Public Schools Still Can't Figure Out How To Reopen

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


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.