School & District Management

Making a School Reopening Decision and Taking the Heat

By Catherine Gewertz & Stephen Sawchuk — November 05, 2020 | Updated: November 09, 2020 13 min read
Students line up to have their temperature checked before entering PS 179 in the Brooklyn borough of New York in late September. New York City was one of the first big-city districts to return students for some in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
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District leaders are on the hot seat like never before. As coronavirus cases surge again in most states, they are faced with letting students come into classrooms, or requiring that they stay home to learn. It’s a no-win decision, and they’re making it with drastically imperfect information.

If superintendents and school boards stick with—or retreat to—remote-only instruction, they risk the wrath of parents who want their kids back in classrooms. If they push forward with face-to-face learning, they could be criticized for gambling with the health of students, staff, and their families.

Interviews with superintendents show that as they are wrestling with this unenviable choice, they are not only weighing their local health metrics, but managing the many internal mechanics that shape a safe return to school: The cost and procedures of new safety protocols, labor contracts that need to be renegotiated, and the staffing jigsaw puzzle that buckles if scores of teachers refuse to enter school buildings.

“There are so many pieces to these decisions,” said Kimberley Cantu, the superintendent of the Mansfield Independent School District, which serves 35,000 students near Dallas. “People get frustrated. Parents might not truly understand. They might know some of the parts we deal with, but not all the parts.”

Increasingly, the debate is also taking on an equity subtext, as superintendents struggle with opinions about reopening that frequently cleave along lines of wealth, politics, race, and privilege.

Take the Shelby County schools in Tennessee. About 73 percent of the Memphis-area district’s more than 100,000 students are Black; COVID-19 hit the city’s Black community hard. And with COVID rates outpacing the local health department’s recommendations for returning, Superintendent Joris Ray has bucked the regional trend: He’s refused so far to return to in-person learning.

“I just can’t take that gamble in a school district where some of my parents don’t have access to health insurance,” he said. “I can’t take it when the students here stay in multigenerational homes with a square footage of no more than 900 square feet.

“Sometimes parents look at this from a middle-class lens, and they negate some of the other risk factors that our children have.”

One of the Most Cautious Stances Toward Reopening Schools

The Montgomery County, Md., school district, one of the nation’s largest, with 163,000 students, is a case study of the complexity of school districts’ reopening decisions, and the difficulty of judging whether districts are being too cautious, taking too much risk, or playing it just right. Currently, it’s weighing a phased return to face-to-face instruction in January.

Nearly everywhere in the U.S., local districts choose which health metrics to base their safe return decisions on. Frequently, they follow their local health department’s data, and two of the most common indicators they watch are:

  • the number of new cases and
  • the percent of COVID-19 tests that are positive.

But some health departments use 7-day averages for those metrics, while others use 14-day averages. Each decides which levels of those indicators constitute low, medium or high risk for reopening. Federal and international standards vary, too: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses a 14-day average for new cases and test positivity in its school guidance, defining five zones of risk, from green to red. But the Harvard Global Health Initiative and Johns Hopkins University, two leading COVID-19 trackers, use 7-day averages.

In Montgomery County, the health department uses a 14-day average for test positivity, so that can be mapped onto the CDC’s scale. As of Nov. 3, it showed 3.1 percent of COVID-19 tests were positive, putting the county in the CDC’s “lower” risk zone. The World Health Organization, last spring, had advised governments to consider reopening only when their test positivity rates were 5 percent or lower for two weeks.

Montgomery County uses a 7-day average on its other key metric, new cases per 100,000 people, so that can’t be judged against the CDC’s scale. As of Nov. 3, the county reported 13.1 new cases per 100,000 people in the most recent week. Set onto the Harvard Global Health Initiative’s scale of risk, which uses that same metric, Montgomery County’s new-case rate is relatively high, a level 3 of 4.

The districts’ data points have created a Rorschach test for people on all sides of the school reopening debate: everyone interprets the data, and their attendant risks, differently. That’s meant parallel rivers of criticism and support for the district’s decision to stay in all-remote mode. A recent exchange in a local, private parents’ group on Facebook illustrates this division.

“It’s a deadly disease,” said one parent. “We’re in the middle of a crisis and people want to go back to normal when that isn’t possible.” Another parent returned fire: “The crisis is that kids can be safe in schools, but MCPS pretends that is not the case.”

Derek Turner, who leads the district’s reopening plans as chief of operations and innovation, defends its decision to stay remote, especially if the case count continues to rise. Schools might have to toggle back and forth between in-person and remote learning, which could be as disruptive to some families as working in all-remote mode feels to others.

The district is also concerned about equity. Within its 500-square-mile area, some ZIP codes have seven new cases per 100,000 people and some have 25, with lower case counts clustering in lower-poverty zones, he noted. But that doesn’t mean it’s feasible to reopen in-person in areas with the lowest risk.

“How would that be from an equity perspective if we said, ‘You, you’re in poverty, and you don’t get to have that in-person experience, but you, over here, you can have that’?” Turner said. “There are so many layers of complexity to this.”

How Much Risk for Coronavirus Transmission Do Schools Actually Pose?

For some, the questions about metrics obscure a key issue: Studies so far suggest that schools are not major focal points for COVID-19 transmission, and there’s an emerging consensus that children under age 10 are less likely to contract the virus—though those that do can still pass it on. Many argue that with the right health precautions, including mask-wearing, social distancing, and contact tracing protocols, they can reopen safely.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, encouraged schools to be bolder about reopening, even as they carefully track their local virus metrics. Too often, he said, fear is trumping science in school-reopening decisions.

“What we know right now is that schools don’t appear to be a place where there is a lot of spread happening,” Jha said in an interview with EdWeek.

But, in a vivid illustration of the division and emotion on the issue, Jha’s comments came in for both praise and attack on social media. ”Shame on you,” one poster said on EdWeek’s Facebook page. In a Twitter thread about the interview, one person ventured that schools “could be more aggressive” about reopening, while another said: “People who say these things are not in the classroom.”

Some districts still operating in all-remote mode, though, have transmission rates that are, by almost any available measure, extremely low. San Francisco is a case in point: Mayor London Breed has excoriated the city’s school district for not bringing students back to classrooms, when its health metrics put it in the state’s lowest-risk category.

But there are also districts with far higher case numbers potentially considering a return to in-person learning. In the big Clark County, Nev., district, which includes Las Vegas, the number of new cases recently surged past 200 new cases per 100,000 people and a positive-test rate of nearly 9 percent—far exceeding its adopted guidelines for returning to school.

Fermin Leguen, the acting chief health officer for the Southern Nevada Health District, who has been advising the Clark County district on reopening, acknowledged at its Oct. 22 meeting that metrics were unlikely to improve anytime soon, and said he would support a decision to bring some students back, citing the detrimental effects to student learning and socialization. Such a plan would depend on strict safety protocols and COVID-19 testing of employees, he said. (The district said it will consider transition plans at a Nov. 12 board meeting and declined to comment further.)

The U.S. Department of Education, meanwhile, has all but abdicated any role in providing actionable, comparable data to inform districts’ decisions. In mid-October, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos claimed she did not think the Education Department had a role to play in collecting and disseminating research or data on the pandemic.

Health Risks, Politics, Equity, and Staffing Drive School Reopening Decisions

As daunting as it is for districts to navigate conflicting metrics and risk levels, a host of other forces apply pressures to their decision-making.

Recent analyses suggest that local politics play a role. The Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research group, found that students’ chances of being in a school that reopened when health risk was high, or in a school that took a very cautious approach, were linked to the political party of their state’s governor.

Equity weighs heavily on district leaders’ minds. Surveys and news reports show that communities of color that have been hit more heavily with illness and deaths are less likely to support in-person learning. The American Enterprise Institute found in one study that COVID-19 case rates were weakly related to what reopening models district chose, with higher percentages of schools returned to in-person instruction in small, low-minority, low-poverty, and high-achieving districts.

More than a few superintendents are feeling pressure, one way or the other, from their states. Cantu’s district in Texas planned to stay all-virtual through Sept 28, but began offering in-person options Sept. 8 after the state’s education commissioner told superintendents that their funding would be at risk if they didn’t provide in-person options for parents, she told EdWeek. That trumped the advice of county health officials, who’d urged local districts to stay remote, since new case rates and hospitalizations were trending up earlier this fall, Cantu said.

Reopening also requires ensuring a full quotient of staff, and not all districts can make the ends meet. Teachers in the Mansfield district are taking more days off now to take care of family issues or their own health, and far fewer subs on her normal roster are willing to risk coming to work, said Cantu. Normally, she can fill 90 percent of absent teachers’ classrooms with substitutes. Now, she’s lucky if she can get half filled, Cantu said, leading some teachers to take on colleagues’ classes, doubling class size. At times, receptionists fill in.

There are also questions about logistics that might help schools get off a reopen-and-close-again roller coaster. In Los Angeles, the country’s second-biggest district, which is still largely in all-remote mode because of California’s health-metrics requirements, Superintendent Austin Beutner is leading a large-scale experiment in COVID-19 testing.

The district is still building the program, and it’s currently voluntary. As of Nov. 4, it had tested 103,000 parents, students, staff, and family members, and found a test-positivity rate of only 0.38 percent, far lower than the average of 3.7 percent in the sprawling county where it’s situated. As testing is scaled up, Beutner said, it can be a powerful way to monitor the virus in the schools and take the needed precautions when the data suggest they’re necessary.

“Getting back open is hard,” he said, “but keeping open is hard if you don’t have the testing capability.”

Labor union issues are a big part of the reopening equation, too. Disputes between districts and unions have delayed plans to reopen for in-person learning in Chicago, and more recently in the District of Columbia. Complications over a new staffing agreement in New York City have limited the number of students who can access in-person teaching.

Such issues are now top of mind in the Clark County school district, where negotiations between the district and teachers’ union over in-person learning procedures are ongoing.

The Clark County Education Association has put forward a safety plan for the return to in-person learning demanding a test-positivity rate in the county below 5 percent; mandatory testing of all who enter school buildings during the transition to hybrid learning; and clarity on which teachers must return to buildings and which can continue to teach remotely, among other things. And it’s been reviewing what other teachers’ unions in the eight largest U.S. districts have bargained into their latest contracts, said John Vellardita, the CCEA’s president.

In an informal survey, about 70 percent of the union’s building representatives said they’d be open to returning if those conditions are met, he said. But, Vellardita acknowledged, no matter how negotiations work out, some in-person learning is inevitable.

“I will tell you the pressure is mounting, and it’s not just from the business community; it’s also from parents,” he said. “So I think it’s imminent. I think there’s a marker for January, and it might happen even sooner.”

Threading the Needle

In this tangled mix of dynamics, sometimes school leaders have no option but to take a deep breath, weigh their options, choose the best, and take the heat from opponents.

Baltimore Superintendent Sonja Santelises is threading the needle between a state education commissioner who’s pressuring districts to reopen and a community that’s far more hesitant.

Santelises had hoped to open in August with full hybrid options for everyone, but decided the district just wasn’t ready to bring back that many kids safely.

Staff pushback, concerns about having enough teachers, insufficient contact tracing, and problems securing air filters in its older buildings all played into the decision. In an October survey, half her parents wanted to stay virtual, one-quarter wanted to return in person, and the rest wanted more information about safety protocols.

The district opted for a gradual approach, so it can master the protocols and gauge how everything is going as it brings more students into its buildings. So far, it’s opened a handful of schools for special-needs children, and about 975 students in supervised virtual-learning settings. In mid-November, it plans to open 44 of its 160 schools for the youngest and highest-need students.

Shelby County leaders are making plans to return to in-person learning in January, when they hope local health metrics will have improved. The district is asking all parents to indicate their preference for remote or hybrid learning so it can begin sketching out its scenarios. It has tentatively prioritized PreK-to-grade 5 students for in-person learning based on the health research, and because those students stand to benefit most from early literacy teaching and socialization.

No matter what eventually happens, though, Superintendent Ray knows someone in Memphis will be upset with his decisions.

“I get it from both sides. I have a local minister here who’s questioning why I’m even discussing in-person learning with the conditions of COVID-19, and I hear from parents who say, ‘We should have gone back two weeks ago,’” he said. “It is definitely warring factions about should we return, or should we remain.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Getting Schools Open: A No-Win Decision as Virus Cases Surge


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