ROCK HILL, S.C. -- School boards nationwide are tackling a simple but hefty question -- do we return to school amid a pandemic? -- with no right or even good answers, in the face of inconsistent testing and a near-constant increase in confirmed coronavirus cases.
Behind that question is pressure. Pressure from teachers and bus drivers and janitors, scared to return to work but in need of a paycheck. Pressure from parents and guardians, who need to return to their own jobs but fear for their children's safety.
In Rock Hill, S.C., everyone has an opinion. Even state leaders can't agree. Gov. Henry McMaster contradicted his education superintendent and said schools must allow a five-days-a-week option for working parents. School boards were left to untangle the mess -- Rock Hill called an emergency meeting and ultimately kept its staggered plan -- to reopen schools, splitting students into two groups that would each spend two days a week in classrooms, with virtual learning the other school days.
There's been plenty more to resolve: Should classes be delayed until after Labor Day? How do kids get to school with buses at half-capacity for social distancing? What about masks and protective equipment? Should students have drama or orchestra if there are no public performances? What will student athletes do in a place like Rock Hill, known for sending football stars Jadeveon Clowney and Stephon Gilmore to the NFL?
School boards represent democracy at its local core: the backbone of communities, a check on superintendents, and the most direct way to influence education policy. And Rock Hill's strategy was very democratic. The board officially listened to eight committees, some made up of dozens of parents and business or community leaders. Each member spent dozens of hours in emails and informal discussions with people in and around their city of about 75,000 people.
There were teachers to consider. Susan Fields told the board last month, in its first in-person meeting since the pandemic, that she has lupus and must protect herself: "I love my kids, and for 25 years I have always put my students first. This is very odd for me ... for once I am standing up as an educator."
Special education teacher Shannon Gonzalez reminded the board that it promised extra face shields and gloves for those like her who work with students with significant developmental delays.
"It is impossible to teach a class like mine without constant physical contact," Gonzalez said. "They need hand-over-hand assistance for most everything they do. And for the last eight years, it has been my hand over their hand. It has been my face level with theirs calming them as they come out of a seizure."
And there were parents. At a July meeting, Emily Bell thanked the board for their careful, thoughtful work and told them she wasn't sure what she would do with her daughter in elementary school.
"In the morning, I'm ready for virtual school," Bell said. "And in the afternoon, I'm ready for my child to be back in the classroom."
Nearly every issue hinged on policy in the school manual, which staffers and board members pored through for hours. Changes had to be passed: Widened circumstances allowing for virtual classes, the end of open-door hours for parents eating lunch with kids, permitting athletes to practice or play if they weren't physically in school that day.
President Donald Trump has pressed states to open the schools. But, in some districts that have followed his instructions, they're slamming shut again.
Schools that reopened fully and early are seeing hundreds of students, staff and teachers put into quarantine as covid-19 spreads. Some are closing buildings opened just days ago. Others are frantically looking for workarounds -- and for the money to pay for them. In Memphis, Tenn. and Irvine, Calif., teachers must sign liability waivers in case they get sick.
Nationally, most districts are ignoring the president's advice. New Jersey on Wednesday reversed course on mandatory in-person classes, and Boston won't even attempt them.
Other large urban districts that are starting the year online include Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago. Some have written off the entire semester for in-person classes.
Still, too many insist on putting educators and communities at risk, said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association and a sixth-grade teacher in Salt Lake City.
"There is no one, maybe besides parents, who wants kids back in school as much as teachers do," Eskelsen Garcia said. "We hate online learning, too. We're throwing our computers against the wall, too. But we want to do it when and where we can do it without killing anybody."
At a later briefing, the White House released practical advice for reopening: Students and staff should assess their own health, understand the symptoms of covid-19, wash their hands, socially distance around vulnerable people and maintain good ventilation. The guidelines also said schools should "encourage" wearing masks.
Students at the Dallas, Ga., high school where images and photos of a crowded hallway filled with maskless teens went viral will return to school next Monday amid its growing case count.
The Paulding County School District announced Wednesday that North Paulding High School students will return to classrooms next week, even though the school has since reached a total of 35 positive cases since its first day of school, according to a letter sent to parents and guardians obtained by a WXIA-TV reporter.
The school district was shoved onto the national stage in the past week when at least two North Paulding High students shared pictures and video that went viral of a crowded hallway filled with mostly maskless students. The students were suspended for posting the images, a decision that was later reversed.
The high school shuttered its doors this week for a third day for cleaning after six students and at least three staff members tested positive for the novel coronavirus earlier this week.
On Wednesday, at an event with parents and educators, Trump criticized districts trying to use halfway measures to bring students back to class, like combining virtual learning with class time, and having fewer kids in the school at a time.
Trump said there's no substitute for traditional schooling.
"When you have students sitting at home playing with a computer, it's not the same," he said at the briefing. "When you sit at home in a basement looking at a computer, your brain starts to wither away."
Information for this article was contributed by Jeffrey Collins of The Associated Press; by Margaret Newkirk, Kristen V. Brown and Jordan Fabian of Bloomberg News; and by Lateshia Beachum of The Washington Post.