This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to seismic changes in education in the United States that are occurring during the pandemic. Sign up here to receive this newsletter to your inbox.
For the past few months, my colleagues have been working on a large project on the state of American education. They wanted to answer a simple question, said James Dao, national editor at The Times who oversees education coverage, “Are American children receiving adequate education in the pandemic?
“This is the most fundamental question,” he continued. “And yet, in a country of 13,000 autonomous school districts, establishing 13,000 educational policies, it is impossible to answer.”
The only constant was inconsistency and disruption. Almost every district in the United States has had to break through and use their own safety standard; the Trump administration and the federal government have provided little advice or data.
So instead of trying to take a numbers-based approach, James said, “We set ourselves a more humble ambition: to provide snapshots of seven districts that together provide a cross section of America in all its diversity.
Some students have been in school buildings since the fall, while others have not seen a classroom since March 2020. Some divide their time between distance education and in person. There is only one common thread: No matter how the students are learning right now, it has been a difficult time for everyone.
But not everyone has struggled the same. Districts serving high percentages of non-white or poor students were much more likely to stay totally removed this fall. Many have reported higher proportions of students failing courses, which many critics have rephrased as classes that failed.
“We believe these snapshots bring us closer to how educators, parents and students navigate what has arguably been the most disrupted school year since World War II,” James said.
Here’s a condensed version of each profiled district, but we strongly suggest that you read it in its entirety.
Most students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, have been out of class since March. Now, high rates of virus transmission and overwhelmed hospitals are making headlines. The predominantly Latino district will continue to learn remotely for the foreseeable future.
The differences in results are widening. Compared to a year ago, D’s and F’s increased 15% among high school students, and reading skills fell 10% among elementary students, said Austin Beutner, the superintendent.
“There is no doubt that this is disproportionately harming the students who can least afford it,” he said.
In August, schools opened in Cherokee County, Georgia, in crowded hallways, crowded soccer games, and optional masks. The contagion was rapid: In the first two weeks, nearly 1,200 students had to be quarantined in the predominantly white, Republican-leaning neighborhood outside of Atlanta.
Many parents said their children would benefit from attending school in person. But by mid-December, more than 1,000 students and staff had tested positive. After the winter break, the whole district closed for at least two weeks because there were too many teachers in quarantine.
“That’s what you get when you don’t try to protect people in schools,” said Lizzy Palermo, 17, who said she was one of the few female students who consistently wear a mask.
Wausau, Wisconsin, a small, predominantly white town, has become a flashpoint for a parent-teacher struggle for open classes.
After virtually starting classes, the school board bowed to community pressure and voted to open schools to students in November – just as the pandemic was escalating statewide. Tensions have erupted.
“She didn’t swear to me, but she screamed,” a school board member recalled after a parent harassed her. “I had to call the police.”
Since the in-person classes began, hundreds of students and staff have made the switch from in-person to distance learning, after possible exposures.
Public school students in the District of Columbia, a predominantly black district, have not learned in class since March. Many are “chronically absent” – they seldom log in to class.
The impact on learning is starting to be felt: A recent study of assessment scores this fall found that students were on average four months behind in math and one month in reading. Black students had even more distance to go.
In a public charter school, teachers make home visits to try to find missing students. “We try to let them know that we are not focusing on judgment,” said one teacher.
This summer, Governor Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island deployed the National Guard to help reopen schools for in-person learning. Distance education would disadvantage non-white, low-income students and it was not an option, she said.
In Providence, more than 70 percent of the district’s majority Latino and Black students have returned to their classrooms. It’s rare. In other American cities, black and Latin American families have generally chosen to have their children learn at home.
Even as the state battles a dangerous new wave, the classrooms are open. “I’m thankful that she’s back in person,” a parent said of her daughter.
By the end of the first grading period, 77% of high school students in the Roosevelt Independent School District were failing at least one class. Those who chose to attend in person, on the other hand, were mostly passing through.
The small, rural, predominantly Latino district of West Texas, therefore, made the difficult decision to require all students to return to class. Academic performance increased, as did infections. About a third of staff have tested positive this school year.
Still, teachers and administrators said it was the best thing for their students. “It works for us in our small school district,” said the principal. “It won’t work everywhere.”
Edison, NJ, a large suburban neighborhood where the majority of students are Asian, has struggled to make hybrid education work.
Math teacher Stephanie Rasimowicz must find a balance between teaching a handful of in-person (and socially distant) students while participating in nearly 20 online learning experiences. “Even though their cameras are on, you still don’t know exactly what they’re doing,” she said of her distant students.
Blended learning will always be a compromise.
“There is no book for it,” said a director. “The word of the year is ‘fluid’.”
University of Wisconsin the public college system could be in financial difficulty in the long run.
Brown University plans to host the launch in person for graduates, but family and guests will attend virtually.
Baylor University will require weekly coronavirus testing for students. Those who do not comply could be excluded from campus Wi-Fi.
A good read: The Chicago Tribune spoke with college athletes at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois struggling with their sanity after a hiatus season. “I really, really missed having a schedule,” said one volleyball player. It’s not just the athletes: A new study has found that college students across the country struggle with more depression and anxiety.
Chicago will start vaccinating teachers in mid-February.
President Biden signed an executive order to reopen the schools. He is pushing for more tests, more personal protective equipment, more data and more vaccines.
Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland urged schools to reopen by March. “There is no public health reason for county school boards to prevent students from going to school,” he said.
A neat series: The Institute for Nonprofit News is currently working with newsrooms across the country to look at rural schools. The most recent piece comes from New Mexico In detail, overview of the spring semester.
Good listening: Evelyn Lauer, a high school teacher, hosts a podcast called “Beyond the Bell” where she interviews other educators. This week, she spoke with Sachin J. Jhunjhunwala, a math teacher. It‘s an informed and insightful conversation.
A good read: There has been a nationwide surge of children in mental health crises during the pandemic. An 11 year old boy Texas considered suicide after months of distance learning.
Tip: Podcasts for kids
At this point, we are all looking for something to keep the little ones entertained at home. Podcasts for kids could be a saving grace.
“Girl Tales” features feminist fairy tales, performed by actors and playwrights. “What If World” is a fantastic improvisation. And “Animal Sound Safari” is, well, exactly what it sounds like. Plug in, sit back and enjoy.
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