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Why school districts decided to bring only the youngest children

After a summer of uncertainty and fear over how schools around the world will work in the event of a pandemic, a consensus has emerged in more and more districts that face-to-face teaching with young children is safer than with the older ones and particularly crucial for their development.

New York City, home to the largest school system in the country, became the most prominent example of this trend on Sunday, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that only preschools, elementary schools and some schools for children with complex disabilities would reopen. next week, all classrooms in the city were briefly closed in November. There is currently no plan to bring middle and high school students back to school buildings in the city.

It was an abrupt about-face for the mayor, who had promised for months to welcome the city’s 1.1 million children – from 3 years to high school students – back in classrooms this fall.

But the decision put New York on a par with other cities in America and around the world that have reopened classrooms first, and often exclusively, for young children, and in some cases kept them open then. even as these cities were faced with a second wave of the virus.

In-person learning is essential for young children, who often need intensive parental supervision just to tune in for the day, say education experts. And growing evidence has shown that elementary schools are unlikely to supply transportation as long as districts enact strict safety measures. The evidence is more mixed for middle and high schools.

“With young children, we see this pleasant confluence of two facts: Science tells us that young children are less likely to contract, and apparently less likely to transmit, the virus,” said Elliot Haspel, author of “ Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix it. “

He added, “And the youngest children are the ones most in need of in-person schooling and in-person interactions.”

Districts like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are planning to bring young children back first when they finally reopen classrooms.

In Rhode Island, housekeeper Gina Raimondo, a strong supporter of keeping schools open, recently called on colleges to switch to distance learning after Thanksgiving and gave districts the opportunity to reduce the number of high school students who attend in person. She said there was “not a shred of data to suggest that schools are major broadcasters,” but said high schools have proven to be more problematic than elementary and middle schools as students are more mobile.

This model of putting younger students first was pioneered in Europe, where many countries kept primary schools open even as most other parts of public life closed during the continent’s second wave.

Italy has kept its primary schools open, but has left only middle and secondary schools remote, and while all schools in Germany are open, discussions of possible closures have mostly focused on high schools.

In America, more and more districts have started to prioritize elementary school students for in-person learning.

In urban districts, which have generally been slower to reopen than rural and suburban districts, this required planning for the return of younger students first. In parts of the Midwest where school districts were more aggressive about reopening, and there has been a huge increase in cases, public health officials have insisted on keeping elementary schools open even though they had closed high schools and in some cases colleges.

“The data is increasingly convincing that there is very limited transmission in daycares and elementary schools,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and member of the president-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s Coronavirus Task Force, in a recent interview.

“I keep telling people, ‘Stop talking about kids – talk about those under 10,’ he added. “We see a very different epidemiology in this group than what we see, for example, in high school students.

The data is far from perfect, but several studies suggest that children under 10 transmit the virus less effectively than older children or adults.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics surveyed 57,000 child care providers across the United States and found that those who continued to work for the first three months of the pandemic were no more likely to get sick than those whose programs have closed.

This evidence has allowed experts to focus on pressing concerns about how young children actually learn during the pandemic. Mr Haspel and others have raised urgent concerns about children’s ability to learn to read on an iPad or laptop screen.

When teachers attempt to teach distance reading, “you really tie one leg to the other and try to run a run,” he said, in part because young children often need a run. small group or individual teaching.

Every aspect of distance learning, from connecting to completing homework, requires basic literacy. That’s why so many parents and caregivers have had to sacrifice their jobs or bring their kids to daycare so kids can get full-time help with chores online.

There is ample evidence that students who don’t read in grade three have a hard time catching up with their peers who do and are more likely to drop out of high school.

Importantly, reopening primary schools – while keeping middle and high schools closed – has become the preferred option of influential teachers’ unions, whose leaders have pushed to delay plans to reopen in some cities due to lack of federal funding, insufficient safety measures and a wave of concern from basic educators about going back to school.

But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, said New York’s plan to bring elementary school students back with strict safety protocols could be a national model.

“What we’ve learned is that unlike adults, elementary school students actually follow the rules, and have really been really good at wearing their masks and adhering to physical distance, and they’re really grateful for it. have school, ”she said. “The fact that young children follow the rules and need in-person instructional education is good news.”

When New York City announced its new plan to reopen, Ms. Weingarten offered him clear approval, and a statement of support from the United Federation of Teachers, the New York teachers’ union, quickly followed.

When asked why his administration was focusing on young children, Mr de Blasio said on Sunday: “I feel for all of our parents who are going through so many challenges right now, how important it is for them to have their children. young children in school, how important that is at that age, both educationally and socially. “

Some schools in New York City are reopening despite an increase in cases here. But other districts, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have pledged to reopen schools, starting with young children, only when – or if – cases of the virus stabilize.

Officials in Las Vegas and its surrounding suburbs hoped to resume in-person learning in November. Then came a sharp increase in cases that forced the district to postpone its plan until at least February.

But school principal Jesus Jara said he intended to bring back as many students as possible, in part because of the catastrophic toll of distance learning on children’s mental health: he There have already been 12 student suicides this school year in the district, Dr Jara says.

Young children will return to face-to-face lessons first when classrooms reopen.

“It has been our biggest concern that our babies have been at home uneducated face to face for so long,” said Dr Jara.

A few districts have prioritized younger children from the start.

In Massachusetts, the Cambridge Public School District has brought back preschoolers and preschoolers to kindergarten through first grade, as well as students of all grades who have disabilities or are learning English.

Some districts that opened earlier in the fall for all levels – and have seen the number of cases rise sharply – have chosen to move high schools, and in some cases colleges, to distance learning, but to keep elementary schools open.

On November 15, Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat, issued an emergency order banning indoor services in bars and restaurants, shutting down casinos and movie theaters, shutting down most organized sports, and forcing high schools and colleges to switch to distance learning.

But the state kept elementary and middle schools open, saying younger students needed to learn in person the most and that there had been fewer outbreaks associated with elementary and middle schools than high schools and colleges.

And in Johnson County, Kansas, a Kansas City suburb where cases are increasing, school districts have shifted middle and high school to distance learning while keeping in-person classes for elementary schools.

But in parts of the country, politicians and education officials resisted calls to close high schools even as the virus ravaged their communities throughout the fall. President Trump has continued to insist that schools remain open, even as principals across the country have said they need more federal stimulus funds to reopen safely.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, has been one of the strongest supporters of reopening the schools. On Monday, he said officials who sought to the nearby schools were akin to the “flat land of today”.

Reporting was provided by Jennifer Medina in Los Angeles, Neil MacFarquhar in New York, Melissa Eddy in Berlin and Raphael Minder in Barcelona.

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