In the debate over how to educate the nation’s children amid a pandemic, the factions are often characterized solely as oppositional, with one pushing for a full return to in-person learning and another fighting it.
It’s a false narrative that pigeonholes many parents, educators and elected officials into positions they don’t support.
There isn’t a conflict over whether schools should reopen to five-days-a-week, in-person learning if they can do so safely. You’d be hard-pressed to find any significant faction that doesn’t want a full return to in-person learning if it doesn’t substantially increase risk. The conflict is over what "reopening safely" means, and whether it can be achieved.
The updated guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released recently acknowledge these differences in several ways, including four new color-coded designations of COVID-19 transmission levels to guide school strategies. Districts with low community spread (blue) and moderate transmission (yellow) are encouraged to fully reopen. Schools in areas with substantial transmission (orange) should consider a hybrid model, while areas with high transmission (red) should consider limited reopening of elementary schools but keep middle and high schools fully remote.
Schools should also treat six-foot distancing and full masking as nonnegotiable, barring many schools from a full reopening. Beyond that, the CDC is still saying schools need to rely on hand-washing and covering sneezes and coughs, ventilation, building cleaning, and increased testing to find asymptomatic carriers and contact tracing to stop the spread.
A road map forward
The guidelines have been eagerly awaited because President Joe Biden has painted in-person learning as a priority. On the first full day of his presidency, Biden released a plan stating, "The United States is committed to ensuring that students and educators are able to resume safe, in-person learning as quickly as possible, with the goal of getting a majority of K-8 schools safely open in 100 days."
Ten days later, Biden said: "I think it’s time for schools to reopen ... safely. You have to have fewer people in the classrooms, you have to have ventilation systems that have been reworked." By the time the president got around to a CNN town hall Tuesday, Biden merely said he hoped K-8 students would be back to learning in-person soon.
What Biden wants done is difficult in some schools and virtually impossible in many, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly cleaned up Biden’s aspirational statements. Two weeks ago, she said, "His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools — so, more than 50% — open by day 100 of his presidency. And that means some teaching in classrooms. So, at least one day a week. Hopefully, it’s more." And Wednesday, Psaki failed to clear up confusion on teacher vaccinations, which Biden said should be prioritized, when she said Biden does not believe vaccinating teachers is a requirement for a return to in-person learning.
The truth is more than 50% of the nation’s schools are already in-person at least one day a week, Biden’s latest definition of "open." And the new CDC guidelines don’t vary much from the old ones.
Know the conditions
To get students back in classrooms, Biden has included $128.6 billion for schools in his $1.9 trillion stimulus package.
The money is what’s needed. And the fact that it’s to be distributed largely via the federal Title 1 formula that greatly advantages impoverished schools is a way to target the schools facing the toughest road to reopening, even as it frustrates many Long Island districts.
But the cash won’t be a magic wand. Money can’t instantly make schools large enough to contain a socially distanced population, or create teachers to cover for ones forced to quarantine or pushed out of classrooms by age or comorbidities. It can’t conjure new buses or drivers when distancing rules double the need. It can’t will into being new ventilation systems overnight. It can’t provide testing supplies and regimens to identify infected students and teachers quickly and get them out of the schools without a ramp-up. And it can’t magically assuage the fears of scared parents.
In some places, safe conditions exist, and schools are open. In others, schools are close to having what they need, and could get there more quickly with help. But many districts face huge obstacles to a safe reopening, and it will take time to overcome them. And at some point down the road, we have to understand why so many districts had so many problems.
Most teachers and parents want schools reopened if they can meet these standards. New York State United Teachers President Andy Palotta advocated in a column earlier this month for a big increase in COVID-19 testing, not school closures. In-person learning is generally the best answer academically, and socially and emotionally for students and teachers, and economically for the nation.
Where schools can reopen safely and allow students to return full time, they should. Where schools cannot yet achieve that safely, there should be a full-court press to help them do so.
— The editorial board