For many, the 2020-2021 academic year has looked extremely different from years past: Since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered many schools in March 2020, students have had to adjust to online learning, hybrid schedules and other changes in the classroom.
While the vaccine rollout is ramping up and coronavirus cases are continuing to fall, experts say it's unlikely that school will look normal by the end of this academic year.
"I think fall is more likely than the spring," said Dr. Sten Vermund, a pediatrician and dean of the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut. "You're going to have a lot of caution in the school arena this spring. I think most school districts will be fairly cautious. They'll probably continue with hybrid learning ... Many of them will be cautious and we'll continue with a hybrid model, but in the fall we could have quite a different metric."
When will school be normal again?
While this year might continue to look different, experts said that it's entirely possible for things to be normal by early fall, especially as vaccinations continue.
Even though children under the age of 16 can't currently be vaccinated, it's expected that there will be information about vaccines in kids soon. Vermund said that trials are currently ongoing in kids aged 12 and up, and trials for younger children are "getting off the ground."
"We could have a very different scenario for school in the fall, if we have extremely high vaccination rates," Vermund said.
Vermund also said that having teachers, parents and other family members vaccinated will be helpful.
"As families become vaccinated, then siblings won't transmit to each other, parents won't get it from the children, and vice versa," Vermund said.
What can people do now to make sure schools are open in the fall?
By getting vaccinated now and continuing to take precautions like social distancing and wearing a mask in public, people can ensure that it's safe for schools to operate normally this fall.
While the vaccine rollout is still ongoing, Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, director of ICAP at Columbia University and a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, said that it's also important to make sure transmission rates go as low as possible.
"Our collective responsibility is 'How can we decrease transmission?' and get it as low as possible, because that's how we are going to be able to get to the point where we can reopen schools," said El-Sadr.
"It's a very critical point in time, in terms of the history and the trajectory of this pandemic," El-Sadr continued. "We're kind of in a moment where we see the promise of the vaccines that are available now ... but at the same time we are experiencing and noting the threats of these variants. ... We have good news but we have reason for concern. What we collectively can do, together, is work as hard as possible to decrease the risk of transmission of this virus."
What will 'normal' look like?
El-Sadr said that even if schools are open and operating regularly, it may be necessary to retain some measures like "masking, distancing, or attention to ventilation" at least in the early fall.
Vermund said that he hopes to see schools continue to prioritize ventilation and hand hygiene in the coming academic year, even if vaccination rates are high. However, it will be less necessary to maintain those standards as more people are vaccinated.
"I think all of these things that have been done this year can continue into the fall, but life can be simpler," he said. "If (the majority) of our student body and virtually all of our teachers and staff are vaccinated against the coronavirus, and schools fail in implementing other public health measures with high fidelity, you don't pay a terrible price for that."
Vermund said that he also hopes the 2021-2022 school year will bring back extracurricular activities that may have been paused by the pandemic.
"Things like sports and arts and music can get back to normal," he said.