Months into a pandemic that cut short one school year for most students and is on the verge of destroying a second, the country’s largest school districts are still grappling with how to get back into the classroom even as their smaller counterparts are doing just that.
They are wrestling with busing tens of thousands of students across a distance the size of some small states and keeping them at least 6 feet apart in school buildings that in pre-pandemic times often held far more students than they were built for.
And they are contending with unions looking to keep teachers safe while adapting to new models of teaching.
School superintendents also lack clear guidance they can trust from the federal government to help them make decisions on reopening schools, said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “They’re on their own,” he said, because the credibility of CDC guidance is in question amid allegations of White House meddling.
“It’s ridiculous that, with something as serious and as vital as what we’re facing right now, that children have become acceptable carnage,” he said.
Miami-Dade schools, the nation’s fourth-largest district, on Tuesday caved to pressure from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his state education commissioner to bring students back for in-person classes several weeks ahead of its own timeline. The district’s youngest charges can now return as early as Monday.
New York City schools reopened Tuesday, after several delays, but the district reported a 3.25 percent infection rate, the highest since June. If the city’s infection rate stays above 3 percent on average for 7 days, schools will be shut down, again.
In Los Angeles, local health officials haven’t entertained reopening, but county administrators this week pushed the health agency to allow younger students to attend classes in-person and put schools with large groups of students from low-income families at the top of the list.
Children can spread the virus, rapidly, even if they may suffer less if they have it themselves. One in three U.S. public school teachers is 50 or older, putting them at greater risk of developing a severe form of the illness.
Members of Congress implored the CDC on Tuesday to start gathering and sharing data to track the spread of Covid-19 in schools and help researchers develop best safety practices to successfully continue reopening schools for in-person classes. They noted that in a CDC report Monday about students who have contracted Covid, the public health agency said “Monitoring at the local-level could inform decision-makers about which mitigation strategies are most effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools and communities.”
This essential public health function should not be left solely in the hands of local school districts or states, the lawmakers said.
Domenech said superintendents in Broward and Miami-Dade counties in South Florida, have tried everything possible “to prevent this edict” from the state that they reopen schools earlier than planned.
“And it’s like the kids are the pawns in this whole process,” he said. ”You know, let’s just throw ‘em out, just like cannon fodder. No regard to their safety. No regard to their welfare. It’s just to make sure that schools are open and parents can go to work.”
School reopenings this fall are “a patchwork mess” because “there’s no consistent message” about what needs to be done to keep staff and students safe in the middle of a pandemic, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
The importance of social distancing, wearing masks, sanitation and testing can be “pieced together” from CDC recommendations and officials’ statements, she said. “But it is ludicrous that you have to actually take on a microscope, look from page to page and try to actually put it together,” she said.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the nation’s largest school districts as they reopen, or weigh whether and how to do so, and the dilemmas they face:
New York City Public Schools
Key Stats: Student Population: 1.1 million | Infection Rate: 3.25
New York City has the biggest school system in the country with more students than the entire population of Montana. Almost half of the students have opted to learn from home, for now.
If the city’s infection rate stays above 3 percent on average for 7 days, schools will be shut down, again.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been desperate to open schools despite calls from teachers and principals unions to hold off and provide remote instruction until later in the fall. The mayor has said there’s too much at stake economically and educationally to not try to reopen schools for as many students as possible.
“I do think there was a problem of sort of clinging to past procedure and approach that everyone needed to break out of and understand that we were in, you know, an absolutely unprecedented situation,” de Blasio said Tuesday. “I think that’s an area where we all could have done better.”
The city has roughly 75,000 teachers during a normal year and has hired thousands more to manage the combination of remote and in-person learning.
Los Angeles Unified School District
Key Stats: Student Population: 600,000 | 75 percent Latino
Los Angeles Unified is the nation’s second-largest school district, and in a typical year, about 40,000 students ride one of the district’s more than 1,300 school buses to and from school. About 80 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. And about 75 percent of the student body is Latino.
Most schools in California remain online-only after Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom mandated campuses close if counties don’t meet certain coronavirus metrics. As of Tuesday, Los Angeles County, home to 10 million residents, failed to advance out of the state’s most restrictive tier. While Newsom has since given most counties the greenlight to start reopening schools, the decision remains a local one.
Newsom also introduced a way for elementary schools to request a waiver to reopen, noting younger students’ need for in-person instruction and low virus transmission rates. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has refused to even consider those waivers, but on Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion directing the department to allow waivers for students up to the second grade. The motion will prioritize opening schools with higher percentages of low-income families, and it pointed to concerns about distance learning attendance and worsened achievement gaps as a need for at least some on campus instruction.
The California Teachers Association has made clear they will not return to classrooms until it’s proven safe to do so, but some parent groups are ramping up pressure to reopen. A group of LA County parents circulated a petition to open the waiver process to all elementary students, accusing local public health officials of “playing politics” by implementing arbitrary rules.
“For the record: We want nothing more than to be back in physical schools with our students, our babies. We miss them, but we need to be real. We are in a pandemic, a health crisis unlike anything we have ever seen, and our lives are at stake. Asking teachers to make up for society’s shortfalls is nothing new but it’s not right,” Cecily Myart-Cruz, United Teachers Los Angeles president, said at Friday’s news conference. “There is nothing political about saving lives.”
Last week, a group of parents filed a class-action lawsuit against LAUSD over its distance learning plan, alleging that it violates the state constitution’s promise of an equal education and especially underserves students of color.
Chicago Public Schools
Key Stats: Student Population: More than 350,000 | Schools: 650 | Employees: 40,000
The city reported a 4.2 percent Covid-19 test positivity rate Tuesday, and said it’s recording about 300 new infections per day. Infection rates are uneven across the city. Chicago’s teachers union is resisting a return to in-person classes and accusing the city of rushing “headlong into a resumption of in-person learning at the beginning of November,” regardless of public health conditions.
“We’re not there yet, and we have to make these decisions in the next few weeks,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said this week, when asked if Chicago Public Schools could reopen when its second quarter begins in November. Lightfoot said the city must “see more progress” to have a conversation about in-person learning, even as she eased some restrictions on the city’s nightlife, including reopening bars for indoor service.
“We have to think about our principals, our teachers, our staff. Coming back to work, what does that mean for them? What does it mean for members of that school community who are over 60, who have underlying medical conditions? Are we going to have enough of a robust workforce to be able to come back in-person?”
Online instruction resumed in September, but school officials said they had to track down thousands of students who did not check into classes during the school year’s early days. The powerful Chicago Teachers Union argued that’s not enough of a reason to resume in-person classes and demanded the mayor work on improving remote learning.
“We share CPS’s concern about maintaining student enrollment. But a return to in-person learning before it can be done safely, along with timing that will coincide with a potential fall surge in COVID-19 infections currently predicted by public health experts, could be catastrophic for Chicago and its most vulnerable populations,” Union President Jesse Sharkey wrote in a letter to Lightfoot this week.
Miami-Dade and Broward County, Fla. schools
Key Stats: Miami-Dade Student Population: 347,000 | Schools: 392
Broward Student Population: 269,000 | Schools: 241
The nation’s fourth-largest school district, Miami-Dade County, gave in Tuesday to pressure from the state reopen schools. Neighboring Broward County schools, with more than 269,000 students, faces the same pressure as the sixth-biggest system nationwide and will hold an emergency meeting Thursday.
DeSantis and his Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran threatened to withhold funding if the districts, the only two in the state that haven’t reopened for in-person classes, don’t throw open their doors by Oct. 5. Miami-Dade school leaders last week approved a phased return to face-to-face classes by Oct. 21 after a marathon 29-hour board meeting that drew 750 comments from the public over two days. Miami-Dade was aiming for an Oct. 5 return, which the state leveraged against them.
Local leaders say Miami-Dade, which has been hit harder by the coronavirus than the rest of the state, needed more time to reopen schools. The county reported 632 new Covid-19 cases on Monday, the most in more than two weeks, according to the Florida Department of Health. Miami-Dade saw a 6.87 positivity rate in new cases on Monday, the highest rate in at least two weeks.
“We are tired of seeing what Trump, all the way down to the governor, all the way down to the Department of Education — Richard Corcoran — are trying to do in our community when what we’re trying to do is keep our kids safe,” Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade, told the Miami-Dade School Board this week, at its first in-person meeting since March.
“We want what you have here,” Hernandez-Mats said ahead of Tuesday’s emergency board meeting. “Six feet of social distancing, hygiene, ventilation.”