in person before transitioning to a virtual environment.
Hodges is not sorry the district opened its doors, even if it was only for a short window.
"It was great to have those kids for those five days and prepare them for the virtual setting," Hodges said. "We will cherish each day we have with our students."
The Stillwater Public Schools in Oklahoma also had to close for in-person instruction after just a week, due to a spike in cases in the surrounding area. The district announced the change on a Sunday, at 4 pm, giving parents and teachers scant time to prepare for the pivot.
"The late notice was frustrating to many parents in the district and it was frustrating to us as well," said Barry Fuxa, a spokesman for the district. But he said it gave Stillwater time to distribute technology students could use to take classes from home. And he said the district will continue its system of monitoring community infection rates and reopen for in-person learning as soon as it's feasible.
"We do want to remain adaptive," Fuxa said. He suggests that if districts are planning on toggling between in-person and online instruction throughout the year, parents need to be clear on that choice and prepared for abrupt changes.
"Make sure you're really driving home that message to the community," he said.
Stacey Forcey-Moore, a spokeswoman for the Avon Community School Corp. in Indiana echoed that recommendation. The district, which serves about 10,000 students in central Indiana, had to shutter its doors briefly for in-person learning from Aug. 11-14, before transitioning to a hybrid schedule Aug. 17.
She suggested districts that want to try to offer in-person instruction should "work to begin preparing families now for uncertainty and changes throughout the school year." Her district wanted to start the school year with face-to-face classes so that teachers could form relationships with students, in case the district had to switch to virtual learning.
And she suggested that districts help "families to work on their contingency plans so they are prepared in the event schools close or their child is quarantined."
Quarantining students is something another Oklahoma district, Grove Public Schools, grappled with after it opened for in-person instruction on August 13, after going all-virtual last spring.
But Pat Dodson, the superintendent of the 2,300-student district, realized he would have to close down the high school when two teachers, and later a student, tested positive for the virus. Then another student tested positive at a school serving 4th through 6th graders. That student had a sibling in the elementary school. That meant the entire district had to close for in-person instruction.
Given all the staff who had been exposed, Dobson figured he'd need "17 substitutes. I don't have 17 substitutes on a good day," he said.
Grove Public Schools reverted to virtual instruction for two days, while district officials used video cameras and other methods to do its own contact tracing. Anyone who had been within six feet of the infected individuals, for 15 minutes or more, was told to stay home in quarantine for ten days, even if they had been wearing a mask.
That amounted to 80 people, including students, teachers , bus drivers, and other support staff.
"Of course, there was a big uproar," Dobson said. For one thing, parents were unhappy their children had to be in quarantine, even if they had no symptoms.
But he thinks making every effort to offer in-person instruction is worth it, given the needs of families in the area. "We're a rural community, parents can't be home with the kids. They have to be at their jobs," he said. And despite the headaches, he thinks the district is on the right track.
"Our plan is working, because we are still open," he said. "Everybody is putting in lots and lots of hours to try and keep it safe and keep it open."
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