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How schools are preparing to reopen as COVID-19 rages on

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Students from about 1,500 schools, most of them in the northeast, are getting an extra long winter break. Their schools are closed next week, according to the data company Burbio, Inc. But this is a fraction of the nation's schools. Around 98,000 will be open on Monday. What are administrators considering, and what are the strategies they're turning to as they try to stay in-person during this wave of the pandemic? Doug Belkin reports on education for The Wall Street Journal and joins us now with some answers. Hi, Doug.

DOUG BELKIN: Hi.

GURA: So what's on the table here? What are schools planning to implement, planning to do differently during this COVID surge?

BELKIN: The big push right now is this test-to-stay idea, where kids will be tested if they are exposed to COVID. And ideally, if they test negative, they will be able to return to the classroom as opposed to staying home in quarantine.

GURA: How difficult is that going to be? I know in New York, where I live, tests are still pretty scarce. You can find them at some drugstores - not most drugstores, I'd say. How realistic is it to get a test-to-stay strategy in place right now?

BELKIN: That's the million-dollar question. The federal government has said they're going to get 500 million tests out to the general public, and that's a work in progress right now. So schools, states, families are all scrambling to get tests to figure out if their children have COVID or have been exposed. And right now, there's really no good answer. It's pretty much up in flux.

GURA: We've seen this variant spread across the country. Your perch is in Chicago. How much is this a nationwide phenomenon? How much is this something that schools across the country are wrestling with?

BELKIN: You know, I think right now it's thickest in the Northeast, and in Washington, D.C., the case counts are the highest. It's rolling out across the country. Obviously, it's not going to stop there. Whether or not schools are able to benefit from the additional time so that the federal government can get them these tests will, I think, be a differentiator of how things roll out in California or on the West Coast in terms of whether this test-to-stay policy is able to help.

GURA: What did school districts learn about going virtual, switching to virtual learning? There is this resistance, it seems, to doing that even on a short-term basis. Why is that? What did they find happening with virtual learning?

BELKIN: It didn't work. You know, the learning loss was significant pretty much up and down the spectrum. The degradation in mental health among a lot of students was really problematic. When kids came back to class after these long breaks of being alone for a long time, there was a lot of problems in the hallways, a lot of arguments and violence, and just folks were a little bit more antisocial. So they're really trying to avoid that for those - those are the biggest three reasons.

GURA: Of course, this is playing out at the local level, but what has the Biden administration said about the prospects of schools coming back here right after the new year?

BELKIN: They've been very bullish on reopening schools. They really don't want to see a return to remote learning, and so they're pushing hard. The department is telling all the principals around the country and the superintendents that they hope and expect that they will reopen schools after winter break and that they should not go back to remote learning. Ultimately, the decision will be made on a school-by-school, even classroom-by-classroom basis. But the federal government is pushing hard to keep kids in school.

GURA: We've been talking about K-12, but let me ask you a question about higher ed. A few weeks back, colleges and universities indicated that they want to start remote, make sure testing is in place before they go back to in-classroom instruction. How much is this a phenomenon that we're seeing across the country?

BELKIN: You know, the same pressures are in place. The colleges are - they also don't want to see mass COVID spread on their college campuses. They're also reluctant to go remote. So they're trying to balance this. They're really walking the same tightrope that the K-12 schools are. They have - it's a little bit more complicated in some ways in that some of these schools have kids coming from around the country, so they can be bringing whatever COVID, you know, is in their hometowns, in the airports with them on to campus. On the other hand, kids at the college level are probably going to socialize regardless, so whether or not they're in class or, you know, living in a college town, it may just make sense to have them in class as well.

GURA: That's Doug Belkin, education reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Doug, thank you very much for being with us, and happy New Year.

BELKIN: David, thanks very much. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.