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State, Local Leaders Spar Over School Reopening Decisions

By Evie Blad — August 12, 2020 6 min read
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As schools in some parts of the country have started the academic year, tension is boiling over in several places as state and local leaders spar over who decides when to reopen school buildings—or when to keep them closed.

School superintendents, grappling with the economic and public health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, have been caught between sometimes conflicting guidance and directives from federal and state leaders, and from local health officials.

And in recent weeks, some have faced new directives from their governors and state education departments that have come well after they’ve unveiled plans for how and when to start the school year.

The backdrop: President Donald Trump continues to push schools to reopen their buildings full-time, despite big upticks of the virus in some states. Congressional leaders are still far from a deal on additional education aid district leaders say is necessary for reopening during an unprecedented school year. And while some families are pushing for schools to open to aid vulnerable students and help parents return to work, others want schools to continue with remote learning to reduce the risk of community spread of the virus.

Here’s what the situation looks like in a few states.

In Florida, silencing local health officials

The Trump administration has held up Florida as an example, praising a state order that requires schools to open buildings five days a week, despite spiking virus rates in the state. That order, issued by the state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, allows districts to continue remote learning at the advice of local health officials.

But Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration directed county health officials not to grant that permission, the Palm Beach Post reports. Without clear direction and concerned about losing state funding, many districts opted to open their buildings. That’s despite data that show that, in many areas, more than 5 percent of COVID-19 tests come back positive. CDC Director Robert Redfield has said areas that surpass that threshold are considered “hot spots” and should delay or modify reopening plans.

“When we voted to reopen schools, I’ll be honest and tell you I did it because we are under an executive order to do so,” said Marc Dodd, a school board member in Lake County, according to the Post. “Do I think they’re safe? Absolutely not.”

In Iowa, setting a high bar for remote instruction

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has said schools will violate state law if they plan to start the school year with remote instruction, KCCI reports.

On July 17, Reynolds ordered every student to spend at least half of their schooling inside classrooms unless their parents request remote instruction full-time. Under that ruling, a district can seek permission to offer full-time remote learning if the COVID-19 positivity rate—a measure of how many tests come back positive—averages 15 percent to 20 percent countywide over the previous 14 days. That’s much higher than the 5 percent threshold suggested by public health officials.

“I acted through the proclamation to provide additional flexibility under the law, including allowing parents to choose remote learning for their children, if that’s what they believe is in the best interest for them and their family,” Reynolds said at a news conference after two districts said they planned to disregard the guidance. “But if schools move to primarily remote learning without approval, according again to the law, those days do not count towards instructional time.”

However, the state’s Waukee County Community District plans to offer online and in-person options.

“We are not in conflict with the law,” Superintendent Brad Buck said last week. (Buck is the former director of the Iowa education department.)

In Kentucky, sparring over a delayed start

Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said Monday that schools should postpone in-person classes until Sept. 28, the Courier-Journal reported. He had previously recommended postponing until the third week of August.

The new recommendation sparked significant pushback from local leaders and some school districts. School officials in Oldham County voted to abide by the recommendation Tuesday after 1,700 parents, community members, and the president of the district’s school board signed a petition urging the district to stick with its original, earlier opening date. Instead, the district will start the year in remote instruction.

Elsewhere, a former state education board member seemed to challenge local officials to defy the governor’s recommendation.

Schools in states like Georgia have seen spikes in new cases after the return to in-person school, Beshear said when he announced the delay. And some Kentuckians have vacationed in areas with higher rates like Florida. On Wednesday, the governor tweeted about a Georgia school that temporarily closed after students tested positive for the virus.

In Arkansas, taking hybrid plans off the table

Education Secretary Johnny Key issued guidance Aug. 5 that requires districts to offer in-person instruction five days a week when classes resume later this month.

That guidance seems to rule out so-called hybrid models, in which alternating cohorts of students switch between in-person and remote learning days to reduce crowding in buildings. Some of the state’s largest districts had already announced hybrid learning plans before Key issued that guidance. And some parents were disappointed they no longer had the option.

At a news conference, Key said the guidance clarified “what our stance has been all along.”

After that directive, Fayetteville Public Schools altered a hybrid plan it had announced July 15, offering families fully remote or fully in-person options instead.

The Arkansas Education Association has proposed a virtual start to the school year, citing high test-positive rates.

Making the hot seat even hotter?

As Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk reports, the pandemic turned superintendents’ jobs into a high wire act, even before conflicts with state leaders entered the picture.

“The superintendent’s job is a tough one on a good day,” Sawchuk wrote, summarizing a new report from the American Enterprise Institute. “But... the pandemic has required them to make some impossible choices balancing school health, quality teaching, and constituencies like parents and teachers whose priorities frequently conflict.”

State leaders also face conflicting pressures as they oversee large-scale plans to contain the virus that include schools, health providers, and other groups.

But state leaders and superintendents have a few things in common: Most aren’t epidemiologists, and none of them have every faced circumstances like this before.

What’s happening in your state? Check out Education Week’s interactive map of school reopening plans.

Photo: Custodian Doug Blackmer wipes down a desk in a classroom at the Jesse Franklin Taylor Education Center in Des Moines, Iowa, July 29. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)