President Joe Biden states he wants most kindergarten schools to reopen by late April through eighth grade. Still, millions of students, many of them minorities in urban areas, are likely to be left out even if that happens.
“Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, said, “We’re going to see children fall further and further behind, especially low-income students of colour. “There is possibly a generational level of damage that students have suffered for so long from being out of school.”
Like some other officials and advocates of education, Jeffries said powerful unions of teachers stand in the way of bringing students back. To protect teachers and students and their families, the unions insist they act.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the federal government, said in a call Thursday evening with teacher unions, the reopening of K-8 classrooms nationally may not be possible in Biden’s time frame. He cited concern about the virus’s variants that allow it to spread faster and maybe more vaccine-resistant.
As part of a broader coronavirus relief package that faces an uncertain fate in Congress, Biden is requesting $130 billion for schools to address concerns from unions and school officials. If his reopening goal is realized, millions of students, possibly for the rest of the school year, may still have to continue learning from home.
In the first part of January, California was an infection epicentre, and public health officials say that many of the state’s districts are in areas where transmission remains too high to reopen. But as soon as public health standards are met, a statewide group called Open Schools California is pushing to reopen.
Megan Bacigalupi, a mother of students at Oakland public schools and one of the organizers, said, “I believe that data will show that the children who have been most disadvantaged are going to be low-income children, Black and Brown children, children with special education, learning differences, homeless and foster youth.”
Due to the size and diffuse nature of the nation’s school system, it is difficult to count exactly how many schools are now open in person and because districts’ approaches change frequently.
By early January, in a sample of 1,200 U.S. school districts, about a third of students were in schools where classes had been held exclusively online since last March, many of them in towns. By last week, more than half of the students were enrolled in schools where, according to Burbio, a data service monitoring school-opening policies was at least an option for in-person learning.
Atlanta began returning the youngest and special education students to some in-person learning last week for the first time since it shuttered schools in March. Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas; Kansas City, Missouri; Boston and the big Ohio school systems, are other districts that plan to reopen by early March.
In New York City, younger students already have the option of attending school in person. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday that he expects middle school and high school students to return later this school year to return in some capacity.
Jeffries acknowledges that there are reasons why opening schools in cities is more difficult: they are more densely populated, which means that the virus can spread more quickly; more people rely on public transport, a potential hot spot for contamination; and more parents have front-line jobs that could expose them to the virus and, in turn, their kids.
But the main obstacle to the reopening of city schools, he said, was political. “The teachers’ unions tend to oppose going back to school pretty obstinately,” Jeffries said.
So far, only prekindergartners have been at school in Chicago. This week, in a showdown with the district over plans to bring students to school from Feb. 1, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to teach online only. If school officials retaliate, the union has authorized a strike, but negotiations are continuing.
In the Chicago Public Schools system, Claiborne Wade, 31, has three children, aged 10, 9 and 7. The district is not quite ready to reopen schools, Wade believes, and for now, he favours distance learning.
Although, he said that minority students have fewer resources for online learning in large urban districts. He’s seen students get a laptop and a tablet from more affluent schools, and even a desk, while his children only have a laptop to work with. Having both a laptop and a tablet helps because students can see their teacher on one screen and follow him on another, he said, along with instructional materials.
He said, “It has been going on for years, even before the pandemic hit.” “In receiving the resources we need, we have always been at the bottom of the totem pole.”
Public health officials are increasingly saying that the transmission of viruses in schools is low as long as measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing are in place, even if teachers and other school staff have not received vaccinations.
“On Jan. 21, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said: “There is no reason for school boards to keep students out of school for public health reasons. None.
Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, wrote to Hogan last week, saying his statement “would be laughable if it were not so dangerous.” She said that the coronavirus is not predictable and that the spread of new mutations increases the dangers. When individuals gather indoors for long periods, infection risks increase.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that with rigorous testing programs in place and students and educators’ option to remain online if they choose to, it could be safe to return to schools in the spring semester.
Teachers know how essential in-person teaching is, but we need to make it safe. As well as accommodations for educators at risk, testing and vaccination, as well as masking and distancing, are crucial,” she said in a statement last week.
The conditions are different in the city than outside it, said Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, representing teachers in a New Jersey city with a long history of poverty, crime and high dropout rates. Until at least April, the schools there plan to keep buildings closed.
“In a suburban area, what keeps someone safe is not the same thing that would keep people safe here,” Benson said, adding that while remote learning is not ideal, he believes students will eventually be able to catch up.
Dr Lavanya Sithanandam, a paediatrician practising in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, said that since online learning began in her area more than ten months ago, she has seen a record number of children and teenagers with mental health problems.
“Many doctors, including myself, were initially very hesitant about children returning to school,” she said. “But as the data evolved, many of us realized that it was incredibly important to reopen the school.”
Most of her patients are children from minority families of lower-income people. She said students she sees from private schools where classes are held in person tend to fare better in terms of mental health than their public school peers.
They did the basics of masking, distancing, sometimes opening up the windows. They’ve been able to minimize any outbreaks with that,” she said.
Grace Lovelace Guishard, a second-grade teacher, also has three children enrolled in public schools in Maryland’s Montgomery County, a large and racially diverse district where all classes will remain virtual until at least March 15, a timetable that will depend on the spread of the virus.
She said that in preparing to reopen, schools could not take shortcuts and believes that teachers must have the right to refuse to work if they believe conditions are unsafe. That also means ensuring that equal treatment is given to students like her, many of whom come from Spanish-speaking households.
“It is necessary to focus any plan for reopening schools on equity for all,” she said.