AILSA CHANG, HOST:
More than 40 states have said that schools should remain closed for the remainder of the academic year. That leaves families wondering, what about next fall? State and federal authorities have started to outline plans to reopen schools as safely as possible, but as NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports, there are far more unknowns than guarantees.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Teachers and parents are beyond ready for kids to go back to school, but that can't happen without answering one big question.
LILY ESKELSEN GARCIA: Is it safe and healthy for my kids?
KAMENETZ: Lily Eskelsen Garcia is the president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest educators union. And she says she's concerned not only for the health of children but also for the health of her members. In New York City alone, more than 60 educators have reportedly died from coronavirus.
ESKELSEN GARCIA: The doctors say 39 sweaty bodies in a classroom is not healthy and safe - by the way, it never was - but in this case, it might spread an infection that kills people.
KAMENETZ: Other countries that have started to open up their schools are taking measures like radically smaller class sizes, younger grades only, frequent cleaning and strict social distancing. Denmark, for example, reopened its schools on April 15, after four weeks of closure. At the Copenhagen International School, there are only five children allowed on the playground at a time. Ida Storm Jansen, the school's communication director, says they have made up a new game to play while staying 6 feet apart.
IDA STORM JANSEN: Shadow tag, like, tagging each other's shadows so they're not touching and - kids are creative. They figure out ways to things.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Red light.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Green light.
MARIA LITVINOVA: There is no such thing as safe reopening.
KAMENETZ: Maria Litvinova is a researcher at the Institute for Scientific Interchange in Turin, Italy. She's modelled how school closures reduce the spread of illness. She says that the hard part with COVID-19 is that many children don't become ill. But we don't know yet whether they could be spreading the disease without showing any symptoms. So without regular testing, says Litvinova, the best you can do is try to reduce the number of contacts between students.
LITVINOVA: I mean, whatever you do to make it less people together, the better it is.
KAMENETZ: In many school districts in the United States, overcrowded classrooms are the norm. Keeping students apart probably means staggering school schedules - like one week on, one week off or Monday-Wednesday-Friday followed by Tuesday-Thursday. That in turn probably means continuing distance learning programs in parallel with classroom activities. Finally, schools have to be prepared to close again if and when infections rise.
STEPHEN PRUITT: There's no research to point to here. There's no best practice. This is all going to be very new.
KAMENETZ: Stephen Pruitt is with the Southern Regional Education Board, which represents 16 Southern states from Delaware to Texas. They've set up a task force to help coordinate school reopening. Pruitt says the to-do list is a long one, from extending schedules into the summer to testing kids to see how much learning they've lost and to wrapping them in extra support from mental health to services like food and housing help.
PRUITT: The restart is going to be critical. The idea that we can come in to school in August and September and do things as we've always done them, it's not even feasible.
KAMENETZ: And all of this radical transformation, Pruitt says, will quite likely have to happen with less money than before because of the coronavirus-related recession and its impact on state and local budgets.
Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.