Analysis: Most US kids are not going to school next month


There will be exceptions, sure, in places where schools do open for normal hours or something close to it. There will be kids who go part-time (this is becoming known as the “hybrid” option). But it’s becoming clear that a large portion of the country’s kids won’t be in class and parents need to start planning for that if they haven’t already.

What this will look like. There will be some who fight their way onto private school lists. There will be people who threaten to move to another town (for all the good that does them). There will be a lot of kids who are left out of whatever supplemental plans parents cook up. The bottom line is most people will need to buckle in for more distance learning, alongside their own work and other responsibilities.

The President is still 100% for schools opening, even as school officials run the other way. President Donald Trump didn’t mention his recent demand that US schools open this fall, Covid-be-damned, at his first briefing on the coronavirus since April. But he said Wednesday that he “would like to see the schools open 100%” — and then immediately pivoted to the economy, which is why he wants schools to reopen.

Kids and families will pay a price for the early reopening. But it’s the crisis of American education, more than anything, that illustrates how the country squandered the wins from months of self-imposed quarantine this spring in exchange for a summer of ignoring the obvious.

Coronavirus surge has districts changing plans. Now, rather than fine-tuning plans to bring students back on campus part-time, more and more school districts are announcing that instruction this fall will be online-only. And Trump’s call to withhold federal funding from schools that don’t offer in-person classes has landed with a thud among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

New Covid surge = online-only schools this fall

On Tuesday, it was Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia and Montgomery County in Maryland that did an abrupt and simultaneous about-face to say public school students would not be brought back in-person.

Together those comprise a major chunk of the DC suburbs. Kids in the nation’s capital won’t know until July 31 if the city will offer any kind of in-person education this fall or whether it will be online.

On Wednesday, it was Clark County in Nevada reversing course from a hybrid model to distance learning. It was Seattle, too. In Kansas, the state board of education, split down the middle, blocked the governor’s attempt to go online only to start the year, an exception proving the new rule.
Last week, it was California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom declared schools couldn’t offer in-person instruction until they met certain Covid criteria. Right now that ban applies to 90% of the state’s kids.
Related: Here are the plans of major school districts.
There may not be an exhaustive database of the country’s 13,000 school district plans, but the snapshot at Education Week is pretty darn good (and maddening to read).

It shows five of the nation’s 10 largest districts will be distance learning this fall, which begins next month for most kids.

Or not. Some districts don’t have a start date. Others are delaying into September. New York City’s mayor has pledged to implement a hybrid model, but details are still in flux and the state’s governor must sign off. He won’t do that until August.

The writing is on the wall

The only one of these large districts promising in-person learning for all kids — Miami-Dade County in Florida — is at the heart of a court battle between teachers and the district.

And the superintendent there, Alberto Carvalho, told CNN’s John King on Wednesday that the current situation in the county would not allow for in-person instruction.

“The conditions are not currently appropriate for us to be able to teach kids while at the same time safeguard their well-being,” he said, adding the district wants to make a final decision by the first week of August on whether students will return on August 24.

Teacher-led protests. Other districts listed as having a plan for full in-person education, such as Shelby County in Tennessee, have not yet finalized details. “There’s a fire and they want us to run into the burning building while the fire is ablaze,” said Tikelia Rucker, a Shelby County teacher who organized a protest of the proposed plan this week, according to the Commercial Appeal.

And those districts that are promising in-person instruction are banking on a large portion of students staying home anyway. Otherwise, they’re not likely to have enough teachers. That’s what happened in Fairfax County, according to the Washington Post, and other places, where district leaders feared they wouldn’t have enough teachers to pull off even a hybrid, part-time in-person schedule, like some other districts are hoping to pursue.

This crisis also further isolates the US from other developed countries, which leaned harder into face masks and social distancing and who are now sending their children physically back to schools.

We should not miss a national opportunity

We haven’t even gotten into the problem of inequality.

There will be parents hiring tutors and gathering to do their own schooling, which could leave students who don’t have access to those perks — or in some cases even access to the internet — behind. Those are problems that predate the pandemic, but will be made worse by it.

A few months ago, before this most recent surge changed everyone’s plans, you might have seen this as an opportunity to really re-think education. In fact, Paul Reville, a former secretary of education in Massachusetts and leader of Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab, argued just that. “In this situation, we don’t simply want to frantically struggle to restore the status quo because the status quo wasn’t operating at an effective level and certainly wasn’t serving all of our children fairly,” he said back in April.
He’s also written about the fact that we’ve socially promoted a year’s worth of kids who didn’t get their Covid year of instruction. That will have lasting effects.

CNN called Reville to ask him about the current moment, which seems like total chaos. Here’s what he said:

Reville: Right now I’d say you know a number of our districts are still an emergency response mode. They’re kind of like a traumatized patient in the emergency room. They can’t really change their lifestyle until they get up and functioning as a healthy sort of entity in the first place.

But he said some districts are already faring better than others, and that will only exacerbate an achievement gap.

Reville: In some school systems that’s gonna be just fine because they’re prepared to go online. They either have prior experience or they are small enough that they’ve been able to be nimble and move quickly to make decisions and build capacity over the summer.

Other places are just struggling to get the basic pre-requisites in place to get the internet access to everybody, to make system-wide decisions on platforms and applications, what curricula to be used.

In a lot of our bigger school districts I think are still struggling with that. It’s a very messy situation. And many of them didn’t do very well in the fourth quarter of this past academic year, so now you’re gonna have students coming coming back to school with uh wider and wider gaps in terms of their readiness to do the next grade level.

Education will be forever changed by this, he said, when CNN asked if we’ve missed a valuable moment to rethink how we educate our kids.

Reville: No, that opportunity still exists. We are not returning to the status quo ante. The field will show permanent changes as a result of this crisis and our adaptations to it. However, in the present, we’re like a community still reeling from an earthquake, emerging from the rubble, trying to get basic systems back in place before we can consider more transformative changes. There is no doubt, though, that because of this experience parents, students and teachers will be seeking profound changes in the way education operates in the future.

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