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Winter break is right around the corner, which used to be defined by cozy days at home, maybe watching movies, baking cookies, and enjoying each other’s company. This year, that sounds like… every day (well, maybe not the baking cookies part). Except the days are more bonkers than cozy, and a break from school isn’t exactly what we’re looking for. On the contrary, most of us with school-aged kids (hands up over here!) are asking: When on earth will schools fully reopen?

As you’ve no doubt gleaned, there’s no easy answer here. The COVID-19 pandemic is still very much in full swing, and the holidays may well push case numbers even higher. But decisions about in-person schooling haven’t necessarily aligned to local cases: In fact, we’ve often seen schools fully open in parts of the country where the pandemic is raging, while in-person school is still on pause in other places where the virus has been—at least until recently—somewhat under control. Some experts are making the case that fear, more than science, has guided reopening decisions. (Here’s an up-to-date map of how states are handling school closures.)


As we look across the country, one thing is clear: Where you live and what kind of school your children attend largely determines the type of schooling they’re being offered right now, and possibly through the rest of the year. Students in rural and suburban school districts are more likely to be offered in-person schooling than students in urban districts. Many private and parochial schools are open in person, too. Meanwhile, many urban charter schools have taken a similar approach to their nearby districts and opted for fully remote or hybrid learning.


So where do things stand right now? And what can we hope for—if anything—for the rest of the school year? Here’s what we know:


Schools still don’t seem to be driving transmission rates within communities. As more schools nationwide and all over the world have opened, the data has continued to generally support scientists’ early observations—that children (and especially young children) don’t seem to get or spread the virus as frequently as adults do. That sets COVID-19 apart from colds, flus, and stomach bugs that spread like wildfire in schools, as every parent knows. Of course, this doesn’t mean we haven’t seen cases, and even clusters of cases, within schools. And when there are lots of cases in the local community—as is the situation in much of the country right now—schools are more likely to see positive cases. But it does mean that schools are increasingly being viewed by the scientific community as lower-risk environments than, say, crowded restaurants or private parties and family gatherings where guests are likely to let their guards (and their masks) down.


Many states are likely to try more targeted shutdowns this winter, rather than blanket lockdowns. Given what we know now about how the virus is passed from person to person, some states and localities seem to be attempting more targeted shutdowns, like further limits on private gatherings and more robust mask mandates, rather than wholesale lockdowns. That doesn’t mean we won’t see wider lockdowns that include complete school closures, but with more evidence on how rarely outbreaks occur within schools, there’s a case to be made for attempting to slow community spread by clamping down on higher-risk environments first. (This was the approach taken by several European countries during their most recent round of shutdowns.) On the other hand, many districts and teachers’ unions have now agreed on clear metrics for reopening schools, so if state and local leaders are resistant to taking other measures to control the virus, we could see more schools shut or be unable to reopen this year.


Early data from vaccine trials look promising. As we’ve noted before, none of the vaccines in the news right now have been tested in children yet (Pfizer is the first to begin doing so), but that’s a big next step—beginning with adolescents and working their way down to younger kids. Even without a pediatric vaccine yet, an effective adult vaccine should give districts and teachers’ unions more confidence about opening back up in person, especially if educators are given priority in distribution along with other essential workers.


If we had to guess (and bear in mind that this is The Kinda Guide, not a crystal ball), we’d say that winter doesn’t look promising, but it’s plausible that many districts will bring back more elementary and even middle school students in the spring. As for high schools, we suspect most districts (especially urban ones) will keep them remote for the year, but maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised. And given the positive early data from vaccine trials, it does seem realistic to think that the 2021-22 school year will look a lot more normal than this one, although we can expect to see safety precautions like masks and social distancing in place for a while.


So what can we do? Hope for the best and plan for the worst, right? In the event that your kids (and ours) are learning from home for the rest of the school year—or at least through these next few months—next week we’ll recap our favorite online resources for keeping everyone busy, engaged, and learning something.

“As we look across the country, one thing is clear: Where you live and what kind of school your children attend largely determines the type of schooling they’re being offered right now, and possibly through the rest of the year.”

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