Kids are now in school at majority of nation’s biggest districts — just as COVID cases surge

Elinor Aspegren

Erin Richards
 
| USA TODAY

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COVID back to school: Fall semester 2020 means uncertainty and fear

Going back to school amid COVID-19 outbreaks means uncertainty and fear for students and teachers, but staying home presents problems too.

The U.S. has entered a second round of back-to-school, just as the coronavirus surges around the nation.

In smaller school districts, careful in-person reopenings in August and September didn’t lead to an explosion of COVID-19 cases. And now, the country’s largest school systems, which had largely eschewed in-person instruction, are venturing partially back into the classroom.

The majority of the 15 largest districts in the nation now have at least some students in school buildings. Only two of those districts had any form of in-person learning as of early September. 

Large schools had faced bigger hurdles than smaller ones as they waited out case spikes in major cities and concerns grew about possible outbreaks in school buildings. Now, as several major districts have decided to try to meet in person, rising COVID-19 cases again threaten their efforts. 

“Any district that hasn’t already introduced in-person learning is facing serious headwinds” to doing so anytime soon, said Dennis Roche, president of Burbio, an organization that’s tracking school calendars and reopening plans nationwide.

District leaders, teachers and parents debated for months how safe it was to reopen schools. Teachers unions organized against in-person learning, while parents came down on both sides of the issue, concerned both about virus spread and about their students’ well-being and learning loss.

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The schools that jumped into reopening in August and September were largely smaller, whiter and wealthier than the country’s biggest districts. That didn’t give larger districts — which serve far more low-income families and people of color, for whom virus deaths have been higher — enough data to make decisions.

Even scientists were split on the issue. That’s in part because there’s no federal effort to track COVID-19 cases in schools. But schools were determined to reopen if community spread stayed manageable, because keeping them closed, experts say, could harm children both educationally and developmentally.

Rising infections

In many schools, reopening is going smoothly. Across the country, the number of students attending virtual-only school has decreased by 25 percentage points since Labor Day, according to Burbio.

Georgia’s Columbia County schools, a midsized district of about 27,000 students, have given the option to elementary students to attend classes in person every day for at least 13 or 14 weeks now, said parent Ashley Reese.

Her daughters attend kindergarten and fifth grade at River Ridge Elementary, and she chose in-person learning from the start. The district has had some cases of COVID-19, but schools have not shut down, Reese said.

“It’s been wonderful to have them at school,” she said. “They wear masks every day. It’s just normal now.”

But many of the largest districts that tiptoed into reopening in recent weeks have already reverted to online instruction because of rising infections.

Officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system, told the Los Angeles Times Wednesday that campuses are unlikely to reopen before January. The reason: a recent rise in COVID-19 infection rates – which are unlikely to drop in the next two months.

And Boston Public Schools announced Oct. 22 it was moving its nearly 50,000 students to completely remote learning due to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the city. The move means students with special needs will no longer meet in school buildings, for the time being.

Earlier that week, Houston Independent School District, the largest public school system in Texas, closed 16 schools after allowing students back in classrooms the previous day.

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Teachers blamed more than students

In the second-largest district in Texas, Dallas’ Independent School District opened in early September with a month of virtual learning. Then, the district began offering an in-person option for younger grades and a hybrid model at the high school, where students may attend in person two days a week and learn from home on the other days.

Currently, about half of the district’s families have chosen to send their children to school at least a couple days a week. The rest have remained virtual.

The district has seen about 500 cases of the virus among Dallas’ 220 schools — about 280 students and the rest staff members, said Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. Certain groups of students who had contact with infected individuals have had to quarantine, but Hinojosa said he’s only had to implement a temporary closure at three schools.

When students at the district get off the bus or enter the school, they must pass a temperature check in order to attend class in person that day. They are required to wear a mask for most of the school day, with a few breaks during outside moments, and are seated in bubble groups of four students per Plexiglas divider.

Throughout the school buildings in the district, posters warn students to “cover your cough” and detail COVID-19 symptoms. Markers – 6 feet apart – are taped to the floor.

With such thorough coronavirus procedures, Assistant Superintendent of School Leadership Leslie Stephens attributes the spread to teachers. Some educators, she said, are “congregating and maybe not following all of our safety precautions that we have in place.”

Both Dallas and Houston reopened schools in October, as the state surpassed California as the nation’s case leader, with more than 893,000 COVID-19 infections as of Oct. 30. State data on transmission in Texas public schools shows that over 25,000 students and teachers have reported positive COVID-19 cases.

Still, Stephens said it was highly unlikely that Dallas would move to a fully virtual instruction. And despite rising COVID-19 rates, some schools around the country are pressing forward with returning to classrooms.

Oregon leaders opened the door Friday for more districts to return to in-person instruction in places where transmission is low.

Conceding that the virus will be part of American life for the near future, and that doing work and school from home is not sustainable for many families, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and health officials relaxed metrics for school reopening that would allow up to 130,000 students statewide to return to class.

Brown said the state reevaluated and revised its metrics this month and reviewed the scientific data about transmission in schools.

“With adherence to safety protocols — wearing face coverings, handwashing, physical distancing — what is really clear is that schools are not superspreaders,” Brown said in a news conference Friday.

Meanwhile, she said, the challenges of learning through the internet are steep for many students.

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Community spread 

Texas and Oregon aren’t the only states around the nation with rising COVID-19 cases. Infections have risen in most other states, such as Florida, home to several of the nation’s largest districts.

More than half of the state’s families returned their children to school in person, officials said last month.

But mirroring a new uptick in the spread of the COVID-19, a rising number of cases are emerging in Florida schools, prompting closures.

In the past week, Palm Beach County’s school district reported 181 confirmed cases among students and staff since campuses reopened last month.

The increase in cases has some parents and educators worried, including school board member Dr. Debra Robinson, a retired physician who criticized the district’s plan to reopen classrooms last month.

She told the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Network, that she had concerns about the rising cases in the area and the cases on campus.

“I am concerned/worried about both,” she said in a text message. “The school rate and community rate are intertwined.”

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The alignment of upticks in schools and outbreaks makes sense, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate director for the School Superintendents Association. The association’s National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard tracks case counts for nearly 1,300 of the nation’s schools, with the help of Brown University and several other national education organizations.

“But the school rate tends to be lower than the community rate,” she said.

Others insist school reopenings are risky, especially if there are community outbreaks. 

“Our schools are a part of the community, and if the community is not taking seriously getting their infection rates down, it’s going to bleed over into our schools,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the U.S.

No good options

After the start of the school year was delayed twice in New York City, the largest district in the nation, students came back in phases over a few days. Preschoolers and students with significant disabilities were allowed to return in late September, followed by elementary students Sept. 30, and middle and high school students Oct. 1.

Officials had expected just over half of the district’s 960,000 students to return to school buildings. Only about 280,000 students did. 

Brooklyn advocate Tajh Sutton was a part of the fight to get the school year delayed into October. And as the parent of a 7-year-old and a 12-year-old who are currently learning online, she would love nothing more than to send her kids back to school. 

Still, “a socially distanced school full of people in masks where no one can hug and sit together is not school,” she said.

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, schools are fully remote now, but leaders are planning to offer in-person instruction before the end of the year to preschoolers and students with special needs. That’s partly because preschool enrollment has fallen significantly, especially among Black and Latino students. And many special-education students have had a hard time successfully engaging with online learning.

Chicago parent Sonia Lara said she knows students have to return to school at some point. But her husband has renal disease and contracted COVID-19 in May, which landed him in the hospital. Her 13-year-old son has cerebral palsy and asthma, and she’s worried that he won’t be able to wear a mask successfully if he returns. She said school staff told her they could allow her son to remove the mask as part of his individual education plan, but then, she said, he could be more exposed to the virus.

“Going back to school is not an option for us,” she said during a virtual conference hosted Tuesday by the Grassroots Education Movement, an alliance of parent, community and teacher union members. 

“We have adjusted to remote learning. Now we want CPS to make it work better,” Lara added.

Contributing: Andrew Marra, Palm Beach Post

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