A student wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer

Christina Warner feels fairly confident that, for now, the school her 7-year-old daughter attends has proper protocols in place to deal with coronavirus this upcoming school year.

The Catholic school in Canton, Mich., is planning for smaller classes to allow for social distancing and has rules about face masks. Plus, transmission is low in the area.

“But I don’t know how long it’s going to last,” says Warner, adding that she's comfortable switching back to virtual schooling if that’s what’s deemed necessary by the school or state.

Warner's uncertainty about what will happen this school year is playing out in homes across the country, as some school systems are opening as planned and others are opening virtually, at least at first.

Sixty-two percent of Americans are "not too confident" or "not confident at all" that schools will be able to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during in-person classes, according to a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,031 U.S. adults. Just 19 percent of respondents thought schools should reopen fully, while 35 percent said all classes should be online. Black and Hispanic Americans, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, were more likely than white Americans to prefer that schools remain closed (57 and 52 percent, respectively, vs. 25 percent).

More on COVID-19

Debate about how to best approach this school year is widespread, even among some government experts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently called reopening schools "critically important for our public health.” And the agency's newly updated guidance strongly emphasizes the importance of resuming in-person learning within the next couple of months.

Yet Erin K. Sauber-Schatz, Ph.D., the lead for the CDC Community Interventions and Critical Populations Task Force for the COVID-19 response, said that “decisions about how to reopen schools safely should be made on local needs and the level of community transmission. Each school in each community will have different needs and should implement the strategies that meet those needs.”

Some parents, like Juliana Weiss-Roessler, who lives near Austin, Texas, are scrambling to put alternatives in place. “We are working on forming a learning pod with two families in our area, so they can participate in the virtual learning option together,” says the mother of two elementary school students. “We're counting on the fact that our school district is saying they'll do a better job this time supporting virtual learning.”

Other parents, meantime, have no plans to send their kids back anytime soon.

“For my family, my position is this: My children will not attend an in-person class, until a vaccine is widely available,” says Mike Rogers, a father of two teens in Wisconsin who has health conditions that put him at greater risk for a severe case of COVID-19.

“I love my kids enough to never put them in a situation where every day they have to ask themselves if they are accidentally going to kill their father,” the IT professional adds.

But if you're unsure what you or your school district will do, or if your school is opening and you're sending your children back, here are some tips to keep in mind.

What Should Happen Before Reopening

Experts say we already know what needs to be done to open schools in a safer way.

“Just as the economy can’t fully reopen until the schools open, the schools won’t be able to fully reopen until we get COVID under control,” says Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of policy and advocacy at the School Superintendents Association. “The ability to open reflects the willingness and ability of the community that schools serve to safely get COVID response under control.”

To consider reopening, positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths should all be trending down, said Wendy Armstrong, M.D., a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), on a recent press call. The benchmark often suggested by public health groups is that less than 5 percent of community COVID-19 tests should come back positive.

Administrators also need to develop reopening plans and implement a series of strategies to reduce the chances of a school-based outbreak.

A School Safety Checklist

There’s no way to guarantee complete safety when reopening schools, according to Tom Frieden, M.D., former CDC director and president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a group focused on preventing epidemics and deaths from cardiovascular disease and part of global nonprofit Vital Strategies. “The virus is here to stay for a while, and we can’t expect zero risk,” he says.

But certain steps can help lower transmission risks in schools, according to experts. The CDC's guidance for schools has useful information, and groups including Resolve to Save Lives have also put out detailed reports on safer school reopening.

“Whatever school you are going to, make sure you understand the plan the school has and that you are confident in that plan,” says Nathanial Beers, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. And consider how schools say they’ll handle the following:

Students and school staff need to wear face coverings, because research shows this will help prevent coronavirus spread, says Beers. Teachers of younger kids and those with certain disabilities should look into clear masks, because many of these students need to watch mouth movements to learn best. Note: The CDC doesn't recommend masks for children under age 2 or for people with conditions that cause serious difficulty breathing.

Remember that mask-wearing is hard, says Beers, and many people—younger kids especially—will need to take mask breaks. Ideally, this should be outdoors, where everyone can stay at least 6 feet apart. For older kids, he suggests “allowing students, within the realm of acceptable, to use their mask as a space of individual identity.”

Students and staff should try to stay 6 feet apart. Activities that don’t allow for distancing, such as certain sports, may simply not be feasible.

Keeping elementary school students in "pods"—groups where they only interact with each other—can help further limit contact with others.

For older kids, especially those in grades 9 to 12, schools may want to consider longer instructional periods for each subject, to reduce the number of times they have to switch classrooms. That will cut down on hallway traffic, says the AAP's Beers. 

To cut class sizes, some schools may need a hybrid plan—having youngsters attend in-person only on some days of the week or on alternating weeks, says Frieden, the former CDC director. One-third of Americans think a partial reopening, with students splitting time between in-person and online classes, is the best plan, according to CR's survey.

Schools can also consider outdoor classes as weather permits, and may need to stagger school start and end times, to reduce the number of students going through the front door at the same time. Areas that use school buses may need to plan for having fewer students on them, ideally one person per seat, with an empty bench between.

Some of these strategies will help reduce the number of different students whom teachers interact with each day. But schools may need to find other ways to do this, too. And because staff members must distance from each other, it will mean avoiding joint meals in break rooms. In addition, because schools should discourage unnecessary visitors, you probably won’t be able to enter the building with your child, Beers says.

Schools should clearly outline their cleaning protocols. According to the CDC, routine cleaning with soap and water will help reduce exposure. But frequently touched surfaces like light switches and outdoor railings should be regularly disinfected using an EPA-approved disinfectant or bleach solution. This should be done at least once a day according to the CDC, and ideally after each use.

Optimizing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can reduce the possibility of airborne exposure in schools, according to ASHRAE (formerly known as American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers). It has issued guidance for school reopening, which includes recommendations for steps like ensuring that filters are installed correctly and changed regularly. Ask administrators whether the school is following this guidance.

You might ask about the general state of your school's HVAC. About one-third of schools need more modernized ventilation systems, a June Government Accountability Office report says. Schools with inadequate ventilation may need to update their systems, says Ellerson Ng of the School Superintendents Association. 

For schools without these systems, even opening windows can help increase ventilation, especially if there are fewer people than usual in each classroom.

Schools may also need hand-washing stations, experts say, and should try to keep doors open so that students and staff aren’t grabbing handles throughout the day.

It’s not practical or necessary to test all students and teachers for COVID-19 daily or weekly, according to IDSA's Armstrong. Schools should make rapid turnaround tests available so that students and staff with symptoms can quickly get results. That way, if anyone tests positive, their contacts can be traced and tested.

Despite precautions, some coronavirus cases will inevitably emerge in schools. Policies should clearly spell out when positive cases lead to a school closure and for how long, where students who appear to have symptoms are assessed, and how the administration will notify staff and families whose children may have been exposed. Students who stay home while sick should face no penalties.  

Schools should prioritize reopening for younger children and kids with special needs. These youngsters are less able to learn virtually, according to a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Where fully reopening is too challenging, having just these students do in-person learning could help. Some experts have suggested that administrators could also prioritize limited opening for lower-income students and the children of essential workers.

Schools or communities will need to provide masks and sanitizer for kids, especially when parents are unable to do so. Child-sized masks are in limited supply—some places, like California, have reportedly purchased millions to give to students.

Steps Parents Should Take

For certain families, even limited in-person school might not currently be ideal, especially if the virus isn’t under control in their area.

Students with pre-existing conditions may want to opt for distance learning. That's because health issues such as congenital heart disease, immunosuppression, or genetic, neurologic, or metabolic disorders hike their risk of significant consequences from coronavirus, says the AAP's Beers. 

Families that live with others at higher risk will need to weigh the risks and benefits of in-person school, according to Resolve to Save Lives. Parents should decide what’s in the best interest of the entire household, including after-school caregivers, says Beers. The CDC offers a tool to help parents make the call that's right for them.

Some teachers may need accommodations, too. Teachers at high-risk or who have a high-risk person in their household should be allowed to serve as remote learning experts, according to a paper by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health experts.

For families whose kids may attend in-person school, now is the time to start preparing them for the changes ahead. Explain to little ones that instead of walking them into the classroom, you’ll hug outside the building before they enter.

Other aspects of dropoff and pickup may also change. You may need to forgo or strictly limit carpooling and may want to keep hand sanitizer in the car. That way, you can offer a spritz at pickup.

It’s also key to talk to kids about mask-wearing at school. For younger kids, explain why it’s important—that by doing this they can help protect their friends and family, Ellerson Ng says.

Practice good hand hygiene together now. That way, you'll feel confident kids will wash properly when they're away from you. When schools open, you may want to send kids with masks (spares can be handy) and an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to use when soap and water are unavailable.

If you’re thinking about an alternative approach like a learning pod, consider the pros and possible cons. A pod, says Weiss-Roessler of Texas, will give her kids an opportunity to socialize while learning. But “we know that no matter what, forming a pod increases our risk of getting COVID-19,” she says. “The primary concern was finding families that were taking the threat seriously.”

Will Schools Really Reopen Soon?

School reopenings look unlikely in many places—though it's still possible to change that course, according to Frieden. In much of the country, administrators have announced that the first weeks or months will be virtual only. Some have said they’ll have partial in-person instruction, while others are still trying to decide.

Educators are also putting pressure on schools. In Florida, which has recently averaged more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases a day, the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit to stop the state from forcing schools to reopen before the virus is contained.

“We’re looking for some reason and sensibility for this because lives are in the balance, literally,” says Dave Galloway, a sixth grade science teacher in the Florida panhandle. “I’m hoping the brakes are pumped, there’s a bit of a pause, and there’s a reflection on the data and the science that should direct any movement forward.” 

And schools face other challenges. Though strategies such as universal mask-wearing are inexpensive and effective, others, like improvements to ventilation systems, may be out of reach.

The needed infrastructure upgrades, additional hand-washing stations, and cleaning staff will require between $60 and $80 million in additional funding for Philadelphia alone, William Hite Jr., Ed.D., the city’s school superintendent, said on a press call hosted by Resolve to Save Lives.

Schools’ reopening plans will also need to be flexible as transmission rates change. “I think some places will be able to do it, many places will not be able to do it because they’ve just got too much spread of disease,” Frieden says. “But no place is going to do it successfully unless they do it carefully.”