Can schools reopen safely this fall?
04:27 - Source: CNN

(CNN) – After months out of the classroom, Sarah Gross, a high school English teacher in New Jersey, is eager for schools to reopen in the fall.

But she’s skeptical about how that could happen safely as Covid-19 cases rise across the country.

“I desperately want to go back to my classroom,” Gross told CNN. “But I think that a lot of people who call for schools to reopen – especially because we need childcare or the economy to restart – don’t have any idea of what schools look like today.”

Sarah Gross worries about the risk of returning to school for her vulnerable colleagues.

Teachers who spoke to CNN said they are trying to puzzle out an avalanche of unanswered questions about schooling amid a global pandemic. As coronavirus case numbers rise, they are weighing the risks to students and colleagues, their families and themselves.

Decisions about whether schools will reopen, and in what capacity, have mostly been left to school districts, with some guidance from state officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But as President Donald Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other politicians pressure schools to reopen, there are no easy answers.

“I think a lot of times people forget that kids don’t go to school by themselves,” Gross said. “The schools are run by a lot of adults, and a lot of those adults are especially vulnerable to coronavirus.”

Fears about their health

Top of mind for many educators are the health risks involved with returning to the classroom, particularly for their own families and fellow educators.

Phil Strunk, 28, a middle school US history teacher in northern Virginia, said he would “love to go back to school as long as we do it safely.”

“But I have a pregnant wife at home,” he said. “I don’t want to bring anything home to her.”

Jordan Grinnell, 33, a high school journalism teacher in the Dallas area, has no kids and no underlying health conditions. But she sees her parents every week. Both are in their 60s, and Grinnell worries about passing something to them, particularly after her father’s recent surgery for prostate cancer.

“If I do go back to school,” she wondered, “does that mean I need to not visit them for a whole semester?”

Teachers also fear for their colleagues, some of whom are vulnerable to the coronavirus because they are older or have health conditions. Gross, who is 37 years old, said she’s not only worried about teachers but also bus drivers, lunch aids and secretaries.

Angela McByrd, 30, a high school statistics teacher for a Chicago charter school network, pointed out that classrooms are not the most sanitary places to begin with. “Kids get sick easily and they can definitely spread things very quickly,” McByrd said.

Before the coronavirus, parents would send their kids to school sick, McByrd said. “And I wonder if that type of thing would happen in this time,” she said, “because parents don’t have childcare.”

Angela McByrd wonders if parents will continue to send their children to school sick, even in a pandemic.

Manuel Rustin frets about his students and their families. Rustin, a 40-year-old high school history teacher in Pasadena, California, said many of his pupils live in extended family units, with older relatives. And he worries students could bring the coronavirus home.

But he hates to imagine a student getting sick at school. “I don’t think anybody would be willing to name the one student you’re willing to let be intubated” based on reopening schools, he said.

“What’s the number of students or student family members that we’re okay with possibly losing because of being pressured to show up in person?” he asked.

Unanswered questions

Besides their health concerns, teachers are imagining the myriad scenarios that could play out as the start of the school year approaches – for many districts, in a matter of weeks.

After New Jersey released its guidelines for the fall, Gross said she and her colleagues began collecting questions in a Google Doc. Now, after circulating it among other teachers, there are nearly 400 questions.

Jillian Heise says there are still so many questions that "don't seem to have answers."

Some seem basic, like, how will shared instruments in music classes be cleaned? But others are more terrifying, Gross said, such as: “If a teacher contracts Covid and it can be contact-traced back to the classroom, will the pension system pay out their life insurance to their surviving family members?”

Jillian Heise, a 40-year-old elementary school librarian in southeast Wisconsin, wondered how outbreaks could derail whatever plans schools have in place. What happens, for example, if she tests positive for Covid-19?

“Does the whole school shutdown? Because I’ve been in contact with every classroom if I’m going in person,” Heise said. She also raised the following questions: What if a teacher has to quarantine? Does the class have to quarantine as well? Will they learn at home? Does the teacher have to teach if he or she is quarantined? Would the teacher be paid?

“Those are the questions that a lot of teachers are asking about right now that don’t seem to have answers,” Heise said.

Others expressed skepticism about social distancing and possible mask mandates for students. While those seem reasonable for older students, it could be difficult for younger children to adhere to those guidelines all day, they said.

Rustin pointed to confrontations between adults over mask mandates. “Those adults have kids,” he said.

“So schools that try to enforce that are going to have to reconcile with the kids whose parents are saying this is all a hoax,” he said. “That’s a concern, big time.”

School will not look the same

Many school districts have yet to formalize plans for the fall. But some have started, or plan to start, surveying parents and teachers to gauge their level of comfort. The Los Angeles Unified School District found in a survey that 20% of families and 36% of staff did not want to return to school, Superintendent Austin Beutner said in June.

Some district plans involve hybrid models. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that schools would use “blended learning” if they reopen in the fall, meaning students will learn in person some days and remotely on others.

“Most schools will not be able to have all their kids in school at the same time,” the mayor said.

Many teachers are left wondering how they can best prepare for the coming school year. They’re planners by nature, said Karla Amaya, 45, a middle school English teacher in Los Angeles. “But we don’t know what we’re getting ready for,” she said.

Regardless of plans, schools will not look the way they did before the pandemic, especially with social distancing, no group activities and little socializing.

“You can’t hold a kindergartener’s hand or give them a hug when they’re crying the first day,” Heise said. “How do you build relationships and community when you’re trying to keep everything at a distance for life safety?”

Even hybrid models are flawed compromises, some teachers said. Amaya said that even if only half of the students come in one part of the day, followed by the other half, they are still at risk.

“We’re forgetting there’s a common denominator among all these kids: the teacher,” she said.

What would make teachers feel safer

Every educator who spoke to CNN said they wanted to return to the classroom.

Manuel Rustin, seen in this still image from a remote learning video, says returning to the class is preferred. But he's not sure it can be done safely.

“Being with students is the preferred model of learning. I think before this whole crisis maybe some people would have imagined that online learning was the next big thing, but I think now we see that it’s very limited,” said Rustin, the Pasadena history teacher. “That in-person connection is still very important.”

“But I just don’t see how at all that could happen,” he said.

While each teacher was skeptical about returning to the classroom, some felt there were certain things that would make them feel safer.

“The big thing is universal mask-wearing,” said Strunk, the middle school teacher in Virginia. “Establish the routine with both adults and students beforehand to make it much more the social norm.”

McByrd would prefer to spend the first quarter in school completely online, and allow school districts to make decisions about subsequent quarters based on the current data.

“Looking and determining whether it is viable to open for the next quarter would actually make me feel the most safe,” she said.

Phil Strunk wants to see mask-wearing become the social norm before students return to the classroom.

Gross wants to see cases decrease in New Jersey and nationwide, she said. It’s hard to feel comfortable going back to school when her phone is buzzing with a news alert that yet another record for new cases was broken, she said.

Amaya agreed, saying if cases were going down, more teachers would feel confident. “But it doesn’t make sense to go fully back when we’re in a worse place off today than we were” when schools closed this spring, Amaya said.

“I think we all look forward to someday being able to teach this pandemic as history instead of as present,” Strunk said.

CNN’s Christina Zdanowicz and Alisha Ebrahimji contributed to this report.