President Donald Trump has released general guidelines for how to lift coronavirus restrictions and reopen parts of the U.S. economy – including schools. But most state education leaders say their buildings will have to remain closed until at least late summer or fall.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 35 states and Washington, D.C., had ordered or recommended school buildings remain closed through the rest of the school year to contain the spread of the coronavirus, according to a tally from Education Week magazine.
Schools in coronavirus hot spots may not even be able to hit a fall deadline for reopening. But a couple of rural states are holding out hope for opening some schools in May.
The problem, some state leaders say: Neither Education Secretary Betsy DeVos nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said much on how schools should be planning for the future. Left to figure out a plan on their own, state and local education leaders are banding together.
Others say America's schools have long been designed to be locally governed – and a national pandemic doesn't change that.
DeVos spokeswoman Angela Morabito said schools controlled by local leaders are positioned to make reopening decisions in consultation with local health officials.
DeVos is not a member of the White House coronavirus task force or the task force debating how to reopen the economy. But Morabito said the secretary is part of the administration-wide response.
The head of a professional group for district superintendents blasted the federal administration over the weekend for its lack of a national plan for reopening schools.
Dan Domenech, executive director for the American Association of School Administrators, criticized the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for "inconsistent and incongruous guidance" about how and when schools should reopen.
That's because the second part of Trump's three-phase plan for restarting the economy calls for reopening schools while also barring group gatherings of 50 or more and continuing physical distancing, Domenech said. He said that's nearly impossible for schools to implement.
"If you think you’re going to keep kids 6 feet apart during the course of a school day, you’re dreaming," Domenech said.
"It almost shows a disregard for the safety of kids, because what seems to be the most important element here is that schools be open to serve their childcare function, so that parents can get back to work."
In the absence of more specific national guidance, schools leaders are reaching across state lines to confer about how to reopen schools. The question of when is harder; most say they'll have to leave that up to health officials.
For states to relax restrictions, the federal guidelines call for a 14-day downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases.
The biggest challenge is the "fear factor of getting too many people back together too quickly and seeing a rebound of COVID-19," said Carey Wright, state superintendent of Mississippi.
While children who contract the virus appear less likely than adults to become sick, scientists believe they can pass the infection along to other people – which could lead to widespread breakouts among staff and families connected to a school.
Wright said she's hoping Mississippi's schools may be able to reopen in late July – after summer break, but slightly earlier than their usual restart date in early August. But for now, she said, infections are still rising and the state is still under stay-at-home orders from the governor.
Wright said she's in contact with many other state superintendents around the country, and nobody she's talking to thinks they'll open schools before late summer or fall.
But education leaders in two rural states – Idaho and Wyoming – didn't rule out the possibility of students returning to class before summer.
"It is possible some schools could reopen at the very end of the academic year, depending on circumstances at the end of April," said Mike Keckler, spokesman for the Idaho State Board of Education.
"Wyoming has over 90,000 square miles, so it is conceivable that some schools open fully, some schools open partially, and some remain closed," said Michelle Panos, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Education.
Sixteen southern states are teaming up to work out the intricacies of what the school day will look like come fall. All the member states belong to the Southern Regional Education Board, a school improvement group led by Stephen Pruitt, the former education commissioner of Kentucky.
Two members from each state, ranging from state schools chiefs to individual teachers, will meet virtually for the first time Thursday.
Pruitt said the new group will wrestle with how to plan for budgetary impacts of the crisis, how to address student achievement concerns, how to manage the emotional well-being of students and staff and how to help instructors teach differently – whether that's in a virtual space or within buildings on some kind of altered schedule.
The idea is to create a playbook for states, districts and schools, Pruitt said.
"Anyone who thinks we’re going to come back and have the same start we always have is fooling themselves," he added. "We hope this works."
Another road map for how to reopen schools is coming from a nonprofit group co-led by a former top official in New York City schools and a former pandemic expert in President Barack Obama's administration.
"The guidance and support from federal officials for schools has been confusing at best and absent at worst," said Andrew Buher, the former chief operating officer of New York's schools and founder of the nonprofit Opportunity Labs.
Buher said his group tried to think about everything from back-up staffing plans to new types of school schedules to accommodate physical distancing.
The U.S. has lagged three months behind on many pandemic issues, said Mario Ramirez, an emergency room physician and former acting director of the Office of Pandemic and Emerging Threats under Obama.
"If we want to get kids back in the fall," Ramirez said, "we need to talk about what that's going to look like today."
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.