School Opening Optimism Collapses: In Midst of COVID-19 Surge, Many Districts Will Open Online Only

Until last week it seemed that nobody—apart from the school administrators and teachers considering staggered schedules this fall to ensure social distancing as smaller groups of children share classroom space and buses—seemed to be thinking about the feasibility of opening school this fall.  Then last week, when President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos demanded that schools reopen full time, five days a week, everybody finally began paying attention to the sometimes competing needs of students for routine and in-person support from their teachers, of educators for direct connection with children, and parents for the supervision schools would provide when they have to go back to work. There has also been the puzzling contradiction between pediatricians who recently said kids can go back to school safely and the data in our newspapers which say COVID-19 is spiking even higher in some places than back in March, when schools shut down to protect everybody.

By Monday night, however, with a spate of press reports about schooling this fall in a number of the nation’s biggest cities, optimism collapsed. We have learned that in a number of large school districts where the coronavirus is spiking, students will begin the school year online full time. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reports: “Resisting pressure from President Trump, three of the nation’s largest school districts said Monday that they will begin the new school year with all students learning from home.  Schools in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Atlanta will begin entirely online, officials said Monday.  Schools in Nashville plan to do the same, at least through Labor Day.”

The NY Times Shawn Hubler and Dana Goldstein remind us that a lot of students are involved, and that the government’s failure to contain the virus is the reason: “The Los Angeles and San Diego unified school districts, which together enroll some 825,000 students, are the largest so far in the country to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. More than a third of California’s coronavirus cases are in Los Angeles County, and San Diego County has had 18 community outbreaks over the past week, more than double the state’s acceptable threshold.”

Politico‘s Nicole Gaudiano and Bianca Quilantan report: “Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools—touted as a model by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for its comprehensive reopening plan—is offering up to five days of in-person learning, along with an online option. But the superintendent now is casting doubt on the possibility of kids returning to classrooms on the first day of school if the city remains the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, though Florida’s new reopening plan orders the state’s public schools to reopen in August for at least five days per week for all students… Despite the state mandate, Broward County School District is still weighing whether to reopen classrooms when school starts on Aug. 19.”  In Houston, Texas, “Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district is still finalizing its fall plans, but it is considering resuming classes through in-person, online instruction, or hybrid models.”

Chalkbeat‘s Kalyn Belsha and Claire Bryan add several other districts to the list: “School officials in metro Nashville, Atlanta, Phoenix, and other California cities like Oakland and San Bernardino all have made similar decisions. That number could grow, as school officials in places like Memphis have signaled they may start the year virtually if cases continue to rise in their area… The decision to return to full-time virtual learning in several cities marks a sea change, upending the expectations that many educators, parents, and students had earlier this summer that the fall would bring a return to some of the normal routines of school, even if only for a few days a week. The announcements come as President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have ramped up the pressure on school officials to reopen school buildings and make a full return to in-person instruction , even as some states are seeing new highs for coronavirus hospitalizations….”

The NYC Public Schools have been planning to open on a hybrid schedule with smaller numbers of children (at any one time) sharing the limited space in school classrooms, but on Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced strict restrictions if COVID-19 numbers spike. Chalkbeat‘s Reema Amin and Alex Zimmerman explain: “New York school districts will be allowed to reopen if the surrounding region has reached the fourth and final phase of reopening and the daily infection rate is below 5% based on the proportion of tests coming back positive and based on a 14-day average, Cuomo said Monday.  State officials will determine if New York City, which counts as its own region, has met that threshold in the first week of August.”

The White House and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have downplayed the danger that the opening of schools might accelerate the spread of the virus, despite that medical experts have shown special concern about transmission among older students. When she was asked about concerns for the health of teachers who in middle and high school may meet with over a hundred students each day, the vacuous, Barbie Doll press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany appeared not to grasp the complexities of a schoolteacher’s life: “There’s a way for essential workers to go back to work, just as our meatpacking facilities did. Just as you all in the media are essential workers, we believe our teachers are as well.”

While last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) endorsed the return to full time schooling, this week after the President has bragged widely about the doctors’ guidance, the AAP qualified its recommendations and released a joint statement with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the School Superintendents’ Association: “We recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online.  Schools also play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity. Our nation’s response to COVID-19 has laid bare inequities and consequences for children that must be addressed… Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that’s safe for all students, teachers and staff.  Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”

The pediatricians and educators add a reminder about funding: “Reopening schools in a way that maximizes safety, learning, and the well-being of children, teachers, and staff will clearly require substantial new investments in our schools and campuses. We call on Congress and the administration to provide the federal resources needed to ensure that inadequate funding does not stand in the way of safely educating and caring for children in our schools.”

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa corrects a misconception voiced by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a CNN interview, when DeVos claimed that because public schools have not yet spent most of their CARES Act relief dollars for schools, the consideration of further federal relief by Congress is not a priority.  DeVos alluded to a GAO report, which, she said, “suggests that schools aren’t lacking federal support to reopen.” Ujifusa explains: “We asked the Council of Chief State School Officers about the GAO report and why so much CARES aid is unspent.  After stressing the importance of the CARES money, the group said in a statement that, ‘All states and districts have put plans in place for how to spend these funds. The data in this [GAO] report is likely reflective of the technicalities and timing on how districts draw down funds.'”  Ujifusa explains further: “It’s important to note here that when the GAO refers to money being ‘spent,’ it’s talking about states distributing the money to school districts. States can set aside up to 10 percent of CARES money for K-12 districts for their own, statewide purposes. But if states don’t get the rest of the money to schools, they can’t spend it.”  Public schools spend over 80 percent of their funding on staff, and, especially in the context of recessionary cuts they are experiencing in state funding, they need to be able to plan exactly how much federal funding they will be able to invest in teachers, support professionals, bus drivers, custodians, and other staff.

What about recent threats from President Trump and Betsy DeVos to withhold federal funds if districts do not open up full time, five days a week.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss assures readers that Trump and DeVos have no real capacity to withhold funding for school districts: “The threats… are largely just that: threats without real teeth behind them. While presidents can in some cases legally withhold funding appropriated by Congress, they can’t do it without notifying Congress and in some cases getting approval… Trump and DeVos… also have no authority to force schools to open at a particular time or in a specific way.”

It would appear that the huge push last week by President Trump and his education secretary to demand that schools reopen full time, five days a week is a political ploy designed to help his reelection campaign more than a policy initiative designed to support the nation’s 98,000 public schools.  Several reporters on Monday noticed DeVos’s ideological inconsistency—pushing the essential reopening of public schools when she has never before spoken positively about the role of public education, and endorsing in-person education when she has previously pushed to expand online learning ventures. The NY TimesErica Green noticed the apparent contradiction: “Before last week, Ms. DeVos seemed to think there were many ways schools could meet this challenge.  In recent months, she had been criticized for using the coronavirus to push policy changes that would create more options for families during the pandemic, including vouchers for private schools, tutoring and virtual schools.  In early April, she announced new distance-learning rules for higher education, saying that the national emergency ‘underscores the need for reform and for all educational institutions to have a robust capacity to teach remotely.’ Later that month, she announced a microgrant competition, in which states could compete for $180 million grants to set up statewide virtual learning….”

The President has clearly realized that his political support among the nation’s parents will diminish further when people realize that his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the in-person reopening of public schools in many places this fall.  He doesn’t like to admit that his own denial and politicization of the pandemic has discouraged social distancing. He would be the last person to share NY Times columnist Paul Krugman’s judgment on Monday: “America drank away its children’s future: As the school year looms, the pandemic is still raging… (M)any states not only rushed to reopen, they reopened stupidly.  Instead of being treated as a cheap, effective way to fight contagion, face masks became a front in the culture war. Activities that posed an obvious risk of feeding the pandemic went unchecked: Large gatherings were permitted, bars reopened.”

True to form, the President has snared his education secretary into helping him blame the schools and the teachers for the medical problem whose seriousness he has failed to acknowledge and address.