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Debates turn emotional as schools decide how and if to open doors

FILE - In this June 10, 2020, file photo, Olivia Chan's father helps her with a new mask she received during a graduation ceremony for her Pre-K class in front of Bradford School in Jersey City, N.J. School districts across America are in the midst of wrenching decisions during the summer about how to resume classes in settings radically altered by the coronavirus pandemic, with socially distanced school buses, virtual learning, outdoor classrooms and quarantine protocols for infected children as the new norm. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — School districts across America are in the midst of making wrenching decisions over how to resume classes in settings radically altered by the coronavirus pandemic, with school buses running below capacity, virtual learning, outdoor classrooms and quarantine protocols for infected children the new norm.

The plans for the upcoming school year are taking shape by the day, and vary district to district, state to state. The debates have been highly emotional, with tempers flaring among parents and administrators, and have been made all the more vexing by record numbers of COVID-19 cases being reported each day.

In Florida, some school districts want students back in the classroom in early August, even though the virus is surging through communities. On average, Florida has reported more than 7,000 new cases each day recently — more than seven times what it was reporting a month ago.

New Mexico, which has been largely spared major outbreaks, plans a hybrid model of virtual and in-person learning. Parents in New York have demanded schools reopen in the fall. And in Maine, more outdoor learning is planned. Districts nationwide are coming up with various rules for wearing masks. Some want all students to wear them.

Others, such as Marion County, Indiana, plan to limit the requirement to older children.

Each of these decisions is fraught, trying to balance health concerns with clawing back as much normalcy as possible.

Parents, wrung out after months of juggling full-time work and full-time home schooling, are desperate for help. Children, isolated from their peers, are yearning for social interaction. And everyone, including teachers, is concerned about stepping into the unknown, with so much still uncertain about the virus.

Districts are worried about being able to afford added supplies — including masks and more buses. And school officials said the resurgence of virus cases underway could shatter reopening plans before they’re even put in place.

“If we see large outbreaks happening across communities, it’s going to be very hard to keep schools open,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, on “Fox News Sunday.” “The good news is we think kids transmit less. They are certainly less likely to get sick, but … imagine Arizona right now. If schools were open right now, they would not be able to stay open.”

Aimee Rodriguez Webb, a special education teacher in Cobb County, Georgia, is wrestling with her own health concerns while waiting to hear her district’s plans. She also has a 3-year-old.

“I love being in the classroom. And this year I get my own classroom, so I was looking forward to decorating it and all that,” she said. “But then the flip side is … I don’t know that I’m mentally ready to step into the unknown like that.”

Schools around the U.S. shut down suddenly this year as coronavirus cases first began rising. That led to a hodgepodge of distance learning, on-the-fly homeschooling and, for some families, a lack of any school at all. Districts are now turning their focus to how to create more structured environments.

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