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Chances are, your local schools are starting the year online. But what will actually determine when schools bring students back? (Hint: It won’t be your local case rates.)

Here are five key factors to watch:

  1. What happens with colleges? Some universities developed detailed plans for on-campus learning and housing, only to see infection rates spike immediately as undergraduates resumed large social events. Class cancellations and student suspensions followed. If colleges send their students home, it does not bode well for K-12 schools re-opening, even if the circumstances are quite different.
  2. How are teachers feeling? They have objected—vocally in some cases—to proposals for returning to school. Until teachers are confident that they can do their work effectively without getting sick, it is unlikely most districts will bring students back. Listen for announcements that your district has completed all its preparations related to PPE, cleaning equipment, ventilation, plexiglass dividers, and so forth. These steps will increase teacher confidence.
  3. How are parents feeling? There is no sense in opening schools if families won’t send their children. The share of parents preferring full-time, in-person learning dropped dramatically over the course of the summer. When parent sentiment changes and a clear majority of parents want their kids back, districts will be more likely to act.
  4. What can we learn from other countries? Some of them have operated schools during the pandemic. Research is beginning to appear. The UK recently reported a very low infection rate, despite hundreds of thousands of children and staff attending during June. Other countries have had different experiences, but as we identify practices that substantially reduce transmission, the chances of re-opening go up.
  5. How close are we to flu season? There is concern that COVID could “collide” with it. If schools don’t re-open before November, rising flu danger and the need to spend more time inside with temperatures falling could delay re-opening until after the winter holidays.
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