A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
A rising senior was a sophomore back in 2020 when US schools first shut down. Students then struggled through an entire school year of Covid, and now they’re about to start all over again.
When they went on summer break, it felt like Covid was in retreat and a relatively normal year was on the way.
But Covid isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. And American schools aren’t going to be normal. Not yet.
After a quick summer of planning, improving ventilation and trying to play catchup, schools will start to reopen over the next month to a more sobering reality: The Delta variant is surging and school districts are scrambling once again.
There are many thousands of school districts in the US, each one governed by a unique mix of local and state rules, so different students will have vastly different experiences.
But here’s an attempt to take a broad back-to-school look at what’s happening with US schools as they prepare to open.
Will kids be in school in person this fall?
Yes. That’s the plan.
“Are you still 100% sure that New York City schools open 100% in-person this fall?” CNN’s Poppy Harlow asked New York Mayor Bill de Blasio this week.
“Yes, our kids have been through too much,” he replied.” If they don’t get back to the classroom, they are going to miss out on so much educationally, emotionally, humanly. Yes, every child is coming back to the classroom.”
Will some kids still be learning remotely?
Yes. But fewer. Many school districts have given students the option to continue with remote learning. Others, including New York, have taken steps to remove the remote option.
Others are embracing permanent virtual as an option, one that may seem attractive to parents who can afford to stay home and whose kids actually did better learning at home.
How is the Delta surge affecting these plans?
That’s not entirely clear. While de Blasio has pledged to have all kids in school in the fall, other districts are already pivoting to deal with the Delta variant.
Austin Independent School District in Texas had planned to shelve its remote-learning option after the state would not provide funding for virtual learning. But with Covid cases rising, the district has decided to pay for a virtual option itself.
Should kids be wearing masks in schools?
Yes, according to the most recent guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the Delta variant circulated and the CDC learned more about how it spreads more easily through communities, and even through some vaccinated people, the agency changed its guidance to say all adults and students in school, regardless of their vaccination status, should wear masks.
Will kids be wearing masks in schools?
It depends, big time, on where they live. Some states are requiring masks for all students. Some states are requiring masks to be optional. CNN’s Elizabeth Stuart has tracked the largest districts and, usually, where the states allow them to require masks, they often are.
Stuart reported that among the largest 50 school districts in the country, the decision is pretty evenly split on how many are requiring students to wear masks and how many are leaving masks optional, according to CNN’s latest analysis. This is a moving target, however, and school districts, like Gwinnett County in Georgia, have changed their policies just this week.
Twenty-three districts are requiring masks – two of which are requiring them only for unvaccinated students) – 20 are making masks optional, three remained undecided and four others had not yet responded to CNN’s request.
Some school districts, in Florida and Texas, are weighing how to get around mask-optional mandates imposed by Republican governors.
Has the Delta surge changed the minds of policy makers who oppose masks requirements?
Nope. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, despite the CDC guidance and the massive growth of Covid in his state, signed an executive order Friday to keep schools from imposing a mask requirement.
That will supersede what local districts, like Broward County, decided when they passed mask requirements for their schools.
“If he wants to tie our hands legally, he can do that, and we’ll find other ways to keep our students and employees safe,” said Sarah Leonardi, a Broward County School Board member, appearing Friday on CNN.
Other states are leaving the decision up to their local districts but reserving the right to pivot since everything we’ve thought we’ve known about this virus has changed.
“At the moment we’ve got recommendations, but those recommendations are now from a month ago. And given this virus, that might as well have been in some respects a lifetime ago. So we’ll continue to watch this like a hawk,” Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said on CNN’s “New Day” on Friday.
Why do some people not want kids to wear masks in schools?
Some people wonder how healthy it is to put masks on small kids. Others wonder how effective it is. Many simply don’t want their kids to be told to do something, and they couch opposition to mask requirements as an infringement on parents’ choices.
“The Delta Variant poses a real threat to South Carolinians,” Gov. Henry McMaster tweeted this week. “However, shutting our state down, closing schools and mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is.”
Are masks safe for kids?
The American Academy of Pediatrics, which has children’s health and safety as its number one priority, recommends all kids wear masks in schools this fall. It also insists that kids should be in school in person whenever possible.
Will there be Covid in schools?
Yes. In Atlanta, a charter school that started the academic year early already has more than 100 of its nearly 2,000 students and staff in quarantine after nine students and five staff members tested positive.
That quarantine option may not be available to all districts. Arizona’s governor is in a standoff with two districts over their policy to make unvaccinated kids exposed to Covid quarantine.
How far behind are kids after the last Covid year?
They’re behind. Study after study has shown a real learning loss among American children. Further, it has worsened racial and economic inequality in schools.
An analysis by McKinsey suggested the pandemic has put K-12 students about five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading.
The drop is worse in majority Black schools, which ended the year six months behind, and in low-income schools, which were seven months behind, the analysis found.
What’s happening with high schoolers?
Dropout rates are up. College matriculation rates are down.
Some schools have relied on beefed-up summer school to try to catch kids up to where they should be.
A roundup of studies conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education also found kids to be months behind, and it suggested we won’t know the full extent of what was missed for some time.
These are averages, however, and they don’t tell the important individual stories, said the study’s co-author Robin Lake, the center’s director.
“It’s also really important to note that individual kids are in very different places depending on how long their school was closed, the quality of virtual learning, how much support they had at home, etc.,” she said in an email, arguing for the importance of in-person learning. “For some kids the situation is pretty dire.”
Overall enrollment in public schools dropped and administrators spent parts of last year just trying to figure out where the missing students had gone.
What worked better, in-person or virtual learning?
More in-person instruction was associated with more learning, according to the center’s report, even though it often occurred in places with higher rates of Covid infection.
Test scores were worse for those who started the year in remote instruction, according to one study.
What do districts still need to do?
“Schools need to have plans for what they will do if kids get sick,” Lake said in the email. “Who will have to quarantine? Under what conditions will a school close temporarily? Our research is showing that most districts haven’t announced those kinds of contingency plans, which only adds to parent stress.”
Have eligible kids gotten vaccinated?
Not enough. About 28% of the 12- to 15-year-old population is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. They’re the youngest people eligible. More older kids – 40% of 16- to 17-year-olds – are vaccinated, but that’s still below vaccination rates for adults.
“When you look at the numbers of adolescents, 70% of the adolescents in the Northern states are vaccinated; 17% are vaccinated in the South,” Dr. Peter Hotez, chair of tropical pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital, said Friday on CNN. “Nobody is vaccinated. And we know what’s going to happen. Mother Nature told us this over and over again: With each wave of Covid, this thing is going to accelerate with catastrophic consequences.”
Are kids at risk for getting and dying from Covid?
Kids are getting Covid. In Florida, a major current hot spot, more than 10,000 kids under 12 tested positive in the week ending July 29 and more than 11,000 between ages 12 and 19 tested positive.
Kids 17 and under represent about 22.3% of the US population, but they’ve accounted for only about 12.6% of Covid cases, according to the CDC. During the pandemic, 523 are known to have died from the disease, according to CDC data. In July, of 3,343 confirmed Covid deaths in the U.S., just three were in that 17 and under age group. Those represent small fractions of the total cases and deaths.
That does not mean there are not horror stories, like this one about a Florida 15-year-old who should be starting her sophomore year and had planned to get the vaccine, but instead got Covid and was in a medically induced coma and on a breathing machine this summer.
There were certainly outbreaks of Covid at schools that featured in-person learning in the last academic year. And there have been numerous stories in recent months of summer camps serving as spreaders of the disease.
But one study from 2020, although it predates the emergence of the Delta variant, suggested that kids being in school was not a driver of Covid spread in schools. The study found that mask wearing could severely cut down on the spread of Covid in schools, although it was conducted before the vaccines were readily available.
When can younger kids get vaccinated?
It’s not clear. Pfizer and Moderna, the two-dose vaccines farthest along in the approval process, have been asked to expand the size of clinical trials to make sure enough testing is done to identify potential problems, like a very rare heart inflammation. Regardless, it will be months, at least, before emergency use authorization for kids under 12.
Can school districts require the Covid vaccine like they do multiple other vaccines?
Probably not until the Food and Drug Administration gives full approval to the vaccines. Even though about half the country has gotten fully vaccinated, the shots are still only technically authorized for emergency use. Full approval could come in months. Even then, requiring it will be controversial.
A CNN analysis has found that at least seven states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah – have enacted legislation this year that would restrict public schools from requiring either coronavirus vaccinations or documentation of vaccination status.
At least 13 states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Utah – have passed laws that limit requiring someone to demonstrate their vaccination status or immunity against Covid-19, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
What’s the bottom line?
“It’s critical that we accomplish two goals this fall,” said Lake, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “We need to keep kids safe and keep them learning, offering as much in-person school as possible. Realistically, though, schools and families need to expect that we won’t be fully back to normal this fall. Schools will still have to be vigilant about health and safety and follow protocols like social distancing and masking until younger kids can be vaccinated.”