The Pendulum Was Swinging Toward Reopening Schools. Then Came the Surge.

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The Pendulum Was Swinging Toward Reopening Schools. Then Came the Surge.
Stateline Nov13
An instructor helps a West Brooklyn Community High School student navigate an online lesson in New York in October. Large school systems in liberal cities and counties are coming under increasing pressure from mayors, governors, educators and public health experts to provide in-person learning as soon as the current COVID-19 spike abates.
Kathy Willens/The Associated Press

Since the summer, the simmering state and local debate over reopening K-12 public schools has reflected the nation’s deep partisan divide on the coronavirus, with Republicans favoring openings and Democrats more likely to support a cautious approach.

But new scientific evidence showing that in-person learning has resulted in relatively few outbreaks of COVID-19 — combined with growing concerns about learning and social development setbacks for kids — may be closing that chasm.

For now, the national COVID-19 surge that is overwhelming hospitals in some states has stalled any further movement toward opening classrooms. Scores of schools are closing in hard-hit states, and major cities are shelving plans to reopen schools for the first time.

Still, large school systems in liberal cities and counties are coming under increasing pressure from mayors, governors, educators and public health experts to provide in-person learning as soon as the current COVID-19 spike abates.

The presidential election and coming departure of President Donald Trump also may affect Americans’ attitudes toward reopening schools, said Michael Hartney, an assistant professor of political science at Boston College and co-author of a recent study tying national politics to school closure decisions.

“Some percentage of very anti-Trump voters may soften their feelings about school openings and say, ‘Wow, this has gone on too long, maybe it’s time to reopen the schools,’” he said. “By January, they may be able to separate their desire to get their kids back to school from the person in the White House.”

Political Divide

Last summer, when Trump urged all states to open their schoolhouses and told the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to rewrite its K-12 COVID-19 public health guidelines accordingly, the issue of school closures became as politicized as masks and bar openings.

The CDC suggested that school districts open classrooms based on the rate of new COVID-19 infections in their communities but gave state and local officials wide discretion to set their own benchmarks.

When the school year began in August, most Democrats in major cities and suburbs were calling for a cautious approach, putting public health above all else. In counties and states that leaned Republican, where many residents objected to wearing masks and shuttering businesses, the push for schools to reopen for in-person learning was much stronger.

Research conducted in July and August showed that national political leanings had more to do with initial school opening decisions than the relative level of coronavirus infection in states and local school districts.

“It seemed that school districts, which are historically nonpartisan, got wrapped up in the larger national debate about how we should respond to COVID,” Hartney said.

In counties that voted heavily for Trump in the 2016 election, most schools opened classrooms early and resumed a traditional five-days-a-week schedule. And in counties that voted Democratic, all or most districts delayed opening classrooms over fears of coronavirus spread, according to Hartney and other researchers.

The correlation between political party and reopening was strong, while the correlation between severity of the infection rate and reopening was largely non-existent, he explained.

Another study, conducted by researchers at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan policy research group, came to the same conclusion.

In August, a national opinion poll by the Pew Research Center (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the center and Stateline) found that about 80% of Democrats said the risk of students and teachers getting the coronavirus should be given a lot of consideration in the decision to reopen schools, while only about 35% of Republicans said the same.

When the school year started, four Republican-led states — Arkansas, Florida, Iowa and Texas — issued statewide school reopening orders.

In the others, the decision largely fell to local school boards, principals and superintendents, in consultation with teachers’ unions and health departments. Fewer than half of the 51 million public school K-12 students in the United States started the school year in classrooms.

The percentage had been rising steadily, from less than 40% on Labor Day to more than 60% last month — until the current surge.

Shifting Attitudes

Before the most recent spike, worries about the loss of in-person learning were starting to overtake the fears of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools. Parents and teachers expressed growing concern about children, especially poor and minority children, falling behind. At the same time, district leaders noted that many affluent parents were abandoning public schools for private schools and tutors — with potentially dire budgetary implications.

In Massachusetts, a deep blue state in national elections, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said at a news conference earlier this month that, in light of evidence showing minimal spread in schools, it may have been a mistake to shutter schools last spring, according to The Boston Globe. For now, Massachusetts schools are closed, but Baker said he wants to open them as soon as possible.

“The basic message that’s coming out from most people this time is schools aren’t spreaders,” Baker said, “and it’s hugely important for the educational and social development of kids and the psychological development of kids that they be in school.”

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“The achievement gap is going to get worse.”

In Montgomery County, Maryland, a heavily Democratic suburb of Washington, D.C., that has the state’s largest school district, school board member Karla Silvestre used a recent meeting to press district officials on balancing health risks with educational losses.

Silvestre said that while local and state health guidance is important, she thinks that, “we have to learn to live with this pandemic and that school — for those children who are not benefiting from online learning — is an essential service,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

“So we wouldn’t think about shutting down the police force,” she said. “I don’t think we should completely shut down education.”

Meanwhile, President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to push for the money schools will need to reopen safely.

Politically powerful teachers’ unions are pushing states to provide multiple layers of protections against the virus for their members. Broadly, teachers are asking for a clear set of statewide guidelines on mask wearing, class size, physical distancing, school schedules and building ventilation that they can count on in every school.

Some teacher groups also are asking for regular COVID-19 screening tests and contact tracing to help ensure infection rates are kept under control in schools.

In California, school superintendents from the state’s largest school districts signed a Nov. 2 letter to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, calling for statewide public health standards in K-12 schools, including regular COVID-19 screening.

Similarly, in Delaware, a group called S.A.F.E Schools asked Democratic Gov. John Carney to establish a statewide standard for testing and contact tracing in all public schools.

Relatively Safe

As millions of children returned to classrooms in August and September, neither the federal government nor states initially tracked how many were attending school in person and whether the virus was spreading in schools as many had predicted.

Since then, researchers in Europe and the United States have found the spread of COVID-19 infection among teachers and students in K-12 schools has been minimal and consistently lower than infection rates in surrounding communities. 

As a result, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has said in recent interviews that schools can safely reopen if they follow well-established COVID-19 precautions.

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Similarly, former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden wrote in an email to Stateline that, "over the past few months, we have not seen major COVID-19 spread coming from schools that are taking precautions against spread, such as masks, social distancing rules and regular hand washing.”

“The spread that we’re seeing around schools isn’t from the academic setting,” said Frieden, a physician and epidemiologist who directs a nonprofit health initiative called Resolve to Save Lives. “If we want our kids to continue to be able to go to school, we need to skip the pizza parties after school and other social activities around school."

Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University, who tracks the rate of COVID-19 spread in a small sample of the nation’s more than 130,000 public schools, agreed that school buildings where mask wearing among teachers and students has become second nature tend to be substantially safer than most other settings in the local community.

So far, she said, her study, which involves more than 3 million students and 422,000 teachers and other school professionals, shows substantially lower rates of positive COVID-19 cases among students and teachers than among the rest of the local population.

In the United States, she said, “We’ve taken the attitude that either everything is open, or everything is closed — or worse, everything is open except schools. We’re kind of doing it backwards.”

In Germany, France and Ireland right now, most public venues are closed, but schools remain open.

“In my opinion,” Oster said, “we’ve ranked schools far too low in terms of their intrinsic value and far too high in terms of their COVID risk. This is particularly harmful for younger kids, and for poorer, at-risk Black and brown kids across all age groups.”

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Local and state public health officials wield extraordinary powers in emergency situations such as the current coronavirus outbreak. They can close schools and private businesses. They can restrict or shut down mass transit systems. They can cancel concerts, sporting events and political rallies. They can call up the National Guard. They can suspend medical licensing laws and protect doctors from liability claims. And they can quarantine or isolate people who might infect others.

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