The dominos are beginning to fall at America’s schools.
After weeks or months of operating in person, schools are shifting students back to remote learning as the nation grapples with soaring COVID-19 infections. Starting Monday, millions more students will be connected to their teachers only by whatever internet or phone connection they can secure.
In many cases, schools are closing because too many teachers are quarantined or infected with COVID-19. Others are responding to high rates of virus transmission in their communities. Kentucky’s governor announced a statewide closure of schools to take effect Monday, a move that followed Michigan closing all high school classrooms and New York City schools — the largest district in the country — moving back to all-remote learning.
Already, just over 40% of schoolchildren are attending only virtual classes, a figure that’s risen from 36.9% Sunday, according to Burbio, a company that aggregates school calendars.
Adding to the confusion and stress of the moment: The metrics used for closure, and the scope of the shutdowns, diverge wildly, sometimes even within the same county. Schools can be considered safe in one town or state and ordered closed in another, even though that area has less community spread of the virus.
Many of the closure announcements are facing political pushback, including from the White House and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s in addition to parent gripes about rearranging work schedules or again subjecting children to the subpar experience of virtual learning. Underscoring it all are doubts about whether school closures actually work — or cause even more harm.
Political leaders making the call
Kentucky’s Democratic governor on Wednesday ordered all public and private schools to shutter classrooms starting Monday, a move that drew criticism from the Republican leader of the state Senate. Also this week, Michigan’s Democratic governor ordered all high school and college classrooms to close for three weeks — along with bars and indoor dining. Kentucky’s governor also halted indoor services at bars and restaurants until at least Dec. 13.
New York City’s schools shifted to all-remote learning Thursday because the rate of positive tests for COVID-19 hit the 3% threshold set locally to trigger a shutdown. Critics said it didn’t make sense to close schools when bars and gyms could stay open. What’s more, the virus rate transmission within New York City’s public school buildings had stayed very low, around 0.22% according to the latest in-school testing results.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, defended the decision. But he also said he’d be meeting with the state to revise those standards for closure and would make a new announcement before Thanksgiving, according to an interview Thursday on CBS This Morning.
Still, as COVID-19 cases skyrocket, some East Coast governors — including New York’s — are hoping to keep schools operating in person, as long as rates of transmission within schools themselves stay low. The governors of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts released a joint, bipartisan statement Thursday backing the importance of continuing in-person education with the appropriate safety protocols, even in the face of rising rates of community transmission.
“In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low income families,” it said. “There is also growing evidence that the more time children spend outside of school increases the risk of mental health harm and affects their ability to truly learn.”
Vice President Mike Pence and CDC Director Robert Redfield said Thursday they do not recommend closing schools.