‘Moving target’: Schools deal with new plans, Trump demands
TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — With little more than a month before millions of U.S. schoolchildren go back to class, much is still up in the air - and not just because of the surging number of coronavirus cases nationwide.
Last week, President Donald Trump and his administration demanded schools fully reopen right away, calling for new guidance from federal health officials and slamming schools that want to bring students back for only a few days a week.
At the same time, some states are just now issuing their own directives, and school district leaders say they expect those guidelines to be revised again before the classroom bells ring.
While there’s no indication school administrators are changing their plans yet because of the latest word from the White House, they are working on multiple reopening scenarios. Those cover everything from where students will eat lunch to navigating online learning.
Here is a look at what several school districts are planning and discussing.
Like many schools, the Forth Worth Independent School District in Texas will give parents a choice between in-person and remote learning. So far, about 40% have opted for virtual school, said Clint Bond, district spokesman.
The district is designing its plan with guidance released by the Texas Education Agency on Tuesday, but administrators are paying attention to the debate in Washington and waiting to see whether any new rules or clarified guidance comes from the Centers for Disease Control, Bond said.
“It hasn’t caused us to do anything right now,” he said.
Schools will adjust to allow for social distancing depending on the number of students who opt to attend. Among the considerations: Plexiglas separators for multi-student desks, separating individual desks and even using gyms, cafeterias and auditoriums as spaces distancing students.
“This is a dance we’re learning as we go,” Bond said.
In suburban Cincinnati, the Lakota School District’s reopening framework has four different outlines, from nearly all students returning to their classrooms to entirely online instruction.
While the intent now is for classrooms to reopen fully next month, Superintendent Matthew Miller’s message to parents has been this: “What I’m telling you now could change in an hour.”
The district’s decisions, he said, are being based on advice from education and health experts, not politicians. A lot of what’s coming out of Washington and the state capital isn’t helping, he said.
“It just puts us in a bad situation because we know how polarizing this can be,” Miller said.
For now, the district is “in a holding pattern” while it waits to see if there is any new guidance, he said. “This is probably going to change two or three times before school starts.”
All students in Tennessee’s second-biggest district will start the year virtually, an announcement made Thursday on the heels of Trump’s threat to hold back federal money if districts don’t open their buildings.
Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Adrienne Battle said students won’t return to classrooms until at least after Labor Day.
“This will allow social distancing, mask mandates and other measures to take effect and reduce the spread of COVID-19 before tens of thousands of students and staff return to our schools,” she said.
Nashville has seen some of its worst daily totals for COVID-19 confirmed cases in the past week.
In northeastern Tennessee, schools in Sullivan County are on schedule to fully open as long as the coronavirus cases don’t rise, said David Cox, the director of schools.
The district is working off a plan it devised with local health officials and is modeled after the Nashville district’s plan, he said. “I don’t think any plan is rigid,” he said.
Davis School District, just outside Salt Lake City, is working to reconfigure its classrooms to allow more space between students, but that’s proving to be a challenge.
“You know, we don’t have the ability, unfortunately, to move our classroom walls,” said spokesman Chris Williams.
There will be no salad bars at lunch and students will no longer be able to spoon out their own food servings in the cafeteria. Lunches will be “grab-and-go,” eaten during multiple periods so fewer students are mingling in the cafeteria.
The district, he said, hasn’t altered its plans because of the Trump administration’s recent statements, but it now will require masks after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced a mandate.
“It’s an ever-moving target,” Superintendent Chris Knutsen said about the reopening framework for the Florence Unified School District, southeast of Phoenix.
He, too, said Trump’s comments haven’t affected the district’s intentions, but he does want more guidance from state officials, especially on wearing masks when social distancing isn’t possible in classrooms or on buses, he said.
The district, which has students coming from across 1,000 square miles, can’t reduce capacity on its buses. “We would have to run our buses 24 hours a day to try to get our kids back to school,” he said.
Classrooms pose a similar problem, trying to space desks six feet apart, Knutsen said.
“So you put masks on everybody on the bus and in the classroom and you try to go back to school as normal,” he said. “So, I don’t know. I mean, it’s a mess.”
Kelleher reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writers Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York, and Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed.