Despite scheduling the official “first day of school” 15 different times, when Dundee Community Schools in Michigan returned to full-time, in-person learning, 85% of students showed up. The rural district serves 1,700 students and operated on a hybrid model in the fall, and fully reopened on Jan. 25, according to Superintendent Edward Manuszak.
“We found that students couldn’t wait to get back. There are a few, about 15% or so, that we have spoken or met with who miss being at school but understand that remote learning is safer for them and their families right now,” he said. “Moving forward post-pandemic, we still plan to offer an online academy, too.”
In New Jersey, when Principal Aaron Eyler announced Matawan Regional High School would resume a traditional in-person schedule, the community eagerly embraced the change. As of May 25, the high school is operating at 70% capacity.
“We would love that all students commit to spending five full days in school each week, but we understand that it is a process of becoming comfortable with changes,” he said.
And in Wisconsin, Elmbrook School District Superintendent Mark Hansen said schools in his county reopened in September, with 80% of students choosing to return to the district's high school. The school, which serves 1,300 students, is located within a planned community that revolves around the schools and their athletic and academic clubs, sports and activities.
“The schools are viewed as a partnership, and they are an important part of the quality of life we have here,” Hansen said. “We are grateful for having a great community partnership. Our county executive and his team helped set the tone. Problem-solving happened in real-time, and we had weekly calls with the local government and school leaders.”
President Joe Biden has set the expectation all schools nationwide should be reopened for in-person learning in the fall, and the heads of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association have also called for a full reopening in fall — but not all school leaders have experienced the same level of enthusiasm from students and families as Eyler or Manuszak.
Earlier in May, The Wall Street Journal reported that in elementary schools in lower-income communities like Bell, California, where the median income is $44,000, fewer than 20% opted for in-person learning.
Some communities have turned to offering incentives. In Washington, D.C., city leaders aim to lure high school students back to school for summer programming by offering thousands of teens an opportunity to earn a wage for participation. The “learn and earn program” will fall under the existing Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program, with participants attending school for a half-day and spending the rest of the day working.
According to the Return2Learn tracker from the American Enterprise Institute and Davidson College, 54% of schools nationwide had reopened for fully in-person learning as of May 24, the date of the site's last update. The tracker monitors more than 8,500 public school districts.
In recent weeks, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced only in-person learning will be available in the fall. New Jersey, Illinois and Florida are also among states where virtual learning options are being restricted or eliminated all together — though large districts like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston and Miami plan to continue offering an online option.
As school leaders look to ease families that may still be wary back into full-time, in-person learning, Eyler, Manuszak and Hansen shared insights into what helped with transitions in their own districts.
Offer customized options
As of reporting, Matawan is one of only five high schools in Monmouth County, New Jersey, to return to a pre-pandemic schedule with all students welcomed back to campus, according to Eyler. He attributes the high participation rate to his school’s communications approach and support team strategy.
On March 30, Eyler informed parents and students that pre-pandemic schedules would resume May 3. A team of assistant principals, counselors, staff and teachers worked with families to answer questions and design custom schedules for families who still had concerns about returning full-time.
“We have pulled out all the stops to help the kids. We have set up a classroom for students uncomfortable with being in bigger classrooms so they could be at school but in a smaller group,” he said. “We allowed them to decide if they wanted to start at two days a week and build from there, or we modified the amount of time they spent in school each day. Maybe it started with one or two classes with a gradual increase to full-time,” he said.
School reopening task force
Buy-in also starts with community involvement. In rural southeast Michigan, Manuszak formed a 60-person task force including teachers, students, administrators, community members, staff and the local board of education. The group studied more than 50 pieces of data and spent $1.3 million on COVID-19 preparedness to develop a plan so when the school fully reopened on Jan. 25, 85% of students felt comfortable enough to return.
“We were able to demonstrate through our meetings and plans that we had confidence that what we were doing was safe,” he said.
Paying attention to teacher and staff needs also played a significant role in luring the majority of students back to school. Instead of laying off staff, the district diverted donations for the construction of an athletic facility to keep 14.5 staff members who would have otherwise been laid off. The district also chose to offer free childcare to staff.
“When the staff realized it was safe and that their children would be taken care of, the word of mouth support spread like wildfire," Manuszak said. "It gave our staff an immediate psychological relief to know that aspect of their life was taken care of. We made it free to staff, and that made a big difference."
Allow time to process information
COVID-19 has forced last-minute decisions and instantaneous changes to plans. However, Eyler says communicating plans and strategies well in advance and giving families the time to process information is key to gaining buy-in from parents and students.
“We were deliberate about our timeline. Parents were notified on March 30 that the traditional schedule would resume on May 3,” he said. “I think that is how we got a lot of kids to come back from virtual learning. We didn’t just say on a Friday that you’re coming back next week."
Correction: A previous version of this story contained a quote that has since been removed to address a lack of clarity.