Government school reopening guidance expected this week might not be enough to quell hostile debates about in-person classes.
Fresh advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will drop as the White House continues to push for in-person learning for most K-8 students. But after a year of an erratic pandemic response under the Trump administration, the CDC’s word isn’t likely to settle a debate between parents, state and local officials, and educators backed by powerful unions.
San Francisco’s government sued its local school district last week over prolonged campus closures, and local officials just reached a tentative agreement with educators to return to classrooms. Chicago teachers approved a deal on Tuesday to bring thousands of additional elementary students back to classrooms next month, but a third of union voters rejected the agreement. Philadelphia teachers are working remotely this week, after union President Jerry Jordan dismissed a “reckless” and “half baked” city reopening plan.
Now, three weeks into President Joe Biden’s term, the question is whether the White House and renewed guidelines from the nation’s top health agency can stitch up unrelenting rancor over keeping teachers safe in face-to-face classes.
“Making safe in-person instruction a reality requires federal mandates and resources,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, in a statement. She said those two components would “compel and allow school districts and institutions of higher education to put in place the mitigating measures necessary to protect against COVID-19.”
The Biden administration has sent mixed messages in recent days as it’s explained what federal guidance to follow, or if teachers should even be vaccinated as a critical step for reopening schools.
After CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said teachers don’t need to be vaccinated for in-person classes to resume safely last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed the CDC’s official guidance hadn’t yet been released and that prioritizing teachers for vaccines was important to the president. Psaki has also noted densely populated urban schools face “more of a challenge” to reopen for in-person instruction, when compared with rural campuses highlighted in recent CDC research.
Vaccines are, however, a top concern for educators. About 85 percent of National Education Association members say they should be prioritized for vaccines and 70 percent say they’d feel safer working in-person because of the shot, according to a poll of 3,300 educators the labor group conducted through the past week. Fewer than 20 percent of those educators said they received a vaccine.
“The two most promising developments in the battle against Covid-19 — vaccines and rapid Covid-19 tests — can be game changers for safe in-person instruction, and federal and state authorities should make them broadly and equitably available,” Pringle said. “Both must be accompanied by the robust Covid-19 mitigation strategies that the CDC knows must be in place as a starting point for schools to be safe.”
At the same time, more students appear to be attending some form of in-person classes compared to last fall. Close to 35 percent of the country’s K-12 students are attending “virtual-only” instruction, according to the latest estimates from Burbio, a data firm that tracks school reopenings. The firm said approximately 40 percent of elementary-through-high schoolers are attending schools that offer traditional in-person instruction every day, while another quarter of students are using a hybrid model.
This data suggests Biden’s goal is already within reach.
“His goal that he’s set is to have the majority of schools — so more than 50 percent — open by Day 100 of his presidency,” Psaki said on Tuesday. “And that means some teaching in classrooms, so at least one day a week. Hopefully it’s more.”
On Wednesday, Psaki added: “Certainly we are not planning to celebrate at 100 days if we reach that goal.”
“But we certainly hope to build from that, even at 100 days,” she said. “And from there, our objective — the President’s objective — is for all schools to reopen, to stay open, to be open five days a week, for kids to be learning.”
Beyond new CDC guidance, two more items are “absolutely essential” to help schools reopen, said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor who specializes in public health law. Federal funding for testing, protective gear, well-ventilated spaces and other safety measures is one. The other is a “media and political campaign” to reassure the public that reopening can be safe and is necessary, he said.
“To me, educating our children should be the first priority,” Gostin said. “And we should be doubling down on vaccines, doubling down on social distancing, doubling down on business closures and doubling down on masking in order to get our children back to school.”
More school systems are now staging their own returns to classroom instruction, even as teachers unions and administrators continue to hash out plans for making school buildings safe for all.
Near Washington, D.C., the Arlington Public Schools system is planning to expand in-person instruction to two days a week starting next month. In Southern Louisiana, the Lafayette Parish School System will start bringing middle and high schoolers back to daily in-person instruction after the Mardi Gras break later this month.
“The data from schools suggests that there’s very little transmission that is happening within the schools, especially when there’s masking and distancing occurring,” Walensky told reporters on Monday.
“When there are transmissions in the schools, it is because they’ve been brought in from the community, and because there are breaches in masking and distancing,” she said. “So if we want to get our schools open — and our schools open safely and well — the best way to do that is to decrease the community spread.”
View original post