PORTLAND, Maine -- School districts across America are in the midst of making wrenching decisions over how to resume classes in settings radically altered by the coronavirus pandemic, with school buses running below capacity, virtual learning, outdoor classrooms and quarantine protocols for infected children the new norm.
The plans for the upcoming school year are taking shape by the day, and vary district to district, state to state. The debates have been highly emotional, with tempers flaring among parents and administrators, and have been made all the more vexing by record numbers of covid-19 cases being reported each day.
In Florida, some school districts want students back in the classroom in early August, even though the virus is surging through communities. New Mexico, which has been largely spared major outbreaks, plans a hybrid model of virtual and in-person learning. Parents in New York have demanded schools reopen in the fall. And in Maine, more outdoor learning is planned.
Districts nationwide are coming up with various rules for wearing masks. Some want all students to wear them. Others, such as Marion County, Ind., plan to limit the requirement to older children.
Each of these decisions is fraught, trying to balance health concerns with clawing back as much normalcy as possible. Parents, wrung out after months of juggling work and home schooling, are desperate for help. Children, isolated from their peers, are yearning for social interaction. And everyone, including teachers, is concerned about stepping into the unknown, with so much still uncertain about the virus.
Districts are worried about being able to afford added supplies -- including masks and more buses. And school officials said the resurgence of virus cases could shatter reopening plans before they're even put in place.
"If we see large outbreaks happening across communities, it's going to be very hard to keep schools open," said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, on "Fox News Sunday." "The good news is we think kids transmit less. They are certainly less likely to get sick, but ... imagine Arizona right now. If schools were open right now, they would not be able to stay open."
Aimee Rodriguez Webb, a special education teacher in Cobb County, Ga., is wrestling with her own health concerns while waiting to hear her district's plans. She also has a 3-year-old.
"I love being in the classroom. And this year I get my own classroom, so I was looking forward to decorating it and all that," she said. "But then the flip side is ... I don't know that I'm mentally ready to step into the unknown like that."
Near Rochester, N.Y., parents rallied in favor of fully opening schools, holding signs outside an administration building June 29 saying: "No normal school? No school taxes!"
Christina Higley, a parent in the Rochester suburb of Webster, said she started a Facebook group initially to demand answers and have a say in what school would look like, but the discussions there sparked a movement for reopening the schools.
"There's a lot of parents that are saying, 'Open our schools, let us have the decision if we feel comfortable sending the children into them,'" said Higley, whose children just finished kindergarten, third and fifth grade.
Meanwhile, medical experts have expressed concerns for children's development and mental health. The American Academy of Pediatrics said it "strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school."
In Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Shael Norris said she's particularly concerned about children who could face abuse at home and parents who risk losing their jobs to care for their kids. Norris has two children set to attend high school in the fall and runs a nonprofit that combats sexual assault.
"There are so many equally important risks, and we're focused entirely on covid," she said. "But I get it. It's scary."