This upcoming fall will be like no other for America’s children. As schools struggle to decide how to re-open safely, upheaval in classroom routines will affect every child, and most notably children with disabilities.
Even at schools that return to full in-class education, for most, the new landscape will include distancing measures including; masks, constant sanitizing, curtailed extra-curricular activities and other safety precautions. Teachers, more susceptible to Covid-19 than children, may be in short supply as they make decisions about the safety of their families and themselves.
The salutary effects of returning to the classroom will accrue across multiple dimensions. As the spring vividly illustrated, children learn demonstrably better in school than at home, an estimated 30% difference in reading and 50% in math, according to the North West Education Association. For children with disabilities, the return of therapists, mental health support and individualized education could be a boon to their progress.
Additionally, children appear to be at significantly lower risk of Covid-19 illness in school than the general population has been in its conventional daily activities. Twenty-two European countries have reopened school, albeit with the usual precautions, and not a single Covid hotspot has been reported. It is estimated that an infected child has a 1 in 100,000 chance of dying from Covid, about one-twentieth the morbidity rate of adults. (This is not to advocate for complacency; the odds are less sanguine for immunocompromised children.)
The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports a return to the classroom for educational, social-emotional and developmental reasons. The organization argues that children suffer in unseen ways when school is closed and moved online; they grow from interacting socially with other children and adults besides their parents, eating nutritious meals in communal settings and playing outside with peers.
Some schools are considering the pod approach where each class remains together throughout the school day. This eliminates the between-class hallway jam and mixed playground activities that are conducive to spreading infection. If one child tests positive for Covid under this arrangement, only that pod would require quarantining.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that students should be kept in small cohorts, mimicking most elementary school arrangements. CDC recommends this be adopted by middle and high schools as well.
This new arrangement brings with it considerable changes and impact for students and teachers alike. The pod system is structured so that one teacher remains with a pod of 6-15 children all day in one classroom, eating meals and conducting all learning in the same environment. This impacts the delivery of specialist classes such as music, physical education, and other such classes. It also limits who the students interact with daily meaning that the opportunities for meeting new friends and mixing with other kids on the playground is eliminated. The social distancing requirements also mean that teachers cannot touch or physically comfort students- a significant adjustment for younger children starting school for the first time whose connection to their first teacher is critical for safety, well-being and adjustment.
“Districts should expect a longer transition period for some students with disabilities,” says District Administration, a resource for school administrators. Missing out on specialized instruction and school-based services, in addition to interruptions in routines, may pose challenges for these students. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends schools review the specific needs of each child with an IEP prior to their return to school.
Each state is crafting its own reconvening formulas based on CDC guidelines. That said, schools and parents must recognize that younger children and some children with disabilities will be challenged to follow mask protocols or observe distancing rules. Administrators planning safety procedures for the school year must take this complicating factor into account.
The transition back to school may come with a transition of its own, if Covid-19 infections across the nation continue to spike or if they flare up at an individual school. That might necessitate a shutdown and reintroduction of virtual learning. Being buffeted from in-person to online repeatedly could wreak havoc on children and parents alike, particularly those stressed by changes in routine.
Some counties have already announced that schools will not re-open in the fall, causing some parents to enlist with home school organizations, hire their own teachers, or apply to private schools. Some parents have organized social activities with their own small “pod” of families, hiring camp counselors and sports instructors to provide instruction and social and physical activities.