By Emily Freitag

Epidemiologists have started to outline scenarios for the end of social distancing, and as I wrote in a piece for the Fordham Institute, four distinct chapters are emerging:

  1. Crisis
  2. Reentry
  3. Recovery
  4. New Normal


Many conversations have started to unfold about Fall 2020. There are blogs and op-eds and faculty chats about how we can/should be ready to support students that need to catch up this summer or next school year. Based on these conversations, I fear we educators are not seeing clearly what is coming next: chapter 2, “Reentry.”

We need schools to reopen as soon as possible in order to restart the economy. However, until there is a vaccine or a scalable treatment or herd immunity or the virus mutates to be less of a threat, public health must remain the first priority. Structuring school to be safe in a pandemic will require new structures of school.

Based on what we are seeing in other countries, and coupled with emerging public health guidance, we can make some realistic assumptions about how schools may need to alter their usual policies and practices:

  • Students may need to be tested or have their temperature taken every morning on their way into school

  • Schools may need to structure the day so that students interact with as few peers and adults as possible, which may require middle and high schools to reconsider changing classrooms and instead have teachers rotate or have students in extended homeroom for the day

  • Desks may need to be spaced 6+ feet apart (no meetings on the rug in early grades)

  • Students and teachers may need to wear masks, especially while at lunch

  • Students who are sick or live with anyone who is sick may need to stay home for more extended periods of time, extending the need for distance learning

  • Cases of community spread may lead to rolling school closures, sending those systems back into the crisis chapter

  • Some families may be reluctant to send students to school, even if they have the option, and request distance learning options

The conversations unfolding around chapter 3, “The Recovery,” are important. In many ways that will be the most critical chapter for schools to get right, and we need to use every minute between now and then to wisely prepare for it. But we are unlikely to jump from crisis to recovery.


It is impossible to know how events will unfold, and reentry scenarios will vary from community to community, but the best-case estimates for a vaccine would imply that the following timelines are most probable:

  1. Crisis: Balance of this school year and through the summer
  2. Reentry: 2020–2021 school year
  3. Recovery: 2021–2022 and 2022–2023 school years
  4. New Normal: 2023–2024 school year

Seeing clearly the duration of the crisis, as well as the unique demands of the reentry, serves several important purposes for leaders:

  1. It creates urgency to find workable models for distance learning so we have less recovery work to do on the other side, and so we have them if we need them in the future.

  2. It puts more focus on finding solutions for students most likely to be adversely affected by extended closures. All students and families need engagement and learning, but schools that are committed to equity can direct additional energy towards solutions for students and families in poverty and students with disabilities.

  3. It unleashes creative energy towards new solutions and models. The more leaders can see the challenges of social distancing within school buildings, the better prepared they will be to enlist their team’s help in finding ways to hit the ground running.

That said, it is scary and sad to reflect on the extended disruptions to the school communities we cherish. Confronting the brutal reality can, in the long run, minimize disappointment and allow us all to harness our energy towards solutions.

But confronting reality can spur the process of grieving. We are missing well-loved traditions, we are cancelling big plans, we are aching for our communities, we are concerned about what this means for student outcomes and experiences. Educators are the most caring, committed, resourceful people, and their innovation continues to be an inspiration. If we lean on our communities of colleagues, we can help each other process these emotions so that we remain able to work toward solutions that help students and families.