One year after the COVID-19 pandemic came to America, some students are still attending virtual school. We spoke with experts to learn when kids might return to the classroom and what it could look like.

By Nicole Harris
March 08, 2021
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Last March, if someone told you schools would cease in-person instruction because of a global pandemic, you probably wouldn't have believed them. But that's the unprecedented reality parents nationwide were forced to face when COVID-19 swept across the country. And now, one year later, many kids are still dealing with Zoom instructions and dining room table desks. 

"I believe everyone wants all children back in school," says David Cennimo, M.D, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. In-person school has plenty of benefits for students, including better resources, fewer distractions, and the ability to practice social and emotional skills. Plus, school gives moms and dads a much-needed break from the demands of parenting, especially if they're also working from home

An image of kids in a classroom wearing masks.
Credit: Getty Images.

President Biden has announced that reopening schools should be a "top national priority." In fact, he's aiming to reopen the majority of K-8 schools during his first 100 days of presidency. The White House also urged states to prioritize vaccinating teachers and staff against COVID-19, with the goal of getting all educators vaccinated by the end of March. 

So when will we go back to school, and what will it look like? We spoke with experts to learn more about back-to-school predictions for the 2021-2022 school year.

When Will Kids Go Back to School?

Unfortunately, we don't know the answer yet. "It's likely that kids will be back in school this fall," suggests Anne Rimoin, Ph.D., M.P.H., Professor of Epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. "We anticipate that by this time, every adult American that wants a vaccine will have access by the end of the summer if the supply chain is as anticipated." 

That said, school districts must decide on a timeline themselves—which is why some districts returned to in-person instruction months ago, others currently rely on a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning, and some remain online only. Here are few of the many factors that come into play when making the decision to open schools:

Comfort Levels

Some parents (and students) can't wait for schools to open their doors again, but others hesitate to leave the safety of their home. It's true that COVID-19 generally presents less severely in children, but some kids have suffered severe illness—and others have died from the coronavirus. Also, kids could bring COVID-19 home from school and transmit it to other household members who might be at high risk. School districts must consider the opinions of their community when making the decision to reopen. 

COVID-19 Community Spread

Levels of coronavirus transmission also matter for reopening schools. "Given the likely association between levels of community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and risk of SARS-CoV-2 exposure in schools, a first step in determining when and how to reopen safely involves assessing the level of community transmission," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "School administrators, working with local public health officials, should assess the level of risk in the community and the likelihood of a case in a school facility, the likelihood that a case would lead to an outbreak, and the consequences of in-school transmission."

Dr. Rimoin says it's "possible that we could see another surge in cases in the fall if the virus follows the seasonal pattern we anticipate, or immunity from vaccines or natural infection starts to wane." Mitigation measures, she adds, will depend upon any surges, as well as hospitalization and death rates.

COVID-19 Variants

In recent months, experts have discovered variants of COVID-19 that may be more contagious (such as the B.1.1.7 strain that emerged in the United Kingdom). How will these variants progress in the coming months? This may be a key factor in the decision to reopen schools, and it may also change safety protocols in the classrooms. 

Coronavirus Vaccinations

COVID-19 vaccines aren't approved for children yet. (Moderna can currently be given to those 18 years and older, while Pfizer's age limit is 16 years and older.) "Right now, both Pfizer and Moderna have ongoing trials assessing the vaccine in ages 12 and older and results are expected over the summer," says Dr. Rimoin. "The vaccine studies in younger groups will likely take longer."

Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicts that the vaccine will be approved for elementary school students early next year. "If you project realistically, when we will be able to get enough data to be able to say that elementary school children will be able to be vaccinated, I would think that would be, at the earliest, the end of the year, and very likely the first quarter of 2022," Fauci said February 28 on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Vaccinating teachers is a step in the right direction, though, since it offers some level of protection to students and staff (who may have a higher risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms because of their age or underlying conditions). Also, despite the lack of vaccinations, some schools have opened without  major coronavirus outbreaks—so it's definitely possible with the proper precautions. "We must look at what those districts did, decide what really mattered, and make sure it can be duplicated," says Dr. Cennimo. 

What Will The New School Year Look Like?

If your district decides to move ahead with in-person classes, school will probably look different for your kids. The CDC released an "Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools" that recommends mitigation strategies for K-12 schools based on current research. The strategies involve five key categories: universal and correct mask usage, social distancing, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection, and contact tracing with necessary isolation and quarantine. Chances are, most schools will follow these protocols to limit spread as much as possible. 

"I think the ability to get everyone back in school will vary," says  Dr. Cennimo. "I project schools will not be 'back to normal'  in a way we remember it. Some social distancing measures will remain, masks will be needed, and maybe less class mingling. Kids will be instructed to wash hands, minimize high touch surfaces, and stay home if ill."

It's important to note that if vaccine distribution is successful, we may look at mitigation strategies differently, adds Dr. Rimoin. "But I think we can expect to continue to see social distancing and masks in places where community transmission remains high," she says.

The Bottom Line

State mandates and individual school districts will decide when to reopen for in-person instruction. When they do open, which experts believe could be this fall, your child can expect plenty of safety precautions to keep COVID-19 transmission at bay.