August 21, 2020

America Heads Back to School


  • School districts and colleges are reopening for classes in person, remotely, or using a hybrid model, based on local coronavirus conditions and other factors.
  • While researchers develop vaccines and treatments, schools will rely on additional testing and protection measures such as masks to ensure they can provide a safe, high-quality education.
  • In the CARES Act, Congress gave schools money to adapt to COVID-19 and plan for the coming academic year. Republicans have proposed more aid to help cover the costs of reopening.

Students going back to school will be attending class in person, following lessons remotely, or doing a mix of both. Given the uncertain path of the coronavirus, reopening plans of school districts and colleges have had to prioritize safety and consider their budgets, local disease trends, and the interests of parents and teachers. As researchers work to develop vaccines and treatments, testing and other safety measures are vital to keeping schools safe. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act included $30.75 billion to help schools respond to the virus and plan for the new academic year. Senate Republicans have proposed $105 billion more to help schools meet students’ education needs and safely reopen.

One District’s Back-to-School Plan

Back to School

planning to reopen the schools

Schools have had to adapt ever since the coronavirus pandemic forced them to switch to teaching remotely in March. This unplanned experiment in distance education was rife with problems, including low student engagement, technology issues, and a lack of clear plans even as the pandemic continued for months. Parents tried to juggle their work schedules to help match their children’s schoolwork and often had to learn how to operate a home school. Many school districts struggled to figure out if the shutdowns were temporary or would last the rest of last school year, which hampered their ability to come up with better solutions. This uncertainty lingered over the summer, and some schools spent those months planning for an in-person or hybrid reopening, only for the plans to change.

Now, many school districts nationwide are welcoming back students according to reopening plans that use state and federal guidance. Education Week has been tracking some districts’ plans, with frequent changes as the situation evolves. As of August 14, about half of the more than 500 districts on the list were reopening with remote learning only. A little more than one-quarter were offering full-time, in-person instruction, often with a remote option for students who preferred not to return to the school building. The rest had chosen a hybrid model – some combination of in-person and remote learning – and a few had still not decided what they are doing. The Jefferson County public school system in Colorado is bringing students back to classrooms after a two-week delay, while also offering a fully remote option for anyone who chooses it. For younger grades the plan is to have students in the classroom full time; older students will alternate days at home and in school. Los Angeles, Chicago, and most of the other largest districts plan to teach fully online until public health conditions improve in their areas. Meanwhile, Utah’s Alpine School District – with more than 80,000 students – started the school year on August 18 and expected about 90% of its students would be attending class in person.

Schools have been working to do better this fall than they did in the spring, though the task is daunting. One study estimated that students will return to school far less prepared than usual, with younger students in mathematics “nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.” Since virtual learning will remain a large part of many students’ lives for at least the next few months, schools are trying to provide more computers and high-speed internet access for students who lack them.

The schools reopening their buildings to classes are adding safeguards to mitigate transmission of the virus as much as possible. They have spaced desks farther apart, are planning to put fewer students on buses, cleaning more often, and checking students’ temperatures. Some schools in Maine and Vermont plan to teach more often in outdoor classrooms. Schools also have formed contingency plans to switch to online learning if someone gets sick or the community has a rise in new cases. A recent Gallup poll found that 36% of parents of school-age children say they want full-time, in-person school for their children, down from 56% in the spring. Another 36% now say they want a hybrid system, while 28% favor fully remote learning, up from 7% a few months ago.

Colleges and universities also face reopening challenges. Several schools have already had outbreaks tied to returning students partying in large groups. To try to limit risk, most colleges are offering a blend of in-person and virtual classes, some after delaying their start dates. Others have dropped plans for in-person classes entirely, choosing to start fully online instead. On campus, schools’ safety protocols include attempts to require masks and social distancing, limit group gatherings, and conduct periodic testing. Students and families have bristled at paying regular tuition for classes that now are largely or entirely online. Some schools are discounting tuition and room and board or freezing rates, citing the pandemic’s uncertainties and the financial strain it has caused students and families. Meanwhile, colleges have lost revenue from the pandemic and incurred new costs to set up online programs and put safety measures in place on campus. The pandemic worsened the financial problems at schools such as Urbana University in Ohio and MacMurray College in Illinois, and they shut down.


The Trump administration has promoted the importance of schools reopening safely. It has released guidance for schools that reopen for in-person classes, including how to protect high-risk teachers and students. It also is sending 125 million reusable facemasks to school districts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance for school administrators that gives strategies for reopening safely. It also has provided information to help parents decide whether to send their kids back to class and to get them ready for the school year.

The administration has noted that students benefit by being in school physically because it is where they develop social and emotional skills and often where they receive meals and mental health services. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that when students are away from school for a long time, it is “difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use,” and other risks. The group added that decisions to reopen schools should be based on evidence and account for local public health conditions and schools’ capacity to provide in-person instruction safely. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine also has concluded that younger students and those with special needs especially benefit from being in school in person.

Congress has been working to help states, colleges, and school districts reopen safely and provide a high-quality education. This includes numerous hearings on the pandemic and safely going back to school, as well as passing historic relief legislation.

In the CARES Act, Congress provided $30.75 billion through an education stabilization fund to help schools adapt and respond to the coronavirus. It included $13.2 billion to help K-12 schools with things like expanding remote learning programs and training teachers, buying devices, sanitizing their facilities, and holding summer programs. Colleges received $6.3 billion to distribute to students as emergency grants for housing, food, and similar needs due to coronavirus-related campus disruptions. Congress gave another $6.3 billion to colleges for their remote education programs, additional cleaning, and other costs due to campus disruptions. Governors received $3 billion that they could use for K-12 schools, colleges, child care, or other education-related services. Congress reserved a small share of the CARES Act’s funds for “Rethink K-12 Education Models” grants. On July 29, the Department of Education awarded more than $180 million through this program to 11 states, which will use the money for things such as virtual courses, devices, and teacher training on remote and hybrid instruction.

In the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools Act, Senate Republicans proposed another $105 billion for schools. The bill builds on the CARES Act and includes $70 billion more for elementary and secondary education, with proportional funds for private schools. School districts would receive one-third of this money right away to help with the extra costs they are facing. The other two-thirds would go to help schools cover added costs of reopening for in-person learning. These funds will help schools increase internet access for students, expand their education technology, and train teachers, all to improve remote learning. It will help them reconfigure their facilities, add physical barriers, buy PPE, and improve their ventilation systems, so they can provide a safe environment for when students, teachers, and staff return. The proposal gives colleges and universities an additional $29 billion to defray institutional expenses and make up for lost revenue due to the coronavirus, as well as to provide financial aid grants to students. It also includes another $5 billion in flexible education funding for governors, and $1 billion for the Bureau of Indian Education and Outlying Areas.

Issue Tags: COVID-19, Education