As big school districts wrestle with reopening, there’s no clear federal guidance but plenty of ideas about what is and isn’t safe.
Months into a pandemic that cut short one school year for most students and is on the verge of destroying a second, the country’s largest school districts are still grappling with how to get back into the classroom even as their smaller counterparts are doing just that.
They are wrestling with busing tens of thousands of students across a distance the size of some small states and keeping them at least 6 feet apart in school buildings that in pre-pandemic times often held far more students than they were built for.
And they are contending with unions looking to keep teachers safe while adapting to new models of teaching.
School superintendents also lack clear guidance they can trust from the federal government to help them make decisions on reopening schools, said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “They’re on their own,” he said,because the credibility of CDC guidance is in question amid allegations of White House meddling.
“It’s ridiculous that, with something as serious and as vital as what we’re facing right now, that children have become acceptable carnage,” he said.
Miami-Dade schools, the nation’s fourth-largest district, on Tuesday caved to pressure from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his state education commissioner to bring students back for in-person classes several weeks ahead of its own timeline. The district’s youngest charges can now return as early as Monday.
New York City schools reopened Tuesday, after several delays, but the district reported a 3.25 percent infection rate, the highest since June. If the city’s infection rate stays above 3 percent on average for 7 days, schools will be shut down, again.
In Los Angeles, local health officials haven’t entertained reopening, but county administrators this week pushed the health agency to allow younger students to attend classes in-person and put schools with large groups of students from low-income families at the top of the list.
Children can spread the virus, rapidly, even if they may suffer less if they have it themselves. One in three U.S. public school teachers is 50 or older, putting them at greater risk of developing a severe form of the illness.
Members of Congress implored the CDC on Tuesday to start gathering and sharing data to track the spread of Covid-19 in schools and help researchers develop best safety practices to successfully continue reopening schools for in-person classes. They noted that in a CDC report Monday about students who have contracted Covid, the public health agency said “Monitoring at the local-level could inform decision-makers about which mitigation strategies are most effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools and communities.”
This essential public health function should not be left solely in the hands of local school districts or states, the lawmakers said.
Domenech said superintendents in Broward and Miami-Dade counties in South Florida, have tried everything possible “to prevent this edict” from the state that they reopen schools earlier than planned.
“And it’s like the kids are the pawns in this whole process,” he said. ”You know, let’s just throw ‘em out, just like cannon fodder. No regard to their safety. No regard to their welfare. It’s just to make sure that schools are open and parents can go to work.”
School reopenings this fall are “a patchwork mess” because “there’s no consistent message” about what needs to be done to keep staff and students safe in the middle of a pandemic, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
New York City has the biggest school system in the country with more students than the entire population of Montana. Almost half of the students have opted to learn from home, for now.
If the city’s infection rate stays above 3 percent on average for 7 days, schools will be shut down, again.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been desperate to open schools despite calls from teachers and principals unions to hold off and provide remote instruction until later in the fall. The mayor has said there’s too much at stake economically and educationally to not try to reopen schools for as many students as possible.
“I do think there was a problem of sort of clinging to past procedure and approach that everyone needed to break out of and understand that we were in, you know, an absolutely unprecedented situation,” de Blasio said Tuesday. “I think that’s an area where we all could have done better.”
The city has roughly 75,000 teachers during a normal year and has hired thousands more to manage the combination of remote and in-person learning.