Billions of federal dollars are being funneled to schools to help with in-person safety and reopening efforts, but as the Associated Press reported, some “hurdles” to getting kids back in the classroom cannot be overcome with money.
These hurdles, however, require some deeper exploration.
The hurdles to in-person returns, according to the AP article, are:
- “Many parents want to keep their children home.” Some parents, as noted in AP’s article, want safety assurances before returning children to the classroom. Other reasons not cited by the AP, however, are that parents want consistency for their children, which hybrid models don’t offer; the safety measures instituted at the schools have made the environment “miserable;” and/or students, even in the classroom, are still on laptops taught by virtual teachers. A survey with more than 1,000 participants in Virginia found that most (94.2%) had students in a hybrid model, but 71.1% believed schools should be operating 5 days a week in person now; 83.1% support full-time in person in the fall.
- “Teachers have pushed back on reopening plans.” Truth. Research discussed on the Brookings Brown Center Chalkboard asserts that teachers’ unions have heavily influenced school reopening plans, more than pandemic metrics. All K-12 teachers in all 50 states are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but the CDC said in February that vaccination is not a prerequisite for getting back to school. Some teachers, despite vaccination, still teach remotely.
- “Social distancing keeps them from bringing back all students at once.” The CDC recently relaxed distancing guidelines and from six feet to three while masked, meaning more desks could fit in classrooms. The CDC also noted that if community transmission was high, six feet distancing should be implemented in middle and high schools (not necessarily a return to remote learning). A CDC science brief stated: “Based on the data available, in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission.” The brief mentioned some studies found “it is possible for communities to reduce incidence of COVID-19 while keeping schools open for in-person instruction.” Even with this info from the CDC, some school districts cite factors like maskless lunches and bussing as continued hurdles for keeping in-person numbers low.
One hurdle not mentioned by the AP was the U.S. Department of Education’s own administrator’s lack of assurance that five-days-a-week education is viable this fall. Prior to the AP article being published, DOE Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in an MSNBC interview last week that it is “premature to tell” if schools should resume full-time, in-person learning. Only 45% of pre-K–8 are currently full-time in person, he said.
“One thing I know as a former commissioner of education, COVID-19 numbers will dictate how we move to reopen schools,” he said.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said in his interview with Cardona that teachers’ unions have been blamed by some as a “chief obstacle to getting back to in-person learning.”
Cardona failed to address the possible role of teachers’ unions directly, saying instead that “teachers have bent over backwards” to make it through the past year and “all educators want children in school, they just want it done safely.”
What constitutes “safely” is often the sticking point. Just this week, Oakland Unified School District in California began bringing students back in a phased approach for in-person learning after reaching a deal with the teachers’ union. However, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said not all schools would be able to open on time because less than 40% of district teachers agreed to come back by March 30.
Further south, it was revealed this week teachers in the San Diego Unified School District were, during their spring break on a volunteer basis, providing in-person instruction to undocumented minors at the convention center, while the district’s own students still had not received in-person learning.
“The hypocrisy, of these undocumented girls getting in-person education, shows the ridiculousness of the political science of this COVID virus has become,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in a statement.
Thus far, only local news and right-leaning outlets have reported on this situation. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addressed it at a briefing, retorting that San Diego students would be returning to the classroom soon. Fox News’ Kristin Fisher clarified the students would return in person part-time.
“Does the White House think that this sends the right message to these 130,000 kids in San Diego and their parents, who’ve been stuck at home for the last year?” Fisher asked. Psaki said context of upcoming hybrid learning is important and that “we, of course, want that to be five days a week, and we’re confident we’ll get there early next month.”
Just like the Biden administration promised to open schools in his first 100 days and then rolled the goal back to mean K-8 receiving at least one day a week in the classroom.
Trust the scientists. Trust the CDC. Just wait until we get vaccines. Yet with study after study and updated guideline after guideline, the ball to fully reopening classrooms for many students suffering academically and mentally continues to be punted further down the academic calendar.