After nearly a year in the Covid-19 pandemic, some officials are pushing for a return to in-person instruction for K-12 students.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said late Friday night that Chicago Public Schools are reopening for in-person learning, even though an agreement has not been reached with the Chicago Teachers Union.
“We still plan to welcome our pre-K and special needs students back to safe in-person learning on Monday,” Lightfoot said. “We also plan … to reopen in-person learning for our kindergarten through eighth-grade students on Monday as well. So, we expect those teachers to be there for their students.”
“However, given the current status of negotiations, we owe it to our students and families to prepare for a scenario in which the CTU leadership continues to direct their members not to go back in schools for in-person instruction.”
It’s a problem the Philadelphia School District also faces: the district is now launching a plan to bring back 9,000 students in pre-K through 2nd grade starting February 22, Superintendent Dr. William Hite announced at a virtual news conference Wednesday. But it is still unclear if the teachers’ union is on board with the plan.
Whether to remain online or return to the classroom has been a divisive issue for many districts. While some worry it is not safe to send teachers and students back to campus before the virus is under control, others say the impacts on the quality of education and stress on families are more pressing.
The US is still months away from vaccinating the majority of Americans against the virus, but doses are making their way into the public, and in some districts, the push to reopen public schools has been reignited.
“In most states, if not all states, teachers should be eligible for vaccination now,” US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said to NBC’s Savannah Guthrie on Today. Even if they can’t get vaccinated yet, Walensky said “they should be early in the queue, and so they should be getting it soon.”
Walensky said she is hopeful that with vaccinations and mitigation measures, schools can soon reopen, but others are calling for a quicker return.
Hard-line calls for reopening options
One father in Virginia called a county school board “a bunch of cowards” for not offering options to send students back to school.
“There are people like me and a line of other people out there who will gladly take your seat and figure it out!” Brandon Michon told the board.
“This is about finding ways to get our children back to school and giving the optionality to families to get them back to school learning, being mentally healthy, and being kids,” he said in an interview with CNN.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynold signed a bill on Friday requiring school districts to provide families with options for full-time, in-person education.
Reynolds said in the fall, a “vast majority” of schools did offer full-time in-person learning. “Unfortunately, that option hasn’t been available for every family,” she said. “Many have struggled to balance working from home with helping their young children navigate online learning.”
Study supports school safety
Some experts say the science points to schools being a safe place to send students if proper measures are taken.
Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC director under President Obama, said as long as masks are being used in schools, there’s proper ventilation in buildings, social distancing as well as the elimination of teacher break rooms and extracurricular activities, he “wouldn’t wait for teacher vaccination.”
“Classrooms should stay open as long as possible, and reopen as soon as possible, in-person learning is enormously important,” Frieden said during an Axios podcast interview on Friday.
A study of two US schools released Friday supports the argument that schools are not a major location for spread when the proper precautions are taken.
The study examined 3,500 students across schools that researchers said took the necessary precautions. With just 9% of the students who brought new infections to school infecting others, they wrote that there “was no evidence of student-to-teacher or teacher-to-student transmission in either school.”
The majority of the cases were associated with noncompliance with mask rules as well as off-campus sources including siblings returning from college, off-campus activities, parties and gatherings, they wrote.
“Children do contract Covid-19 and can transmit it, but rates of illness when they are in school are lower than rates of illness when they are out of school, suggesting that children and communities may be at lower risk when children are in school,” Dr. Darria Long of the University of Tennessee Department of Emergency Medicine, who worked on the study, said.
“This could be because mitigation measures in the controlled school environment (that are not possible when children are not in school) can significantly suppress transmission.”