WASHINGTON – It’s going to be screen time all the time for kindergartners and graduate students alike. Teachers are threatening strikes. And students are already coming home infected with the coronavirus, which has upended American education.
The 2020-21 school year has dawned, and it’s more chaotic than any before it.
Plans are changing so fast that students and parents can hardly keep up. Districts that spent all summer planning hybrid systems, in which children would be in school part of the week, ditched them as coronavirus cases surged. Universities changed their teaching models, their start dates and their rules for housing, all with scant notice.
And many districts and colleges have yet to make final decisions, even now, with the fall term already underway in some of the country.
“Plans are changing right up till the moment that schools open,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of Great City Schools, a lobbying group for large districts.
Chicago Public Schools announced last week that, after planning a hybrid system, its classes would begin the year online. Districts across the country have pushed back their opening dates. Last week, the first week of school in Georgia’s Cherokee County School District, administrators sent 14 letters to parents, each disclosing new cases of the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19. They included 13 students ranging from first to 12th grades, and a few teachers. More than 300 students who had been in contact with them were directed to quarantine for 14 days.
“Our parents wanted a choice for their children, and we delivered – it is not perfect, and we all know that, but perfection is not possible in a pandemic,” Superintendent Brian Hightower said Friday in a message to the community.
Another Georgia high school, in Paulding County, drew national attention after students posted pictures and video of their peers walking without masks in tightly packed hallways. Now, six students and three staff members there have tested positive for the virus, according to a letter sent to parents over the weekend.
And on Sunday, the superintendent said the school would go online only for Monday and Tuesday and would announce plans beyond that on Tuesday evening.
Last week, Johns Hopkins University changed its mind and said classes would be fully online, discouraging even those who had signed leases from returning to Baltimore. Students at Washington University in St. Louis faced the opposite problem when the school said on July 31 that all dorm rooms would be converted to singles, leaving juniors and seniors scrambling to find housing at the last minute.
In Congress, talks over a pandemic relief package collapsed last week, leaving no clear path to providing schools with funding lawmakers in both major political parties agree is urgently needed.
“We knew how to close schools,” said Annette Anderson, an assistant professor of education and deputy director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University. “But we have no idea how to properly reopen schools.”
The result of this chaos is uncertainty for students and their parents, with profound ramifications for health, learning, emotional development and economics in schools that open and those that do not.
Of the 20 largest K-12 districts, 17 now plan to begin the year fully remote. The big outlier is New York City, by far the nation’s largest district, which plans a hybrid system and so far has withstood intense pressure from teachers and others to reverse course.
On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, gave the state’s 732 school districts the go ahead and open in person if they like, as long as the state’s coronavirus infection rates stay low.
Across the country, districts have wildly different plans based on their geography, infection rates and partisanship.
About 4% of rural districts and 21% of suburban districts have announced fully remote plans, compared with 55% of urban systems, according to a study of 477 districts chosen as a representative national sample by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington at Bothell.
Robin Lake, the center’s director, also reviewed parent surveys from districts across the country and was struck by how divergent views are.
“Some are saying they are terrified,” she said. “Others are saying, ‘I think this whole covid thing is a farce.’ ”
Like so much in America, decisions appear to be falling along partisan lines, with schools in Republicans areas far more likely to open than those in Democratic communities.
Polling shows Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say going back into school buildings is safe. And an examination of district plans compiled by Education Week suggests that campuses are more likely to be open in conservative communities than in liberal ones.
Ed Week’s database includes 153 districts in states won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Of them, 67% plan fully remote learning this fall.
Of the 307 districts in states won by Donald Trump in 2016, 58% plan to hold fully or partly in-person classes.
Some of the divide may trace to fact that rural areas are more Republican and in some cases have fewer covid-19 cases. But the overall trend worries Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, which represents school superintendents.
“It’s a very dangerous and explosive situation, and unfortunately people are more inclined to follow their political bent than to do what is safe for their own families and their own children,” he said.