Skip to content

The Least Worst School Reopening Idea: Elementary-First

Safely reopening schools is hard. In the midst of challenging conversations about how we can do so, the most sensible, creative idea isn’t getting enough traction:

We should reopen elementary schools first (or as the top priority), while also sending back academically vulnerable upper grades students (ex. kids with IEPs) for intervention.

The elementary-first idea aligns with the key realities about reopening schools:

1. Studies show that younger kids are less vulnerable to COVID-19 and unlikely to transmit it – generally, and in school reopening case studies.

The growing body of evidence on kids & COVID suggests low risks associated with reopening schools in regions with low community transmission. It’s particularly reassuring with regard to elementary students.

If you read two things on what we’ve learned about kids and school-based transmission, read:

solid overview of international case studies in The New York Times noted that troubling cases were centered in upper grades:

“The findings suggest that older children may be able to transmit the virus more easily than younger children.

That pattern may also be reflected by the experience in Israel, where one of the largest school outbreaks, involving about 175 students and staff, occurred in Gymnasia Rehavia, a middle and high school in Jerusalem.

There are different theories about why older children would be more likely to transmit the virus than younger children. Some scientists say that younger children are less likely to have Covid-19 symptoms like coughs and less likely to have strong speaking voices, both of which can transmit the virus in droplets. Other researchers are examining whether proteins that enable the virus to enter lung cells and replicate are less abundant in children, limiting the severity of their infection and potentially their ability to transmit the virus.”

Even in Israel, site of the most worrisome outbreak after reopening schools, had a successful pilot in early grades, and only saw cases spike after upper grades were added. Israel remains the outlier; Germany just reported “low coronavirus infection rate” in schools.

I believe that we haven’t seen enough coverage of these studies in the media. The school reopening conversation has been a raging dumpster fire, driven by emotion; these studies could inject some much-needed reason.

For additional reading on kids, COVID, and schools, this USA Today column contains loads of links to studies, while also closing with a recommendation to open elementary-first. Also, John Bailey penned an excellent thread. Overall, the studies leave me comfortable about reopening, especially for elementary grades.

2. Safe reopening requires space. So let’s spread out the littlest learners across buildings.

Reopening elementary-only creates the opportunity to use more district buildings for the K–5’s, alleviating space constraint concerns.

3. In distance learning, emerging readers are the most academically vulnerable. We MUST give all students reading foundations.

Learning to read successfully by third grade is key to children’s long-term outcomes.

The distance learning experience raised a lot of questions about our ability to teach reading remotely to our K–2’s.

We heard anguished cries from K–1 teachers about unique challenges of remote instruction. Parental assistance was essential because kids can’t read assignments independently, yet teachers couldn’t always count on parents to be available. Teachers talked about fundamental challenges in delivering a phonics lesson remotely (“can kids see my mouth well enough if they are on a phone?”), and they named practical issues, like the inability to keep six years olds from running off to play.

If – as many educators assert – distance learning had an outsize impact on teaching and learning in early grades, that creates significant long-term risk because of the ‘Matthew effect’: early success seeds exponentially greater long-term success. In addition, abundant research has shown that early intervention is far more impactful than later intervention. How can teachers intervene early if they are barely seeing K–1 kids?

Because of all of these factors, many educators believe that K–1’s face the greatest long-term academic risk, because critical instruction was greatly compromised this spring. Can we afford to prolong that in ’20-21?

Kindergarten and first grade establish essential reading foundations, as kids learn how to break down and recognize words. They pick up oral language and new vocabulary, and ideally enter grade 2 able to navigate grade-appropriate books successfully and fluently. Second grade is an essential year for targeted intervention for students with skill gaps leaving first grade.

In fact, elementary learning is designed around the assumption that kids learn to read by the end of second grade. By third grade, curricula assume that kids are proficient readers.

Reading skills affect success in every other area of study. The need to look at K–2’s as a vulnerable class academically should compel us to consider an elementary-first return.

4. Parents of K–5s are the most impacted by closures.

Parents carry a massive load in distance learning for children who cannot yet read. My daughter was a proficient reader in second grade when schools closed, and it felt like a huge blessing that she could sit with a device and read the lesson instructions without help. Parents of K–1 students basically need to turn into part-time lesson proctors.

Then there is the childcare factor. Teachers don’t like when we talk about school-as-childcare; it makes them feel undervalued, and I get that. But as a society, we have to talk about how we support working families. Schools are obviously a safe haven, and elementary-aged children need minding while parents work. Middle and upper-grades students are more likely to be safe at home alone while parents work.

We support families by getting little ones back to school full time; hybrid schedules that bring kids back to school part-time are hardly a solution for working parents.

Slow But Growing Momentum for the Idea

A number of thoughtful folks have begun promoting this idea. Sarah Cohodes came to similar conclusions from an economist’s perspective. Former National Superintendent of the Year Terry Grier calls it his preferred approach, Michele Caracappa describes it as the ‘student-centered approach,’ and Chad Aldeman and Ashley Darcy-Mahoney endorsed the idea in USA Today.

Days after this piece published, the respected National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a report recommending elementary-first, based on its review of global studies.

We’re seeing some districts run with this approach. New Orleans (NOLA) is bringing back PK–4 in the traditional model, with upper grades doing a hybrid model. Long Beach Unified is offering full-day and half-day in-school options, five days/week, in elementary; middle and high school options are only back in schools part time. Amherst, MA and Charlottesville, VA are bringing back elementary schoolers full time or close, with upper grades doing more remote learning. Guilford County (NC) plans elementary-first. Additional examples have been shared in social media as districts announce plans.

Still, there are 14,000 US districts, and I don’t hear most superintendents (including my own) talking about it. That worries me.

I’m afraid that superintendents will feel pressure to bring all kids back in an equivalent fashion, when everything tells us that all grades are not equally-impacted. Mind you, if superintendents are in districts where everyone can safely go back full time, good for them! But, before districts opt for schedules that compromise instruction for all kids, I hope they will consider these student-centered options.

I hope we can bring this conversation to more districts before the school reopening plans are cast. By all means, send this to your local superintendent if you think it makes sense.

Plenty More to Consider

There’s much more to consider in the how-to-reopen equation. I’m not unpacking all of the important variables, but it’s a long list… schools must consider the rate of local community transmission;  avoid contact among adults, both staff and parents; they need provisions for protecting teachers, especially teachers with health risks; they need plans for what happens if outbreaks occur in schools; and more.

I’m not addressing those important factors. I simply hope to advance the elementary-first and vulnerable learners-first ideas in the reopening conversation, because they feel like no-brainers.

Districts can also open elementary schools as phase 1, and use the experience to consider additional grades in the phase 2.

Our school reopening plans cannot be a monolith. Folks appreciate that we’ll need to vary reopening plans by region, based on local levels of COVID transmission. Why not vary by grade level-slash-degree-of-student need, when the argument is so compelling?


Since publishing, I’ve heard from a few superintendents that they are looking into / looked into this approach, and they like it, but they need to work through staffing. Others have asked, “How do you staff this?” Admittedly, staffing is a key consideration.

The answer is inherently local: a function of local class size norms; how many families send kids back to school (some will inevitably opt out; there is talk of a big drop in K registrations as families hold kids out an extra year) and practical matters like available space in classrooms for distancing. This idea might require schools to reallocate some teachers towards elementary grades and/or repurpose special subject teachers and utilize paraprofessionals in creative ways.

This comment reflects one approach:

I didn’t say it was easy – I said it was important, and since some districts are heading this direction, possible.

Otherwise, comments have reflected my fears: that districts will be afraid to bring back some kids and not others. One superintendent expressed his dislike of the idea by saying it “sends the message to secondary students you don’t matter,” and went on to express his concerns about middle schoolers’ social-emotional learning. I don’t want to downplay the social-emotional impacts for the kids that stay home, but I would like to remind everyone of the research showing that struggling readers in grade 3 show greater rates of anxiety and depression by grade 5, along with many other downstream risks (check out this thread).

While schools will always have competing priorities, I hope we will fight to keep literacy at the very top of the list.

Published inUncategorized


  1. Debbie Debbie

    At this time our world has an abundance of depressed and anxious children, this must be addressed before we can ever expect these children to learn. Social and emotional well being is the most important key to a safe and caring environment in which children will learn. Our education systems must take this fragile component to the top of the priority list for learning to take place.

  2. Julie Abdel-Fattah Julie Abdel-Fattah

    Me neither, but that won’t happen other than maybe avery few exceptions.

Leave a Reply