Why schools may not fully reopen in the fall

Brittany Shepherd and Alexander Nazaryan
·14-min read

WASHINGTON — More than a year ago, Washington, D.C., announced it was closing its schools in response to the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic. Lewis Ferebee, the chancellor, sent parents an email on March 11, 2020, laying out the schedule for the weeks to come.

Ferebee assured parents at the time that schools would resume operations in just a few weeks, on April 1. In a commonplace bureaucratic touch that reads today as especially haunting, he thanked recipients for their “patience, flexibility, and cooperation.”

A year later, that resumption of in-person instruction has yet to occur for the majority of students in the district.

The question now is whether the months-long battle over school reopening is finally coming to an end. Reopening would appear to be in sight, especially with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revising earlier guidance about students needing to be 6 feet apart in the classroom. With that distance halved as of last Friday, one of the last major barriers to reopening fell, or at least appeared to fall.

The teachers’ unions, which had been on the defensive for months, accused even by some Democratic allies of slow-walking reopening, found a new cause to rally around. On Tuesday, Randi Weingarten, leader of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, signaled opposition to the rule change, despite having previously cast herself as a proponent of reopening.

“We are not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements at this time,” Weingarten wrote to federal Education Secretary Miguel Cardona — who was preparing for a “reopening summit” to be held later in the week and could therefore not have been happy to receive the missive — and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, who has also urged schools to reopen.

In her letter, Weingarten alluded to the nearly $130 billion allotted to public schools in President Biden’s coronavirus relief package; those funds, the president has said, would help schools reopen quickly. Weingarten disagreed, arguing in her letter about the 3-foot guidance that “districts lack the human resources and institutional planning ability to make changes like this quickly.”

Dr. Lewis Ferebee, chancellor of Washington, D.C., Public Schools speaks at a daily briefing in July 2020. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Lewis Ferebee, chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, at a briefing in July 2020. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

She then went on to ask a question that seems to confirm parents’ worst fears: “Is this something that can be implemented in the fall, or perhaps the summer?”

Given all the evidence about the damage that remote learning is doing to children, waiting until June, let alone September, has become untenable to many parents. And the unions’ opposition to seating students only 3 feet apart, those parents fear, is evidence that the increasingly bitter fight over reopening schools is not yet over.

“We are worried that some school districts, if given the option, may refuse to provide five-days-a-week, in-person learning in the fall, long after every teacher has had a chance to receive the vaccine,” says a letter circulated by University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley, urging the state’s schools to commit more forcefully to reopening more fully. The petition has been signed by more than 1,000 parents across the state. “We fear too that some districts may substitute 'hybrid' classrooms for face-to-face instruction, seriously degrading the quality of the educational experience.”

Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan is based, passes for what New York-based educator Karen Vaites calls an “irrational district.” That’s how Vaites describes the districts, accounting for 20 percent of the nation’s students, that have kept classrooms closed all year. Those are the ones Vaites says are least likely to return students full time in the fall. (Ann Arbor finally welcomed back some students on Wednesday, thus shedding its “irrational” designation.)

“The recent future usually looks like the recent past,” Vaites told Yahoo News. “As long as you have systems that didn’t open their doors for a child until April — I am not going to bet that these systems are going to pivot from partial reopening in April to five-day full time in the fall.”

Districts slow to reopen have been concentrated in the Northeast and along the Pacific coast, with California proving a particularly intractable problem. “I’m really worried that we have to continue this fight,” says Jonathan Zacherson, a Sacramento-area parent who heads a group called Reopen California Schools.

“That's a real concern amongst parents.”

Some district leaders have also been hedging their bets, reluctant to make promises after a year of bitter recriminations. Speaking to the city’s board of educators earlier this month, San Francisco school superintendent Vincent Matthews declined to explicitly endorse a full reopening of San Francisco’s schools next fall. The city has had a single coronavirus death in the first three weeks of March, and is averaging 31 new cases daily. Meanwhile, teachers there have been getting vaccinated.

One may well wonder how much more favorable the situation needs to be for school leaders to enthusiastically endorse a return to normal, or how long the battle over reopening will persist.

Socially distanced, masked students line up at Medora Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., on March 17. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
Socially distanced, masked students at Medora Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., on March 17. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Vaites also points to districts like Philadelphia, where students up to only the second grade are allowed to return. “We need really clear definitions of what 'open' actually means,” she says. “K-2 only is not open.”

She voices similar skepticism about New York City, which opened its schools in the fall, allowing Mayor Bill de Blasio to declare something amounting to victory over one of the pandemic’s most vexing political and public health challenges.

“That makes parents laugh,” she says of the praise lavished on New York’s “reopened” schools, which have frequently shut down over positive diagnostic test results. And complex teaching arrangements sometimes have students learning on a computer from inside a classroom, with the teacher teaching from elsewhere. Estimates suggest that 70 percent of the city’s more than 1 million students remain remote.

“Teachers [working remotely] while kids are in classrooms is not open in the eyes of most parents,” Vaites says.

Biden promised to open all K-8 schools for in-person instruction by his 100th day in office, and though that goal is vague enough to not have much meaning, his administration obviously does not want the school issue to continue into the summer, when it could become a serious political liability for Democrats.

There is also the matter of children’s health, both physical and emotional, which seems to have steadily worsened throughout the months of remote learning.

"We don't want to give up on this school year," epidemiologist Erin Sauber-Schatz of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Yahoo News. Sauber-Schatz helped draft the CDC’s school reopening guidance, which she defends against accusations that it created too-stringent requirements. “Across all levels of community transmission, there are options for schools to be open,” she told Yahoo News.

Jordan Rodriguez helps Christina Pagan, 7, with her school work at a Boys' and Girls' Club location in Pennsylvania. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
Jordan Rodriguez helps Christina Pagan, 7, with her school work at a Boys' and Girls' Club location in Pennsylvania. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

More likely than surrender is stalemate. Even though many are largely optimistic about the trend toward reopening, those same optimists are worried that the trend is moving too slowly. And those trends could easily reverse, especially if messy epidemiological and political realities intrude.

“We should be able to do this normally in the fall, but I think it's likely we will face a lot of practical issues, which means that if we want to get anywhere close to that, we are going to need to really push towards it, not just assume it will be totally cool,” says Brown University economist Emily Oster, who has written frequently on school reopenings. “The bad scenario I see is parental fear drives more demand for remote school, teachers are understandably reluctant to do ‘concurrent teaching,’ which doesn't work for anyone, and we end up in some insane setup which is not regular school.”

In some large urban districts, majorities of Black and Hispanic parents say they want to keep their kids learning at home, whereas white parents are more eager to send their kids back. Having been failed by public education for decades, if not longer, parents in communities of color are understandably wary of assurances that schools where air conditioners don’t work and windows don’t open are now safe from the coronavirus pandemic.

That has made the push to reopen seem, sometimes, like the project of “the wealthiest families who make the loudest noise,” as Washington Teachers' Union leader Liz Davis told Yahoo News.

An educator in California was a little blunter during a February meeting held over Zoom, unaware that members of the public were watching. He surmised that parents wanted their kids in school to free up time to smoke weed. The more school reopenings become a political divide — which is exactly what they have become — the more likely it is that reopening will remain incomplete, with both sides dug in, both bases as motivated as ever and children still sitting in front of computer screens.

President Biden speaks delivers an address at the White House. (Michael Reynolds/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Biden delivers an address at the White House. (Michael Reynolds/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Two days after Oster described her “bad scenario” to Yahoo News, the CDC issued a major revision to its original Feb. 12 guidance, the one Sauber-Schatz helped draft. Now students could sit 3 feet apart in classrooms. Previously, the mandated spacing was 6 feet, which in many districts had created an insurmountable barrier to reopening. Now more students could return to classrooms, and Oster’s concerns suddenly seemed no longer all that concerning.

Yet even as pro-reopening advocates celebrated, the forces of caution did what they had been doing since the chancellors like Ferebee in D.C. had set dates for reopening. “We’re reserving judgment,” said Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. “We have to see the studies.” Several days later, she sent her letter of opposition to Cardona and Walensky.

Weingarten’s counterpart at the National Education Association, Becky Pringle, tweeted that seating students 3 feet apart would be “particularly challenging” in large urban school districts that can’t make infrastructure upgrades. According to a study of 251 districts across Massachusetts, halving the distance between students from 6 to 3 feet made no difference to the infection rate.

In response to Pringle’s tweet, a retired middle school teacher named Kathy Beery responded with agreement. “We are expendable,” Beery wrote. “Please, do NOT tell me kids aren't spreaders. They spread colds, flu, lice, & other things. But magically, don't transmit Covid.”

A child wearing a face shield and mask stands in the cafeteria of Medora Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
A child at Medora Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The unions may ultimately relent on the 3 feet they’ve lost, but other issues could emerge. New variants of the disease could slip by vaccines. The pandemic could ebb in the summer but then return in September. And then there will be smaller, localized battles — for example, over losing a day of instruction for “deep cleaning,” which has minimal impact on a virus that is spread almost exclusively through airborne particles.

“Let’s be clear, the wish to have schools go back to quote-unquote ‘regular’ — I understand the wish, but it flies in the face of a pandemic,” Jesse Sharkey, who heads the Chicago Teachers Union, told Yahoo News.

That’s not the position of the Biden administration, which very much wants regular school back. Cardona, the federal education secretary, has said that school next year would be “more like what it was before COVID,” but the federal government has little power to force schools to open. That means the fight devolves to complex local factions, as in Oakland, Calif., where a radical splinter group of the teachers’ union says schools should not reopen until students are vaccinated. Given that no vaccine is approved yet for children under 16, and none likely will be until the end of 2021, that is a punt well into the parking lot.

Frustrated parents are increasingly looking for politicians willing to keep the fight going until schools are fully open. Some believe Biden is too close to the teachers' unions to be completely trusted. Only 1 in 5 wants schools to stay remote, according to a national Gallup poll.

A teacher works with students both in the classroom and online at St. Anthony Catholic High School in Long Beach, Calif., on Wednesday. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
A teacher works with students both in the classroom and online at St. Anthony Catholic High School in Long Beach, Calif. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Advocates of reopening are not uniformly white suburbanites. Renée Bailey, a Black mother of two in South Los Angeles, says she bristles at how "people of color are kind of used as a pawn in this argument." During a recent discussion about school reopening over social media, Bailey found a parent aligned with the union calling pro-reopening advocates like her “Trump supporters.”

The accusation left Bailey stunned. “I’m a parent,” she told Yahoo News. “I am a very vocal parent.”

The right has noticed. School reopenings allow Republicans to portray themselves as both humane and pro-science, an image remake they badly need after Donald Trump’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “The science is on our side,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently told Yahoo News, urging fellow Republicans to press the issue.

Biden has made progress since coming into office. Teachers are getting vaccinated, and more money is on the way to schools. Democrats now routinely mention school reopening as a national priority, something they were reluctant to do while Trump was president. Late last week, the Department of Health and Human Services provided schools across the country with $10 million for COVID-19 testing, which educators have been clamoring for.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. (Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC via Getty Images)
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. (Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC via Getty Images)

“I think we're in a much better situation than we were three months ago,” Weingarten said. But she also voiced a worry shared by many educators and parents, not to mention students who haven’t hoisted a backpack onto their shoulders since last March: “I don’t think anybody knows what next fall looks like.” Her opposition to the new 3-foot rule, however, means next fall could look like last fall.

"Next year is going to be very different than what is happening right now,” she offered, but said that doesn’t mean parents can or should expect a return to pre-pandemic normalcy. “Remote learning will be a factor for next year," Weingarten said.

Just how much of a factor remains a key question. Vaites, the educator in New York, said New York City’s “hair-trigger” response to every school-based positive case meant that schools were constantly shutting down, sending kids back to “Zoom school.” Testing will be more widely available next fall than it is now, meaning that more schools will be testing more students. What they do when those tests come back positive will say much about what school looks like in September.

By then, of course, most teachers will be vaccinated, a fact that makes Harvard environmental epidemiologist Joseph Allen “more optimistic” about a full, nationwide reopening. Yet he remains cautious all the same. “I think I’d be a fool to think that’s the end,” Allen told Yahoo News.

United Teachers of Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
United Teachers Los Angeles president Cecily Myart-Cruz. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Lately, union leaders have made a plainspoken appeal: Their members are afraid, and so are some parents. You can’t force people into the classroom, bribe them with discretionary funds and N95 masks.

“Fear is very real,” says Cecily Myart-Cruz, who leads the United Teachers Los Angeles union. Myart-Cruz described to Yahoo News how she had been talking to parents across the sprawling district, which includes both mansions carved into Topanga Canyon and modest, one-story dwellings in Lincoln Heights.

"I don't want to discount that the fear is real, especially in our hardest-hit communities," Myart-Cruz said. She was hopeful about next year, but not very specific, describing “a healthy, healing, racially just” return to the classroom. And not just academic classrooms: Myart-Cruz hoped that students across Los Angeles would have access to drama and art, just like the children in wealthy enclaves like South Pasadena and Malibu. She hoped it would be a year of “socialization” and “compassion,” as opposed to this year of screened-in solitude.

How would Los Angeles get there, and when?

That, she could not say.

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