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What Social Distancing Really Looks Like at Schools Across the Country

The 2020 school year is looking very strange indeed, whether your child’s school district is open for in-person learning or not. As of this writing, 73 percent of the 100 largest districts in the country have opted for a remote-only model, at least for the start of the fall, according to Ed Week. But eventually, we know a lot more schools are going to join the ones in states like Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Indiana that opened their doors in August. For those of us not yet experiencing school reopening in the age of COVID-19, we decided to get a better picture of what it looks like so far.

“Once we started back, we essentially changed almost every element of the student’s day — how they go to lunch, how they go to the restroom, how they interact in the classroom — and the kids just have adapted amazingly well,” Katherine Ann Unsicker, a gifted teacher at Haralson County Schools in rural Georgia, told us at the Rolling Stone and SheKnows Back to School Roundtable last month.

As a type 1 diabetic, Unsicker is in a high-risk category for COVID, so her district changed her schedule from serving two schools to just serving one, with third to fifth graders. This school has placed tape on the halls to encourage students to walk father apart from each other, and she said teachers have made use of PVC to protect their desks. The students have not been required to wear masks, but that has not proven to be a problem, she said.

“It was strongly encouraged,” Unsicker said. “A majority did, and then it increased. We had them available everywhere. People donated them. Teachers had them in their classrooms when you walk in the door, so it was sort of the silent suggestion that, there they are, if you would like to have one. And I do think that the students saw it as something that they could do, almost a proactive step to help their friends and help themselves. But they have been very responsible with it. It has gone much more smoothly than I anticipated that it would. And when I walk down the hallways, I would say 95 percent students are wearing them effectively and correctly.”

Social distancing is a little harder because of the lack of space. And after all that preparation, there was a scary situation shortly after school started, when a student of hers had been in a classroom with a student who tested positive for COVID-19. Unsicker and her entire class were sent home for quarantine. Days later, the student tested negative and they were allowed back.

“You never want to send a whole classroom home for 14 days for quarantine, but if this is what we have to do to keep the children safe throughout the whole school, to keep the teachers staff safe, then that’s what people are willing to do,” Unsicker said. “There is some comfort in seeing it work as efficiently as it can. And there’s also been a great level of understanding which has just made me feel really good about the community that we’re in.”

Learning From Others’ Mistakes

We have been hearing the horror stories of clusters of cases rising after school reopenings, and we saw the visual evidence from North Paulding High School in Georgia of what it looks like when students don’t wear masks or stay socially distanced from each other. Mitch Springer, the principal at Villa Rica Middle School (very close to Paulding), was able to learn from other schools’ experiences while preparing his school to open on August 24.

“It’s kind of made us revisit the procedures that we thought we had in place,” he said at the roundtable. “For example, busses … Our students now are going to sit from back to front, and we have a monitor on the bus to make sure that those due to get picked up first are in the back, so they don’t have to walk by other students as they go forward.”

A Re-education Project

Laura Dow, a special education teacher at Stonington High School in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, has been impressed with the preparations going on with her school.

“I’m glad we have people that were willing to spend their summer figuring these things out so that we can get back into building,” she told the roundtable. For example, lunch at her school is going to look very different. “We’re going to have three lunch waves instead of two, and only two students at each lunch table. Which, in high school, is going to be very interesting, because you often see kids dragging chairs over so they can have 13 kids around a four-kid table — that’s just what high schoolers do because they’re social.”

Schools in Polk County also opened on August 24, despite being in the COVID-19 hotspot of central Florida. But the district sent SheKnows a series of videos the principals of elementary, middle, and high schools prepared that reassuringly detailed how the schools were being set up to ensure the most social distancing they could in their spaces.

Anonymous Teachers Tell a Different Story

The official word from school superintendents in many districts is of cautious optimism. But if you delve into places where teachers talk to each other, things may not be so rosy. The r/Teachers forum on Reddit, for example, contains plenty of anonymous posts from teachers who feel like their needs and their students’ needs are being ignored.

“The PPE we were given: 5 single use masks, one reusable, 80 ounces of pine glo, one rag, one bucket, 8 ounces of hand sanitizer,” wrote one. “We’re 100% in person 5 days a week. We’re totally safe.”

“Almost 500 kids on quarantine and we’re still open,” another titled their post. “And 30 teachers. We don’t have subs for them, so we’re just sticking their classes altogether in our cafeteria for the day.We’re getting a nice lesson on exponential growth. Edit: one of the students who sits right by my desk tested positive…I better be getting my quarantine call tonight.”

“I honestly have the greatest co-workers; I think they are super supportive and smart,” wrote another. “Today I went into school and I’d say 80% were not wearing masks correctly. I just don’t understand how we expect the students to follow the rules when we as ‘models’ aren’t doing things correctly. I’m sorry about the rant, I just don’t know what else to say.”

Conflicts like this are why New York City schools opted to push back its scheduled opening, on a hybrid model, by two weeks. Whether that school system and others can continue to learn from the schools that are opened remains to be seen.

Here are some images we’ve gathered showing what reopened schools look like so far. Stay tuned for more.

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