Coronavirus

Public Schools Still Can't Figure Out How To Reopen

Democrat-heavy districts remain most likely to stay partly closed.

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The masks are off, the planes are full, the deaths are way down, and the thriving is high, yet millions of parents still don't know whether their children's schools will be reliably open this fall.

That's because many government-run schools, which despite an ongoing enrollment decline are still the main providers of instruction for around 90 percent of the country's 56 million or so K-12 students, have yet to promulgate final rules on the kinds of COVID mitigations that can limit in-person capacity and/or trigger automatic shutdowns.

"Up until a couple of weeks ago, you thought we'd be out of the woods by September," Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said at a news conference last week. "But now you see the Delta variant, you see what's going on in Australia, you see what's going on in Israel, you see what's going on in Britain, not to mention Arkansas and L.A., so we're going to have to make up our minds on that a little bit later."

Lamont, like a lot of Democratic public officials in Democratic states, is waiting on updated school-reopening guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), expected sometime this month. Republican governors and mayors have been much less willing to outsource educational decision-making to the federal government's demonstrably politicized public health bureaucracy.

Last week a new CDC survey of 2020–21 school-year policies put some final numbers on a long-observed trend: The states with the highest access to full-time, in-person public instruction (led by Montana and Wyoming with 100 percent, followed by Florida with 98.4 percent and Arkansas with 81.4 percent), were predominantly Republican in governance and voting. The states least open were predominantly Democratic—Hawaii (1.3 percent), Maryland (2.3 percent), Washington (2.8 percent), and California (4 percent). By far the biggest determining factor for whether schools were physically open these past nine months was not the level of community infection, but the level of political animus or affection toward former president Donald Trump.

Trump may be gone now, but the biggest impediment to reopening—teachers unions—remain influential on the Democratic lawmakers who receive more than 90 percent of union political giving. It is in heavily Democratic jurisdictions where concerns are being raised most over the issues most likely to re-close schools: distancing, quarantining, community spread, and vaccinations. Taking those issues in order:

Distancing. In March 2020, when COVID-19 was first taking off in the United States and much was still unknown about its transmission and lethality, the CDC recommended that any operating school should average at least six feet of distance between the human beings in any given room. That required classroom sizes in many districts to be halved, and schedules often shifted to half-time hybrid.

By July, enough had been learned and observed in the U.S. and around the world about spread (it wasn't happening on surfaces) and susceptibility (children were far and away the most unaffected segment of the population) that Rochelle Walensky, then chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the school district in nearby Newton that the six-foot guidance was out of date. "If people are masked it is quite safe and much more practical to be at 3 feet," Walensky wrote.

Yet weeks after Walensky was appointed by President Joe Biden as head of the CDC, the agency, upon consultation with such "stakeholders" as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, issued an updated school guidance in February keeping social distance at the same six feet, thus rendering most observant schools inoperable at full capacity. After immediate scientific and political outcry, and widespread disregard even in many Democrat-controlled polities, the CDC five weeks later revised the recommendation back to three feet.

But even the three-foot requirement—which is being recommended uniquely for schools, despite kids' low infection/mortality rates and the availability of vaccines for teachers and older students—means that some strictly compliant institutions will not be able to guarantee full-time instruction. "The logistics of three foot spacing would prevent many districts around the US from operating at full capacity," notes the school-reopening site Burbio.

"I cannot assure 3 feet of social distance for students every day," Elgin, Illinois, Superintendent Tony Sanders told the Daily Herald last week. Sanders and 46 other school superintendents in Illinois (which was the ninth-least open state in 2020–21, at just 10.1 percent) signed a letter to the Board of Education complaining that the state's order to reopen was incompatible to its still-extant three-foot rule.

Responded State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala: "While we all wish this could come more quickly, we are hopeful that the CDC will provide additional insight into requirements for social distancing, mask wearing, and other mitigations that schools are taking. We recommend planning for both looser CDC guidance and the potential that current mitigations will remain in place."

This is for fall 2021, mind you. Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, was already telling the CDC to get bent—and his schools to get open—back in fall 2020.

Quarantining: At my 6-year-old's now-former elementary school in Brooklyn, all it took most of the year for the thousand-student school to be shut down for 10 days was two positive tests, at an institution where everyone older than a kindergartener was being tested once a week. Mayor Bill de Blasio only changed that trigger to four specifically-traceable-to-the-school-building cases in April. The difference between those two arbitrary rules is the difference between parental predictability and a constant gnawing uncertainty.

So what are those positive-test protocols looking like? In the words of USA Today, "Confusion reigns."

Reports Burbio: "From our auditing of opening plans around the US, the policy that hasn't been fully clarified is that of quarantining. With closer spacing among students, extensive testing that will capture Covid 19 cases, and a large unvaccinated student population, the specter of widespread, multi-day quarantining of students who then have limited at-home learning options appears to be inevitable under guidelines many states and districts have in place."

Community spread. The CDC's color-coded February guidelines about how community COVID spread should influence reopening were so ludicrously restrictive (more than 90 percent of schools were judged to be outside the realm of prudent safety) that they were almost immediately disregarded. But widespread vaccination, plus the emergence of the Delta and Lambda variants, makes the 2021–22 conversation look much different.

"I think the reality is that kids are becoming more likely to be vectors of these new variants," former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb said on CNBC last month. "The old assumptions about children and children [not] driving community spread were based on the original strain of this virus….With these new, more contagious variants, I think we're going to see that children and schools do become more of a focal point of spread."

Reported Fortune today: "A surge of COVID-19 cases, fueled by infections among the unvaccinated young, is rolling across parts of Europe, fulfilling fears that the Delta variant could batter the continent's summer travel season."

So far, in high-vaccination countries, the Delta-fueled increases in positive test results have not resulted in increased fatalities. People who are unvaccinated and vulnerable to the disease are the ones most likely to become seriously ill; kids so far haven't been proportionately vulnerable.

Still, wherever officials have been quickest to restrict, you can bet on variant-response policy to lead to new restrictions. Los Angeles County late last month issued a recommendation that even vaccinated adults should go back to wearing masks indoors.

Vaccinations. Teachers unions have a built-in incoherence when it comes to COVID vaccines. They want as many students as possible to be vaccinated, while resisting as many mandates as possible that all teachers be vaccinated. This dissonance helps explain why the National Education Association's membership last week voted against a proposal to require "mandatory safe and effective COVID-19 vaccinations and testing for all students and staff before returning to face-to-face instruction in the fall."

Still, vaccination will come up in contract negotiations. The Chicago Teachers Union, one of the most hardline anti-opening syndicates in the country, proposed this week that the city work aggressively toward vaccinating 80 percent of eligible students by October 1.

Only the Pfizer vaccine so far has been approved for those between 12 and 17. FDA approval for other vaccines, and for expanding the age band down to the 5–11 range, is not expected to arrive in time for the new school year.

The net result of all this lingering uncertainty is that the American way of education is almost certainly going to cough up a third consecutive school year disfigured by COVID-19, even as private schools manage to stay open and the population of homeschoolers has doubled.

"K-12 enrollment in our nation's public schools has been slowly increasing almost every year since the start of this century," National Center for Education Statistics Associate Commissioner for Administrative Data Ross Santy said in a statement last week, while announcing findings that the just-completed school year saw public school decline of 3 percent. "Before this year, in the few recent years where we have seen enrollment decreases, they have been small changes representing less than 1 percent of total enrollment."

Will kids, especially of kindergarten age, return to the public system after "redshirting" the annus horribilis of 2020–21? Early signs point to no.

"Kindergarten enrollment applications in New York City are down 12 percent compared to the previous year," Kerry McDonald noted last month in an article for the Foundation for Economic Education. "In San Francisco…kindergarten registrations are currently down 10 percent"; "in Marietta, Georgia, kindergarten registrations for this fall are down 40 percent from last year," and "in Denver, Colorado, fall kindergarten registrations have declined 15 percent."

For many households, including my own, fall 2021 will mark the first full school year where the lessons of the last lousy 16 months can be incorporated into a conscious choice about whether to remain in a government-run school. Moving to a more reliably open district, reshuffling resources to go private, or rearranging schedules to educate in the home can be complicated processes for families of any size. Whatever choices parents make this fall, chances are those decisions will have more staying power than the pandemic.

NEXT: If the CDC Can Impose a Nationwide Eviction Moratorium, Why Can't It Impose a Nationwide Vaccine Mandate?

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  1. Trump may be gone now

    Really needed to slip that in, didn’t you? This was and is a lefty union issue.

    1. Hey, they have a Trump quota they got meet.

      1. Every five Trump bashes and they get a free gin and tonic at the next black tie fundraiser dinner for Biden.

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    2. It was perfectly apropos; these lockdowns were, and always have been, a knee-jerk reaction by politicians who were desperate for anything they could use against Trump. He was immune to almost all other political maneuvering. The first impeachment was a rushed impotent joke; the second made the first look clever. Everything they tried increased Trump’s popularity precisely because it confirmed everything Trump had been saying for years.

      1. The lockdowns, however misguided or oppressive, were always primarily about trying to protect public health, not about Trump.

        1. … and we have always been at war with EASTASIA.
          Thanks, Mike.

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      2. Within two weeks of studying Corona, the scientists knew what it was, how it spread, and how to mitigate the spreading. In other words, masks would have worked from the get go and they knew it, yet they still locked everything down and ruined many businesses and lives.

        1. I don’t blame the scientists. Of course, if you ask an epidemiologist they are going to recommend drastic measures with no thoughts about economics, or psychology, or education, or anything else outside their specialty.

          I blame the politicians who should have been consulting not only with epidemiologists, but also with economists, psychologists, educators, legal experts.

          1. Of course you don’t because it was about removing Trump. This is why the scientists you don’t blame refused to look into the lab leak hypothesis because they wouldn’t want to be associated with him. Good going you fascist cunts, how many people died due to your political sensibilities.

        2. It facilitated a large wealth transfer from the middle class to the wealthier classes. Mom and pop businesses strangled to death while Amazon, Google and Zoom soared in value. Those depending on salaried work were unemployed while Wall Sreet player lined their pockets. It’s a good thing everyone was too distracted by the latest race riot to notice that their pockets were being picked.
          I see an opportunity here to break the choke hold that the teachers unions have on education. Hopefully they will stay closed long enough for a market of new online education packages to be established. Supervised learning groups would cost less than private schools allowing people that previously couldn’t affor private schools to have school choice.

    3. Reason has TDS. It is incurable. Yet Reasons loves Biden, the worst president in US history, and he gained that title in his first 100 days.

    4. You think Welch knows what else is worse in dem run districts?

    5. You throw out “lefty” like an insult. Are you aware that there are left libertarians?

    6. Wearing of masks is just precautions for all the student and teachers well on these days you have to hire someone who can serve you thesis writing services at near and affordable please do consider on my offers.

  2. Why would public school teachers want to workwhen they get paid regardless of if the show up or how well they do?

    1. And also get bonuses for having survived working from home.

  3. When will Fauci be arrested for funding this human catastrophe he set loose upon us?

    1. About the same time Jeff realizes he’s a collectivist?

    2. or lampposted for the aids thing.

    3. Did you see him this AM, demanding people “get over their politics” and take the shot?

      1. ^He said this after saying it wasn’t about politics^

      2. Yeah, one wonders when Reason is going to see fit mention that the President is now talking about sending the Federal government door to door pushing the vaccine, and that his Secretary of HHS is saying that you have no right to privacy as concerns your vaccine status.

        1. Emanations of penumbras apparently only extending so far.

          Libertarians my ass.

    4. Or executed for the allergy thing

      1. Or beaten senseless, just because.

        1. How do we beat senseless someone who has no sense?

          1. Not sure, but let’s give it a try.

            1. Besides, who knows, there might be a few iotas of sense buried somewhere.

    5. A public, Nuremburg like trial would be appropriate.

    6. The repugnant little gnome was back to “vaccinated people should wear masks” on last weekend’s Sunday talks. The press for investigating his role in this is fading, and he’s going back to his old ways.

  4. better headline: Unions Keepin’ All Dat Slush For Themselves.

  5. They can figure it out, they choose not to.

  6. “I think the reality is that kids are becoming more likely to be vectors of these new variants,” former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb said on CNBC last month.

    After leaving FDA, Scott Gottlieb was hired for J&J’s Board of Directors, who receive an average compensated of $300,000 per year.

    So Gottlieb has a blatant financial conflict of interest, as do many/most MDs, medical journals and others who have publicly advocated lockdowns, mask wearing, wasting vaccines on already immune people who contracted the China virus (and thus depriving vaccines to tens of millions of poor foreigners) and mandating vaccines for many employers, colleges, etc.

  7. Keep them closed. Permanently. When the teachers stop getting their checks they’ll figure it out.

    1. Somehow they will figure out how to keep getting paid.

      1. There’s a reason they’re mainly pulling this crap in union strongholds.

  8. They know how. They just don’t wanna. They have turned into the children and they don’t like work time.

  9. “This is for fall 2021, mind you. Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, was already telling the CDC to get bent—and his schools to get open—back in fall 2020.”

    That’s why he’s a great candidate for president. Tell the wanker dems and ninnies to fuck off and get back to work or pound sand.

    Anyway the reality is except for blue states on the coasts the rest went back to school and work and stopped worrying about Fauci’s disease.

  10. It’s not that they can’t re-open, it’s that they can’t re-open “safely”. They’re all 100% in favor of re-opening “safely”, they always have been. But re-opening “safely” requires 100% vaccination, 12-foot social distancing, full-respirator hazmat suits, isolation booths for all, 1-to-1 student/teacher ratios, distance learning, multiple teaching assistants for each teacher, a 50% pay increase, a Papal mass for each individual teacher, and much, much more. Or do you just want teachers to fucking die, you cold-hearted bastard?

    1. Still not safe enough. With those hazmat suits on, visibility is reduced and someone is going to fall down the stairs at school and kill themselves. Therefore, any school with more than one floor must remain closed.

    2. I’ll take “just fucking die” for $200.

    3. “Or do you just want teachers to fucking die, you cold-hearted bastard?”

      Um … YES?

  11. When you homeschool, learning happens year round! At this point I can’t imagine relying on anyone else to tech my children better than I can.

    1. Exactly. I can’t imagine why the welch guy doesn’t just homeschool.

      He has a stay-at-home job and lots of credentials. Why on earth would he pawn his kids off to some bureaucratic union-supported failing public enterprise.

      If the welch guy doesn’t want to homeschool, he should get out of that lefty blue state and move to a wholesome red state (again, he works from home). The welch guy has written some pieces about how much better red states have opened up their public schools. But maybe he hasn’t read those pieces?

  12. Public schools should not be taking sides, but it’s quite clear what side they did take.

    What amazes me is that we haven’t had a million parent march for school freedom yet.

  13. An article from Reason that says Republicans are doing a better job than Democrats?

    Reason was critical of Trump which means it’s run by big-government communists, so there’s nothing to see here. Move along. Never bring it up again. Deny it exists.

    1. sarc’s 5th grade classmates found this ‘clever’. Or at least some did.

    2. Oh, don’t worry, some right-wing commenter will be along soon to decry Reason for shilling for the teachers’ unions.

      1. Of course. After all, there are only two kinds of people in this world. Those who voted for Trump, and progressive socialist communist leftist Democrats who love unions and hate America.

        1. So we can agree that the teachers unions are a blight on the education system.

          1. I’ve got no problem with private sector unions driving costs up and quality down. There’s always someone else to do business with. Can’t say the same about public sector unions. They should all be abolished. Outlawed even.

            1. I flagged this comment accidentally. Sorry.

  14. Democrat-heavy districts remain most likely to stay partly closed.

    Had Trump managed this crisis correctly in 2020, the Democrats wouldn’t have to be making these tough decisions now.

  15. I wonder if there’s an NEA angle, what with the total capture of Democrats to pub-sec unions…

    1. They simply want MORE Money and Power. It’s never enough. Always MORE.

  16. Oh, by the by, I acquired an NEA publication that’s sent to its members and I went through it last night. Approximately 100% of it was race, social justice, equity, BiPOC, LGBTQI+ (and in one mention, LGBTQI+-), even direct, explicit demands to support the organization BLM (not just using “black lives matter” as a throwaway phrase) with quotes like:

    Supporting Black Lives Matter
    Let’s broaden the movement of critical reflection and honest conversation in school communities for people of all ages.
    Understand BLM event principles
    Find a school event
    Pledge your support

    Yeah nah, it’s not creeping into your schools… that’s just Fox News blathering about stuff you can safely ignore.

    1. I refuse to take them seriously until they are inclusive of all the letters. Support all LGBTQIACDEFHJKMNOPRSTUVWXYZ+ issues, or you are literally a piece of ????.

    1. “BEAVER WIND, OR—”

      It’s the little things that really make you smile.

    2. “You’re just two short Babylon Bee writers stacked on top of each other in a trenchcoat!”

      Vincent Adultman always gets the best scoops.

  17. Democrat-heavy districts remain most likely to stay partly closed.

    And yet Park Slope Welchie Boy and the French woman he’s (allegedly) married to, who could live almost anywhere in the country they wanted to, choose to remain in one of the most democrat-heavy districts there is. What does this tell us?

    1. Obviously it means he’s a communist.

      After all, nobody in the country lives someplace unless they 100% agree with the local politics.

      1. Don’t sell Welch short.

        You know he’s fighting the power.

        From inside the belly of the beast.

      2. The public school teacher problem is certainly a big issue, but we all know perfectly well that the only reason he constantly brings it up is because he and Frenchy have kids in school. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t give a flying fuck.

        So since this is obviously a big personal issue for him, I think it’s a legitimate question to ask why he and Frenchy don’t just fucking move, for the sake of their kids if nothing else. And it’s not like he has to Idaho or Utah or East Bumfuck, Mississippi. There are tons of politically moderate districts in America with decent public school systems that are doing proper in-person education. So what’s stopping them? They can always move back to Park Slope or any other ultra far left district they feel more comfortable in once the kids go off to college.

        1. I’ve never been a fan of the “love it or leave it”section.

          1. Priorities =//= “love it or leave it”

        2. Fvck Welch. He would never live somewhere unxool and unhip, especially around uncool or unhip people. He also relishes the role of being the contrarian hipster, stuck behind enemynlines, wherebhe is free to bitch and moan about things not being the way he ideally wants them.
          Its why he supports awful Progressives. He would rather live as an ineffectual quasi-rebel in a Stalinist hellhole (non-threatening to the PTB) than to do the work of coalition building and compromise to change things with Conservatives. He cant stand the thought of getting 80% of what he wants, if it means rubbing shoulders with icky people like Ted Cruz and Mollie Hemingway. And so he demonstrates his non-threatening fealty to the Progressive monolith by attacking the icky people viciously whenever he can, while cuddling up to the Stalinists.

          1. Yeah, I think it really is this simple as you say. I think he can’t stomach the idea of living anywhere except a far-left urban district. He seems like the type of guy who probably thinks of Queens and Staten Island as being just one step short of rural West Virginia.

  18. “Democrat-heavy districts remain most likely to stay partly closed.”

    Is that kinda like “mostly peaceful protests” while the downtown burns?

  19. We can never be sure that schools will be 100% safe for everyone. Out of an abundance of caution, all of the public schools should be closed down permanently, and the funding returned to the taxpayers so they can afford a good internet connection.

  20. Public Schools Still Can’t Figure Out How To Reopen

    It seems they couldn’t figure out how to teach the kiddos how to read and write before Covid either, so no one should be surprised.

  21. many government-run schools … have yet to promulgate final rules

    “Show up like it’s 2019.”

  22. It’s all about the kids! LOL

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  24. Unfortunately, state-run schools are very problematic. eskişehir kız apart

  25. “Plus you know there are earthquakes on Mars and the moon is being hit by meteors pretty much every day so that will slow the re-openings even more,” said one teacher’s union official. “We have to be extra-cautious.”

  26. One could hope that this is the beginning of the end of government schools.
    On the other hand, it could be the beginning of the end of freedom and capitalism in the United States of America. A crisis not wasted, as Rahm Emanuel would say.
    I personally hope for a libertarian backlash against the government, public unions, qualified immunity, entitlements, income tax and all the other crap that comes with a system that has some of the people with power over others.

  27. The issue isn’t COVID or ambiguous CDC guidance; it is the fact that unelected Union officials are calling the shots on whether or not schools reopen. This is insanity. Schools need to set a date and reopen. Any teacher who does not show up to work should be fired. If more than 50% fail to show up, declare their contract null and void, fill the vacant positions, and refuse to recognize the Union. Union blackmail is just as illegal as any other form of extortion.

  28. “Public Schools Still Can’t Figure Out How To Reopen”

    1. It’s Democrat-run schools. Public schools here have been successfully open since August of 2020.
    2. They don’t have to “figure out” anything. They just can’t bring themselves to follow Red state examples.

  29. A few local observations from Maplewood, NJ. My wife is a just-retired 3rd grade teacher:
    1. The teachers union did not prevent opening. The Bd of Ed said schools would open when all ventilation improvements (HEPA filters) were complete. The school board announced they were complete. The union said, “let’s walk through.” Nothing was complete. Lesson: school administrators don’t know anything about managing construction contractors. Not the union’s fault.
    2. Public school class size is about twice that of private schools.
    Asocial distancing is more difficult. You can’t compare the two.
    3. Many writers and commenters at Reason seem annoyed that teachers unions defend their members. That’s their job, fer chrissake.
    4. When the schools did open in Maplewood, the board of ed (not the teachers union) opted for a hybrid version…. some kids at home, some not, according to the parents’ wishes. The result was a mess, the class still had to be taught on the computers, kids came to class with laptop batteries dead, other kids played video games on their laptops, kids at home wandered off or trolled the class (yes, third graders!) and teacher on the chat. Individual students were not allowed to go to the toilet – the entire class had to go – again an administrative decision, not the union’s.
    5. Parents who had screamed about their kids not being in class announced that the kid would not come to school this week because they were going to their vacation home in Vermont (really).

    So lay off the teachers unions for a change, and accept that the situation is more complex.

    1. 1. You don’t need those filters. Fuck off.
      2. Tough shit. You managed fine before the pandemic, you’ll manage fine now.
      3. It’s become abundantly clear that unions place the welfare of the teachers above the kids, betraying the entire purpose of having a school. If that’s their job then they don’t deserve respect of any kind or measure.
      4. The solution is to not do any distance teaching at all. Have normal classrooms again. Fuck all this laptop bullshit.
      5. You realize this is an excuse, right? The kids of those parents aren’t coming back. They’re homeschooling or doing the teaching pod thing. You got dumped.

  30. I recall when people said that they were willing to take the pay cut to take a govt job. What a joke that is – VERY FEW govt folks lost a cent during the CV19 epidemic and their jobs generally pay more and require less than comparable private sector jobs.

    I have sympathy and respect for the teachers who actually enjoy and work at teaching – it’s a tough job dealing with undisciplined kids and their worse parents. There are however MANY in education that are basically just feeding at the public trough and the NEA surely represents them more than the actual hard working responsible teachers.

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