Will Distance Learning Be the New Normal When Schools Reopen? Here’s What Experts Predict After COVID-19

Melissa Mills

As parts of the country reopen, most schools and daycares remain closed. In nearly all states—and not just the hardest-hit areas like New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts—in-person classes have already been canceled through the end of the 2019-2020 academic year. But how long can this continue? How effective is virtual learning, really? And how sustainable is this "new normal" created by the coronavirus?

Even with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for reopening and working with state and local health departments, there's a big question mark as to what comes next for schools and child care centers in the U.S.

“We’ll just have to see on a step-by-step basis,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a Senate committee hearing this week. “We have a very large country, and the dynamics of the outbreak are different in different regions of the country, so I would imagine that situations regarding school will be very different in one region versus another.”

So, yeah, the answer to what schools and daycares will look like in the next stages of the pandemic is: it depends. The thing is, we're not really sure when things will go back to normal. And despite President Trump pushing for schools to reopen as soon as possible, it turns out that some children are more affected by the coronavirus than we previously thought. More than 110 children have come down with a rare, mysterious new illness called pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome; at least three have died in New York, and it appears to be linked to COVID-19. Like the coronavirus itself, the situation surrounding multisystem inflammatory syndrome—which seems to be an immune system overreaction to COVID-19 exposure—is fast-changing, and the CDC has put out a health alert for doctors.

We can't be safe enough when it comes to protecting our kids, but let's face it: We've all been playing the waiting game for weeks now. As time goes on, it seems there are more questions than answers. That's why we spoke with parents, educators, daycare center owners, and therapists to get a sense of what comes next. Let's break it down into a few very real scenarios to wrap our heads around what we could be facing.

Scenario 1: Everything Opens up by Summer

Schools in more than 40 states will not be opening back up for students this school year. That means another month of distance learning, which is only causing more stress for parents and, for many families, is just not working, period.

When it comes to daycare centers—17 percent of which have closed to everyone but kids of essential workers—it's vital that they get funding fast, and parents will need child care if they're expected to go back to work. The child care industry requested $50 billion in relief funding, but only received $3.5 billion of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.

"All of our staff is furloughed and we are hoping to bring everyone back once this is all over," says Emily Sousa, director of Tiny Sprouts Early Childhood Center in Rutherford, New Jersey. "That is all dependent on how things look after daycares are allowed to open."

According to Sousa, daycare is going to look very different once they get the official OK to open from local governments. From front door drop-off and using masks and gloves, to mandating clothing and limiting sensory and outdoor play, children might have a vastly different experience when they reenter their child care centers.

For parents of older children who rely on summer school and camps while they're at work, there might be a world where opening up sleepaway camps is possible. Ephram Caflun, owner of Camp Wekeela in Hartford, Maine, told NorthJersey.com that his camp would provide tests for campers and staff prior to arrival, and then everyone would basically quarantine together for the duration of camp.

Day camps and summer schools, on the other hand, face more uncertainty. With little guidance from government, owners feel that even if they do open, many parents won't yet feel confident sending their kids.

Scenario 2: Everything Opens up by the Fall

It's still unclear what will happen in the fall but many experts agree there will still be a remote learning component.

"I really wish school districts would just call it a year and begin developing plans for [this] scenario," says Steve Yawitz, a fifth-grade teacher at Castlio Elementary School in St. Charles, Missouri, and a dad who's splitting the workday with his wife who's also a teacher. "We all had to hastily cobble together a plan for virtual learning for the remainder of '19-20. I think it'd be better to just write the rest of this year off and to develop a plan for virtual learning that is as meaningful as possible and have it ready at the outset of the '20-21 school year."

Many parents share the same sentiment, and so too do many low-income, vulnerable students, as well as many students with disabilities or special learning needs who aren't being adequately served by distance learning. And this is all in addition to an already existing achievement gap in the education system, where students of color, non-native English speakers, and kids in lower-income families are at a disadvantage when compared to those who are more affluent, according to Byron Sanders, president and CEO of Big Thought, a nonprofit working to close the opportunity gap.

Still, some educators are staying positive and trying to figure out how to make this new normal work. Virtual schooling "is sustainable as long as we continue to partner with our parents and offer them opportunities to have a voice," says Erin C.O. Barisano, Ed.D., superintendent of 41 Catholic schools for the Diocese of Orange in Southern California. "We believe that parents are the primary educators of their children and we value their partnership in all aspects of education, not just during distance learning."

With this, Dr. Barisano says some schools may just run pilot programs over the summer to run through social distancing, face masks, and cleaning protocol. Come September, things will be a little different if kids are allowed to resume in-person classes. "Cohorts of students will become the norm where teachers rotate and students remain in the same classroom throughout the day," says Dr. Barisano.

It seems that checking back in with families and assessing students—from their academic level to their mental and emotional well-being—will be key to getting things off the ground in the fall, especially as teachers face a new challenge: meeting brand new students, many of whom they've never met face-to-face, Yawitz points out.

Scenario 3: Everything Opens up by January 2021, or Possibly Later

"In the fall, I can envision a hybrid of being at school and virtual learning for ages 6 and above," says Maysaa Bazna, Ed.D., founder and director of Pono, an independent school in New York City. But if things don't resume by September, virtual schooling will likely continue well into 2021. This remote learning may not work best for all students, and it certainly hasn't been easy on teachers.

"Teachers are spending more than six hours of planning for a couple of hours of virtual learning a day, with a lot of doubt about how it will be received by the children," says Dr. Bazna. "Teachers are feeling exhausted from being on the screen for planning and for delivering virtual content. Even after almost two months of virtual learning, we are still in the period of trial and error. The only resource our teachers have is learning from each other's experiences and locating resources and making the best out of them."

It's already been hard to keep students engaged virtually, and it's likely only going to get harder. It's overwhelming for kids, who have limited social outlets, but educators are feeling just as burned out from feeling like they have to be more available than usual.

"My biggest concern during this time is the burnout or fatigue of the children, parents, and school staff," says Heather Melms, M.S., CF-SLP, a New York City school speech-language pathologist (who also happens to be my sister). "Of course, I will do anything I can to ensure the success of my students, but doing this without a separation of home and work can make it hard to turn off," she says. "Likewise, the children are expected to do the same amount of work as when they were in school but are denied access to their friends or the same level of movement."

Beyond the emotional, mental health, and educational concerns of schools reopening after the start of the school year, there's a very real economic concern that comes with a lack of child care and a lack of income for businesses.

"At this point, most large and small preschools and daycares will go bankrupt," says Sousa. "We are really hoping this is not the case, but if so, we would continue to carry out an academic year for those who are age-appropriate and for parents who want to purchase this school-made curriculum." 

The Most Likely Outcomes

Most of the U.S. is likely looking at some sort of fall 2020 reopening of schools and daycares. Taking into account health and safety concerns, we'll probably see smaller class sizes, staggered schedules, and new entry and exit plans, says Adrian Brooks, a ninth-grade teacher at the Bronx High School For Law And Community Service in New York.

"We will be in a situation where we will need to reinvent the wheel. We will need to be creative and adaptable in meeting the needs of our students and providing them with an equitable school experience," says Dani Kennis, special education teacher and technology coach in Clarkstown Central School District in New York.

According to Sanders, we could be looking at only two or three days a week of in-person classes once things resume, with distance learning the rest of the time.

"Remote learning is not working because it is triage, not long-term care," says Brooks. "Remote learning is not a sustainable model for education across the country. Many special education students are suffering from the lack of in-school instruction and support measures, which don’t exist in-home for them. Access to adequate technology and Wi-Fi isn’t something all students are afforded. This greatly inhibits many students from sufficient instruction."

"The main thing we need to do is work toward achieving an equitable society and redefine policies that provide equitable societies," says Sanders. That means families need to have access to internet and devices in the first place to even have a chance to keep up.

As for the well-being of students, especially the little ones? They'll likely be OK in the long-run. "Kids are like sponges and easily absorb everything as soon as it is taught to them," says Sousa. "I look at this as an opportunity for parents to work on life skills like cooking, cleaning, and self-care that might not necessarily be taught so in-depth at school."

If you've got an older child at home, it's not a bad idea to take a break from the stress of virtual learning and focus on what makes your family happy and how you can thrive as a unit. At the end of the day, there are a lot of unknowns right now and all you have control over is how you manage your time with your kids and find a new normal that works for you.