Back to School in a Pandemic: What Families Can Expect This Fall

back to school

Verywell / Catherine Song

Key Takeaways

  • Amidst concerns of students falling behind, there is a nationwide push to reopen schools in some capacity.
  • Many schools may implement a back-to-school schedule that looks different from the traditional five-day school week.
  • Consider the pros and cons of each option if your school system offers you a choice this fall.

Next month, kids across the U.S. will enter school buildings that have been vacant since mid-March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those early days and weeks of the shutdown may have crept by, but now it seems time is flying, and it’s almost back to school time!

But what will that look like this fall? With many states still reporting record-high cases of coronavirus, it’s clear that the 2020–21 school year will look nothing like anything our kids have ever experienced before.

What Might School Look Like this Fall?

Regardless of which days your kids are in school and for how long, things are likely to look pretty different when they enter the school building. School systems across the country are spending time this summer coming up with comprehensive plans for regular cleaning and disinfecting, teachers are being briefed on safety measures put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and guidelines are being established for social distancing and mask wearing.

Here are some other measures being considered for the fall, as suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):

  • Staggered entrance times
  • Having students stay in one room all day
  • Spacing desks at least 3 feet apart
  • Mask wearing for adults and older students all day except while working alone at a desk
  • Regular temperature screenings (when possible)
  • Altered bussing schedules with seat assignments and mask requirements

Suffice to say, there are issues in play beyond the simple act of putting kids back in the classroom. Here, we’ll examine the different scenarios you may be faced with as the time draws near for your child to return to school.

If these seem foreign to you, don’t worry—you’ll likely receive all the information you need in order to make a decision once your local school district decides what back-to-school will look like in your area.

But for now, as the lazy days of summer are at their height, it might be a good time to start thinking about your options and begin to wrap your head around this upcoming educational year that will take place during these uncommon times.

Schools across the country are working hard to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in an attempt to keep kids and staff members safe. How they do that, though, will vary. Some schools will opt for in-person learning, while others may not offer that at all. It’s too soon to tell exactly how your kids’ school experience will be. But we’ve outlined some of the options you might see once your school or district establishes a back to school plan.

100% In-Person

As it stands right now, several states are weighing whether to return students to school buildings full-time in the fall, while Florida and Texas have announced a return to school full-time. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the country, some educators in Virginia have pushed back entirely, fearing for their health and safety.

In a move that may seem surprising, the American Academy of Pediatrics is advocating for 100% in-person learning this school year.

American Academy of Pediatrics

Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits.

— American Academy of Pediatrics

Estimates suggest that students may return to school this fall with approximately 63% to 68% of the usually expected learning gains in reading, and around 37% to 50% of the expected gains in math.

Further time out of the classroom is almost certain to have a negative impact on education, especially for younger kids who are still in crucial stages of development. Of course, a full return to school presupposes a degree of safety and precautionary behavior that may not match the reality for some schools.

Logistically, in-person learning reduces the burden working parents have faced during school closures. A return to full-time school will offer respite for families who rely on their kids' familiar schedule (that is, being in school all day) to make things work each week.

It's important to note that kids could still experience some degree of at-home learning if your state reverts to a lower phase of reopening due to increased spread of the virus. At this time, the only thing that's certain may be the ongoing lack of certainty.

Real Parents Speak

"I’m thankful my three kids will be going back to school full time in August. But I have some real concerns about what school will look like for them when they return," says Christina Mott of Troubleshooting Motherhood, mom to a sixth-grader, second-grader, and kindergartner. "I’m not worried about the risk of exposure to COVID, instead I’m worried about how the social distancing guidelines (mask-wearing, staying in one classroom all day) will affect my kids."

"I'm hoping my kids will be back in person at school this fall. I think it's more important for a child's learning and social development to be in school," says Bert Anderson, father of three young kids. "I have a kindergartner this year, and I worry that this whole school situation will taint her views on education. I want for her to still have the same love for learning that my older children have developed at their elementary school."

100% Distance Learning

On the other side of the back-to-school spectrum is distance or virtual-only learning, a situation advised by the Centers for Disease Control as “lowest risk” since it limits exposure to possible COVID-19 carriers. Students across the country already experienced distanced education this past spring, when lockdown orders forced schools to close with little to no notice.

But the distance learning that most kids will experience in the coming school year will likely look different than spring, which could have been more accurately described as “emergency learning” rather than distance learning.

Karen Gross, author and senior counsel with Finn Partners in Washington, DC

I think online learning will improve in the fall. There has likely been more training, and even in the absence of training, teachers are able to self-assess and reflect on how students are learning and then make adjustments. And students get used to online learning and are better able to adjust as well.

— Karen Gross, author and senior counsel with Finn Partners in Washington, DC

One major drawback of distance learning is the heavy burden it places on parents whose employers are slowly but surely calling them back into workplace. Essential employees such as retail workers, for example, may have no flexibility to work from home or alter their schedules around school hours.

These families may not have the option to choose to have their children distance learn this school year, unless they’re able to work out a childcare situation where the provider is willing and able to supervise and help the kids with their schoolwork during the day.

Additionally, the effectiveness of distance learning depends on a number of other factors that may be out of your control, including your child's age, the quality of your internet access, and the effectiveness of your child's teacher or school system. The initial returns on distance learning varied greatly.

Students in low-income zip codes, for example, saw an average of a 50% decrease in participation in online math coursework throughout the spring.

Real Parents Speak 

“My child will be 100% distance learning next year. I’m a part-time, work-from-home parent who’s also in grad school," says Imani, parent of a fifth-grader. "It’s all a juggling and balancing act, but I’m proof that it can be done if your schedule and responsibilities are flexible enough. When forming our schedule, I’ll make sure that more of the independent activities such as reading time and creative writing and art are scheduled during hours where my work and school-related responsibilities are heaviest.”

“I would be willing to do anything to stay home with my children because since the beginning there has been so much uncertainty around COVID-19, says Kristen, parent of an eighth-grader and kindergartner. "I understand that the school districts are making efforts to put procedures into place, but what about when someone is infected with COVID and the schools shut down?”

Hybrid Plan

Another back-to-school option for the upcoming school year is the hybrid model, which has children attending school part-time and participating in at-home (or asynchronous) learning part-time.

The hybrid model has many variations, but the most popular—such as the hybrid plan New York City has put in place—seem to have kids in school two or three days each week and at home the other days. Or, in some districts in California, kids may alternate between home and school every other week.

While it’s meant to allow for lower capacity and social distancing while providing kids with the in-school learning they need (and hopefully want), many argue that the hybrid model could actually put kids, teachers, and school staff at more risk than any other type of model. That’s because kids with working parents will need to attend some sort of childcare on the days they’re not in school.

Real Parents Speak 

“I will be sending my son back to school this fall doing a hybrid model of two days in school and three days at home. I am both optimistic and cautious about him going back to school," says Courtney Bliss, owner of Feeding Bliss and mom to a kindergartner. "The benefits of being back in a classroom with friends, on a schedule and learning in his typical style will be wonderful for him, but the inconsistency will be difficult, as will the subtle anxiety of exposing him to more germs.”

“In my opinion, hybrid learning models seem like they will introduce more exposure circles," said Jean-Paul, a parent to three young kids. "Kids will have external exposure on the other three days they’re not in school, either to daycare, learning camps, relatives, or just running around the neighborhood.”

Traditional Homeschooling

With the traditional education system being shaken to its core by the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have turned to homeschooling, at least in the short term. In families where there's a stay-at-home parent who's willing to spend the time it takes to educate kids, this could be a viable option that allows kids to explore different topics they're interested in or learn in a way that's unique to their particular needs.

But if you're planning on sending your kids back to a traditional school situation once the pandemic is over, they may be faced with a larger transition than kids who remain in their existing school system.

Real Parents Speak

“In lieu of virtual learning this coming year, I think a more traditional homeschooling approach will better serve my children—and myself. Taking the schedule aspect out of virtual learning and allowing my children to tackle their schoolwork when it works for our family will serve us better. It is hard enough to get kids up, fed, dressed, and ready to go for the ‘school bell,’” says Christina, mom to a kindergartner and a preschooler.

What This Means for You

It's a time of significant stress for everyone. With uncertainties around employment, the progression of the virus, and the very health of the country, we are asking a lot of our parents, teachers, and students. In trying to balance your child's health and education with your own schedule, it may seem at times like there are no good options. You're not alone, and at the end of the day, parents and educators must take whatever measures necessary to first ensure that children stay safe and healthy.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Christin Perry
Christin Perry is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has been published in The Bump, The Knot, Scary Mommy, LittleThings, Parents, Qeepsake, and more. She has experience writing email marketing campaigns, website copy, and SEO-optimized content. Christin is also a mom of three.