Coronavirus and the ‘new normal’: What’s coming in the months ahead

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The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected the lives of every American. And while politicians and experts disagree on how best to confront the disease and mitigate its economic ramifications, there is a broad understanding that we are entering a “new normal” — an upending of our lives that will continue at least until a vaccine is developed — and perhaps well beyond that.

How that new normal will play out may depend in large part on where you live. But broadly speaking, we know that the struggle against COVID-19 will continue to be fought on many fronts, from hospitals and schools to restaurants and houses of worship. 

Epidemiologists expect that the coronavirus will hit the U.S. in a series of waves. Research indicates that rates of infection could dissipate in the summer months only to spike again in the fall. Where these spikes might occur is anyone’s guess, meaning mayors and governors must be prepared to suddenly reinforce social distancing measures as rates of infection wax and wane throughout the country. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has teamed up with other West Coast governors to implement a regional response to the disease, has likened future containment measures to a “dimmer switch.” Offices and schools could be opened only to be quickly shuttered again as outbreaks move from one municipality to another.

In the coming months, economic considerations will need to be weighed against concerns for public health. And because people cannot stay cooped up in their homes indefinitely, lawmakers will have to balance people’s desire to socialize with friends and family with the social distancing efforts that remain the primary method of lowering the infection rate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already put together guidelines for reopening places like restaurants, schools, and houses of worship. According to the Associated Press, these guidelines consist of numerous recommendations, including one stipulating that desks in schools should be at least 6 feet apart, while worship services should stay virtual for as long as possible. Restaurants, per the CDC guidelines, should adhere to a host of new precautions, including a possible ban on salad bars. 

Beyond that, what will all this look like? Here is what some top experts say to expect.

THE SCHOOLS: IS ONLINE LEARNING HERE TO STAY?

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Lindsey Wasson/Reuters.

The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in an age of online learning in which students are taught remotely. But according to Joel Klein, who was New York City’s schools chancellor from 2002 to 2010, it’s going to be enormously difficult to make virtual classes as effective as normal in-person schooling. 

“As a general rule, I’ll start with this: I don’t think online learning is likely to ever be as good as in-person learning,” Klein said. Students interested in listening to “the great lectures” may not have much of a problem, he added, but that’s “a very small slice of learning.” 

“If you want interactive learning — call on different students in the class, follow up, students discussing things among themselves, different people taking different viewpoints and arguing, trying to read the class, seeing how interested they are in the discussion — those kinds of things are going to be harder and harder to do, particularly with younger and younger kids.”

Younger students, Klein said, require “highly personalized learning” in which “one kid could be working on fractions, another could be working on long division, or what have you.” And this is hard to implement in an online teaching environment. 

“I’m not saying there aren’t values to online learning, but compared to classroom learning — especially when people are younger — I think it’s hard to get comparability.”  

As for whether parents can expect schools to be physically open this fall, it will depend a great deal on where the schools are, as different states and municipalities deal with differing rates of infection. “Most schools, most colleges that I’ve read about are trying to find a way to open in the fall,” Klein said.

But opening up the schools may also require them to divide the students into different groups. This could mean half the students at a given school would come back in the fall, while others would have to wait for the spring. 

A more ad hoc system, in which schools might be open one week only to be suddenly shuttered the next, would take a toll on parents, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods where parents have less flexibility in terms of taking off work or hiring babysitters. 

“It’s different for kids in high school, it’s different for kids in college, who are more independent,” Klein said. At the same time, he said, he didn’t know anyone “who thinks it would be optimal” to open and close schools “every other week.” 

“It might be easier to do one month on, one month off,” Klein said. “It might be easier, in some cases, to do a semester online, a semester in class. There are a lot of complications that need to be thought through in the process.” Additionally, administrators may have to consider sequestering students and teachers from high-risk groups, such as those with underlying conditions that can make COVID-19 infections more dangerous, from the rest of the school’s population. 

“Anybody who’s thinking about how to deal with these problems has to be thinking that your most vulnerable have to be protected with your greatest sense of security.”

— Will Rahn

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