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Many school districts are now adopting plans to start the year virtually, putting off in-person learning until coronavirus cases decline.
As school start dates loom ever closer, elected officials, educators, public health experts, and parents are engaged in a fierce debate over what school reopening should look like at a time when coronavirus cases and deaths are rising in the majority of states. Proponents of reopening argue that children’s lives need to return to normal and working parents need the break, while noting that many students struggle with online learning. Those who are pushing for a virtual model say that in-person learning simply isn’t safe for the foreseeable future.
The debate over how to reopen, which has been on the backburner for many policymakers since the beginning of the pandemic, raged to the forefront this week as states started to release safety guidelines, teachers sued over reopening plans and sent drafts of their own obituaries to governors, and parent groups agitated to make their concerns known. Most states are allowing districts to decide how they proceed, although governors in a few states, including Florida, Utah, and Vermont, say they want to see plans for fully in-person learning come August.
Recent comments from Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, inflamed an already tense debate in his state about reopening. In an interview on local radio station KFTK last Friday, Parson acknowledged that reopening schools means that some students will inevitably contract Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, but said that such a scenario should not “stop us in our tracks.”
“These kids have got to get back to school,” he said. “If they do get Covid-19, which they will—and they will when they go to school—they’re not going to the hospitals … They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it.”
Both state and local officials in Missouri decried the comments as failing to grasp the full dangers of the disease. State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat running against Parson in November said that children catching the virus was only one concern, while the adults who could catch it from them were another. “The teachers, bus drivers, janitors, food service workers, parents, grandparents, and neighbors who our children see every day are susceptible to this virus too,” she said.
One recent study found that while children younger than 10 are less likely to transmit the virus to others, children between 10 and 19 are just as capable of spreading it as adults. One analysis found that about one in four teachers have a condition like diabetes or asthma that makes catching coronavirus a serious health risk.
On Monday, the health department in Kansas City, Missouri advised the city’s schools not to reopen on the scheduled date of August 24, citing a recent rise in cases in the area. The school district superintendent said in a letter to parents that they had planned to offer in-person learning but that now they must “pivot and adjust [the] reopening plans.”
In neighboring Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly said she wants to delay “any student instruction” until after Labor Day to “provide schools time to work with their counties to get the necessary mitigation supplies like masks, thermometers, and hand sanitizer, while providing local districts time to thoroughly review the curriculum options.”
Kelly’s approach mirrors those of many other school districts across the country, which have pushed school start dates—whether for in-person classrooms, virtual learning, or both—to a time after the last summer holiday. Schools in states like Virginia, South Carolina, New Mexico, and Texas have all pushed their dates back in the past few days, though some say they plan to start with virtual learning before then.
With coronavirus cases rising in new hotspots across the south and western United States, more districts seem to be coalescing around plans to start the school year with a purely online approach and then phase in classroom learning if and when it becomes safe. These plans have generally received support from teachers unions, many of which have said they don’t want to return to a classroom environment until local case rates have been trending downwards for at least two weeks.
These plans may be made more difficult by the White House, where President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are demanding that schools reopen fully. In early July, DeVos told governors that students “have already fallen behind” and that schools need to reopen “to make sure that they catch up.”
Other proponents of reopening say that just as much as students may be struggling to learn, parents are also struggling to balance full-time childcare obligations with work—especially single mothers and parents without large support networks. For those whose workplaces are starting to return to in-person operations, the lack of childcare options with closed schools and daycares is a pressing concern. Parents working from home during the pandemic say that managing their children’s schoolwork and activities, while they also do their own work, isn’t a tenable situation for long. As one parent wrote in a recent New York Times article, “in the Covid-19 economy, you can have a kid or a job. You can’t have both.”
One way that the federal government might prod schools to reopen is to try to withhold federal funding from districts that don’t fully commit to in-person learning this fall. President Trump has repeatedly stated he favors this approach, but observers have questioned whether either he or DeVos can really follow through.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the next coronavirus relief package he plans to propose will include $105 billion for schools, but did not mention if the funds would have strings attached to reopening plans. "This country wants its kids back in the classroom this fall learning, exploring, making friends,” he said.
Last week, a joint statement from the country’s two largest teachers unions, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the School Superintendents Association said that policy makers should “leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings.”
“Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person full-time would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers,” the statement reads.
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.