Reopening K-12 Schools in the Fall of 2020: Priorities to Assess, Students with Special Needs, and Staggered Schedules

Over the last week, I have seen numerous articles and points of emphasis provided by County of Education Offices regarding recommendations to re-open schools next fall. As we look at the recommendations for re-opening society and the economy proposed by the federal and state governments, it will be in phases with schools being part of the equation. Districts and schools throughout the nation need to start proactively planning for the Fall 2020 semester because the COVID crisis will likely last another 12 to 18 months based on estimations by medical researchers for the development of a vaccine and achieving herd immunity. As a result, we will not be returning to ‘normal’ upon the return to school in the fall. Thus, proactively planning now will allow schools to re-open this fall in an effective manner where students will be receiving quality instruction as well as in a safe learning environment that can adapt to changes in the number of local COVID cases.  We will be describing a number of priorities district and school leaders need to consider before thinking about developing plans to re-open. Secondly, we will briefly touch on which populations of students schools should consider re-opening to first. Then, there will be a discussion on staggered schedules for primary and secondary schools and the options that leaders could consider when developing their plans to re-open this fall.

First Priorities to Assess Before Developing a Plan to Re-Open in the Fall

After evaluating several key articles and recommendations produced by the local County of Education Offices, I have compiled a list of priorities school and district leaders should consider before developing their plan to re-open schools. There is no specific order to any of these priorities, but they all must be considered before thinking of developing a plan to re-open schools.

  • Assess how distance learning went with teachers, students, and parents. What were the areas of success and improvement? Evaluate through online instruction climate surveys to all parties, administrator observations of online synchronous and asynchronous instruction, and student participation data in each form of online instruction.
  • Communicate with the County Office of Education and collaborate with the County Health Office to determine what procedures and protocols need to be included in district/school re-opening plans.
  • Conduct a student, staff, and facility safety assessment. Assess how social distancing protocols and procedures provided by the state could affect the campus by evaluating school facilities and student enrollment.
  • Evaluate how social distancing could affect daily instructional schedules, passing periods, lunch, recess, PE, and entering/exiting campus by students and staff.
  • Assess students that are considered at-risk (Foster Youth, ELL, and low SES), students with disabilities, and students who did not participate in distance learning. Consult with the county and state regarding IEP’s and how a blended learning or distance learning model may alter Special Education Services going forward
  • Research blended learning and distance learning instructional models as well as schools that have re-opened with social distancing protocols and altered instructional models. Currently, we see schools beginning to Re-open in Denmark and Austria. We can also look to see how China re-opened their public schools to determine if any protocols they use can also be used in our school system. During this process, leaders need to assess what has been working thus far for schools that have reopened.
  • Collaborate with teachers and local teacher associations for assessing each of these priorities on how to best support them as schools re-open as well as in the development of the re-open plan.
  • Collaborate with local, state, and federal educational authorities on funding, logistics, and recommendations/guidelines for re-opening schools.

Use School Openings to Help Students Who Are Most At-Risk and Students with Disabilities

Schools and districts need to take students who are most at risk and students with disabilities into account when thinking about moving back to brick and mortar education settings. Leaders need to assess which students may be most at-risk for infection. Additionally, leaders need to assess how students more at-risk and with disabilities can attend the school facilities. For students with moderate/severe disabilities, which are not related to health (i.e., health fragility to any infection), the brick and mortar school buildings could be the best option for these students as they need additional resources and services. Typically the numbers of these students’ schools serve are low, which would allow for classrooms to have less than 12 students; an ideal environment for Specialized Academic Instruction and social distancing protocols to be simultaneously implemented.  By using the actual school facility for students with the highest need, it can accommodate their learning needs as well as provide Special Education teachers the opportunity to not have to reinvent their IEP as the services in place from the previous school year would be similar as to what they were before the crisis began.

Schools should consider first opening their door to these student populations as they are the most at-need for the services and support schools provided by Special Education teachers. By providing these students with in-person instruction, it will help the most vulnerable and the most at need have instruction, which will allow facilities to be once again occupied by students and teachers.

Staggered Days and Schedules with Social Distancing Protocols

Many proposals regarding staggering school days and schedules will help with implementing social distance policies. This would look different in primary and secondary schools, but, in theory, weeks would look like 20% to 50% of the student population attending school one to three days per week. Additionally, school days could also be cut in half, where one group of students attends in the morning while the other group of students attends in the afternoon. As stated above, this will depend on a variety of different variables. The variables that need to be taken into consideration whether this is a viable option for certain school sites includes the student population (larger schools like high schools will have a much more difficult time to implement staggered days versus small elementary schools), facility layout, how logistically the staggered schedules would be arranged (logistically, secondary class schedules will be much more difficult for staggered days), integrating social distancing protocols into every single aspect of the school’s functions (i.e., instructional settings, hallways, PE, entrances/exits, lunchroom, etc.) and, most importantly, student and teacher safety. Leaders need to take into consideration these variables as they are important in assessing whether staggering schedules is the best option for re-opening schools.

Below, I have outlined a number of scenarios that staggered schedules could be implemented in primary and secondary schools. For primary and secondary, there are three options for each to consider that seem plausible to implement. Then, there are a number of pros and cons associated with each staggered schedule option.

Primary Staggered Schedule Options

Option 1: A primary school staggered schedule could look like groups of 12 students or fewer attending in-person classes twice a week on Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday. Each group of students would receive the same instruction on the days they are scheduled to attend. Then, days each group is not in school, online instruction would supplement what students are learning in the classroom.

In this scenario, teachers would still be vulnerable to infection but the probability of infection decreases as there are fewer students per day they interact with. For instruction, students would be missing out on three days of in-person instruction that is filled with supplemental online instruction. Also, childcare could be a problem as three out of five days a week, parents will have to find childcare for their children.

Pros: Two Full Days a Week of Face to Face Instruction

Cons: Higher Probability of Contact with Others, More Days Online Than Face to Face, Childcare Issues

Option 2: A primary school’s staggered schedule could look like groups of 12 students or fewer attending in-person classes for half days. Groups of students would either attend a morning or afternoon session four to five days a week. Online instruction could then supplement the times of day students are not attending school.

This scenario could be a viable option but could leave teachers and staff more vulnerable to infection as they see more students per day. On the instructional level, students would receive the most in-person instruction out of each of these three options; but childcare would have to be provided in some shape or form by families for at least half the school day when they are not attending.

Pros: Two and a Half Days of Online Instruction, Minimal Online Instruction

Cons: Higher Probability of Contact with Others, Childcare Issues

Option 3: A primary school can implement an independent study like program where very small groups of students attend various timeslots throughout the day a number of times a week to receive small group and one on one instruction from their teacher. Online supplemental instruction can be the primary mode of instruction in a flipped classroom like environment for students.

For this scenario, it would allow for the fewest number of students to be on campus at a given time. However, in this scenario, teachers would see the second most students per day depending on the time blocks given to the small groups of students for instruction. If 2 hours is given for small groups of 6 students, teachers could still see upwards to 18 or more students per day.  On an instructional level,  students would likely benefit the least as much of their work would be online and would need the most support from home to facilitate instruction.

Pros: Lower Probability of Contact with Others, Extremely Social Distance Friendly, Small Group and One on One Instruction

Cons: Instructional Limitations Face to Face with Small Groups, High Level of Support Needed From Home, Large Online Instruction Presence, Childcare Issues

Secondary Staggered Schedule Options

Option 1: A secondary school could implement a one-day in-person face to face class day for its by dividing the school population into 25% segments that would take up the days of Monday-Thursday (i.e., Group A, B, C, and D). During this day, 25% of the population there would complete a normal 5 to 7 period where students receive face to face instruction. Generally, during these days, it would provide teachers and students to connect for small group instruction as well as to receive time for in-person activities. Then, the remainder of the week, students would have supplemental online instruction.

Pros: Lower Probability of Contact with Others, Higher Student and Teacher Safety Due to Smaller Groups on Campus, and Social Distancing Friendly

Cons: Low Amount of Face to Face Instruction and Predominantly Online Instruction

In this option, students receive the least one day face to face instruction a week but have the majority of instruction online. However, students and teachers receive the least exposure to others. Additionally, this could provide large schools an option outside of alternating weeks of face to face instruction for their students like outlined in Option 3. For example, a school of 3000+ students would equate to about 750 students per day on campus, which would allow for social distance protocols to be adequately followed.

Option 2: A secondary school could implement an even and odd day block schedule for two face to face days per week. In this model, upwards to 50% of the school population would attend odd and even days on Monday-Thursday. During these block periods during odd and even days, students would receive longer instructional times with their teachers and peers for in-person activities. Then, on days students are not attending school, online instruction would supplement what they are learning in class.

Pros: High Amounts of Face to Face Instruction and Minimal Online Instruction

Cons: Higher Probability of Contact with Others, Lower Amounts of Student and Teacher Safety Due to Large Groups on Campus, Not Social Distance Friendly

In this option, secondary schools would have to ensure the school site could institute social distancing policies with 50% of students present at the school site. Instructional face to face time would be equal to Option 3, but there would be more students present in classes. This could be a viable plan if the secondary school has a smaller student population of fewer than 1200 students. It would allow students in these scenarios to adequately socially distance and receive more face to face instruction. However, for larger schools, this option may not be viable as 50% of students of a school of 3000+ would equate to almost 1500 students on campus, which would likely not be doable with social distance protocols.

Option 3: A secondary could implement rotation weeks of face to face and online instruction for different groups of students. This would consist of four groups of students amounting to 25% of the student population each. Then, two groups per week would go to school in person while the other two groups work online for the week. For example, during the first week of the month, group A would attend periods one through six on Monday and Wednesday. Then, group B could attend periods one through six on Tuesday and Thursday. The following week, groups C and D would attend in-person while groups A and B would be receiving online instruction.

Pros: High Amount of Face to Face Instruction, Lower Probability of Contact with Others, Higher Student and Teacher Safety Due to Smaller Groups on Campus, and Social Distancing Friendly

Cons: Face to Face Instructional Time Split Evening with Online Instruction

For this option of instruction, students would receive longer times of face to face instruction in addition to not being around large groups of students. Teachers would also be around a lesser number of students on a daily basis. However, with this weekly rotating schedule, there ultimately would be less face to face time for students, but almost equal to the number of face to face instruction as Option 1. For large schools with populations of students 3000+, it could be a viable option as 25% of the student would equate to fewer than 750 students at the school site. This would make it much easier to institute social distancing protocols and ensure student safety at large school sites.


More than likely student scheduling staggering options for primary and secondary school will be comprised of some of the elements I outlined in this post. The initial priorities I provided earlier in the article should be reviewed, assessed, and then developed into a plan before a school and district decide on how it should stagger student schedules to lower the probability of possible COVID infection for students and teachers.

Within these plans, schools and districts need to prepare for what has been coined the “Toggle Semester” for K-12. This means any type of staggered scheduling offered in primary and secondary school can move fully online at a moment’s notice if the number of COVID cases increases within the school and district’s jurisdiction. This is why districts and schools must be prepared to offer a blended instructional model, which incorporates face to face and online instruction as described in the primary and secondary staggered schedule options.

Next time, I will outline blended instructional models for primary and secondary schools. I will focus on how instruction can be delivered through this methodology and how it can be implemented by teachers this fall. If you have any comments about the contents of this post, please share by writing them below or by replying to me at @mattrhoads1990 on Twitter.


Published by Matthew Rhoads, Ed.D.

Innovator, EdTech Trainer and Leader, University Lecturer & Teacher Candidate Supervisor, Consultant, Author, and Podcaster

4 thoughts on “Reopening K-12 Schools in the Fall of 2020: Priorities to Assess, Students with Special Needs, and Staggered Schedules

  1. Yep. Right on the money. Pretty much what we were thinking too. Primary Ed teacher in San Diego Unified. I am curious about the Blended Learning/Flipped Classroom posts. Thanks and good work condensing/packaging your message into the vernacular.


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