The debate over when and how and whether to put American kids back in school is taking on a predictably partisan tinge in Washington, with Republicans targeting teachers’ unions and Democrats over perceived resistance to reopening.
But it’s more complicated than that. The fight over schools slices through red and blue America.
In San Francisco, for instance, despite a waning but still serious outbreak, the city, led by Mayor London Breed, has sued the school district for not having a fully developed plan to get kids back in the classroom. The city attorney said San Francisco kids are being turned into “Zoom-bies.” Breed, who was among the first US mayors to impose strict Covid lockdowns in 2020, wants to know when the kids will be back in schools. She said the nearly full year out of school is hurting communities of color and driving inequality.
In Chicago, the mayor and school board are locked in a standoff with the teachers’ union. “We need our kids back in school. We need our parents to have that option,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday. “It cannot be so that a public school system denies parents that right.”
Unions representing teachers who have avoided physically returning to school buildings want vaccines and more safety measures. Parents are getting louder, organizing on social media and running grassroots campaigns to open school doors in the portions of the country where they remain shut. School districts, which are mostly controlled at the local level, keep delaying and punting.
This is a worldwide debate. There’s no consensus in Europe, either.
So which is the party of opening schools?
Democrats, without Republican help so far, are pushing a massive Covid relief package that would give new money to schools and Biden has made opening the majority of schools a key benchmark of his aggressive 100-day plan.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, said money isn’t the issue and slammed teachers’ unions, which he said “donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities.” Read this from CNN’s Dan Merica, Alex Rogers and Gregory Krieg on the new partisan wedge issue.
Republican governors in Ohio and Maryland are ramping up teacher vaccinations and setting early spring deadlines to get teachers and staff vaccinated in anticipation of reopening schools. In West Virginia, Republican Gov. Jim Justice said all teachers and staff who wanted a first dose have gotten it.
About half of states are prioritizing teachers, according to The New York Times. But it’s notable that some of the states with the worst outbreaks, like Texas, have both ordered schools to open and not prioritized teachers to get vaccines.
The tension between present danger and future risk
For the teacher side of things, read this CNN report about the hundreds of American educators who have been among the hundreds of thousands of American Covid deaths. For the student side of things, look at the recent studies suggesting schools that comply with safety guidance are not the cause of Covid spread.
Schools aren’t just not opening, they’re still closing. In Montgomery, Alabama, the school district closed this week until school staff can all get vaccinated after a string of teacher deaths from Covid.
But new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday vaccines might not be necessary to safely reopen. “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” she told reporters. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”
That’s not official guidance, cautioned White House press secretary Jen Psaki. When asked about the comments, Psaki said she’d like to see that officially put out by CDC. “Certainly ensuring teachers are vaccinated, prioritizing teachers, is important to the President,” she said.
Re-opening schools won’t immediately fix the problems caused by a year out of them. In Chicago, where the city’s liberal mayor is at war with the city’s teachers’ union, data released by district about who will actually come back when schools open suggests it’s the White kids who will return, while the Black and Brown kids stay home.
When CPS offered the choice to return to schools to families in the first two waves, 67% of white students opted in, followed by 55% of multiracial students, 34% of Black students, 33% of Asian students and 31% of Latino students. Students with special education plans opted in at a lower-than-average rate, 36%, as did economically disadvantaged students, 32%.
The New York Times points out more White kids have returned to school in New York than Black kids and tries to explain mistrust of the system in communities that have already been frustrated by institutional racism in school facilities, funding and curriculum.
Mistrust of schools and mistrust of vaccines
There’s a frustrating similarity that should be explored in that the same Black and Brown communities that have been slow to adopt the Covid vaccine have been slow to return to school when given the opportunity.
Everyone’s doing things differently. In Virginia, the state Department of Education tracks what each district is doing, and the state map is a color-coded patchwork of open, virtual and hybrid.
Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona — who was recently in charge of Connecticut’s education system — was asked at his confirmation hearing Wednesday if kids should be tested in this weird year, and whether the federal government will still give districts who don’t test students the federal money that is normally tied to it.
Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, asked the question in a simple way, according to the Washington Post: “Do you feel like the states should incorporate standardized testing this year given the circumstances of the pandemic?”
Cardona gave a very complicated answer. “I feel they should have an opportunity to weigh in on how they plan on implementing it and [on] the accountability issues, and whether or not they should be tied into any accountability measures as well,” he said.
That’s a definite maybe on the testing question, which is better than the “I don’t know” a lot of parents hear from local districts who won’t set timelines to return.