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Governors, State Lawmakers: Schools Should Reopen for In-Person Learning

By Evie Blad — February 11, 2021 10 min read
Students at Louisa County High School in Mineral, Va., sit behind plexiglass dividers to promote social distancing.
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After months of leaving the decision of whether to return schools to in-person learning in district leaders’ hands, many governors and state legislatures are taking a more direct approach.

Efforts in states such as Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin to set firm requirements for in-person classes come as some parents say their school systems have repeatedly shifted the goal posts throughout the school year, changing the criteria and timelines in their reopening plans.

And, as the country nears a full year since most states issued broad closure orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some parents and policymakers fear children may not have an opportunity for any face-to-face learning this academic year if their states don’t take action soon.

“When you set a goal, your conversation becomes about how to achieve the goal,” said Virginia state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, a Republican. “If you never set a goal, your conversation is aimless.”

Dunnavant, a physician, championed a one-sentence bill passed by the Virginia Senate Feb. 2 that would direct schools to open for in-person learning. If enacted, that bill, like other new state laws, would not take effect until July 1, but Dunnavant says she would push for an emergency clause so it would take effect immediately.

Concerns persist even as new research emerges

Lawmakers in other states —including California, North Carolina, and Tennessee— have filed similar bills that would allow governors to order school openings or set new mandates for in-person learning. Republican lawmakers on the Wisconsin legislature’s joint finance committee voted Feb. 10 to direct more federal relief aid to districts with in-person options.

Their efforts come after research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month suggested schools could safely reopen and limit the risk of virus transmission in their buildings with extensive protocols, like social distancing, the use of masks, and keeping students in classroom cohorts to limit interaction with their peers.

There is no definitive tally of how many students attend school in person. Currently, at least five states require some form of in-person instruction, and the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents many of the nation’s largest districts, says 43 of its districts are open for some form of in-person instruction.

Districts that remain in remote learning say some of the precautions necessary to reopen are difficult or impossible in aging buildings with dated ventilation systems. They’ve struggled to negotiate details with employees, such as how to accommodate teachers with medically vulnerable people in their households. They’ve also expressed concerns about emerging, more contagious variants of COVID-19. And, in some areas, teachers have pushed for staff to be fully vaccinated before working in school buildings.

After Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, called for full-time in-person instruction in her January State of the State Address, Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said she was telling schools “to return our state to a normal that is not yet possible.”

Iowa schools were previously required to offer students in-person learning at least 50 percent of the time. Reynolds signed a new law Jan. 29 that requires districts to provide five days of on-site classes to families that want them. Other states mandating that schools offer in-person classes for at least some grades are Arkansas, Florida, Texas, and West Virginia, according to an Education Week tracker.

President Joe Biden has been sympathetic to educators’ concerns. He’s called for $130 billion in additional relief money for K-12 schools to help with issues like sanitation and summer learning. At the same time, he’s set a goal of getting a majority of K-8 schools open in the first 100 days of his term, although White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki faced pushback this week when she said schools could meet that requirement by offering in-person instruction just one day a week.

Though some have questioned whether Biden’s goal is ambitious enough, it may have provided some political cover for governors, including Democrats, to push the issue, said Rebecca Jacobsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University.

“I actually think this is something people call ‘borrowing strength,’” she said. “Governors think they have cover. They can say ‘I didn’t say it. They did.’”

Governors may also recognize the effects of “pandemic fatigue” a year in, and they may be concerned about harm to their states’ economies if they don’t provide some normalcy for families, said Patrick McGuinn, a professor of education and political science at Drew University.

“The interconnection and entanglement of education and the economy is really a lot of what’s driving it,” McGuinn said. “There’s a push to reopen schools because there’s a push to reopen the economy and the two of them are linked. You can’t do one of them without the other.”

Governors use their bully pulpits

Short of mandates, some state leaders have sought to use their bully pulpits to turn up the pressure. Governors in Maryland and Virginia have told districts to reopen by early or mid-March, for example.

Even as Virginia lawmakers considered Dunnavant’s school reopening bill, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called on superintendents and school boards there to open schools to make in-person learning available by March 15 “to prevent irreparable learning loss and psychological damage.”

About 500,000 Virginia students attend schools that have only offered remote options, he said in a Feb. 5 letter that cited recent research released by the CDC and January guidance from the state’s education department.

“Many Virginia students are approaching a full year without in-person access to their school communities,” wrote Northam, a pediatric neurologist. “This is having a real and significant impact on their educational and social development— but after a year of experience, we are now equipped as a society to safely open schools and operate them in ways that protect students, teachers, and staff members.”

He encouraged schools to prioritize students “who need in-person learning the most,” including students with disabilities, students from preschool through 3rd grade, and English-language learners. But he said districts should extend the option for all students and should consider extended summer school options, remediation, and even year-round schooling.

Some of Virginia’s largest districts, which have largely offered remote learning this school year, have since announced plans for gradual reopenings. But those announcements come after months of false starts, some parents said.

Yael Levin-Sheldon, an Henrico County mother who supports Dunnavant’s bill, said she fears Northam’s push is too vague to spur effective action.

Levin-Sheldon has paused her work as a freelance data analyst this year so that she can supervise a “learning pod” of her two children, who are in 6th and 8th grades, and six of their peers in her home. The children complain that a day in front of a screen is exhausting and that their peers don’t turn on their cameras during class, removing a tiny chance for interaction.

“My boys used to love school,” she said. “They are both gifted and always had straight As. They are struggling and they hate school now.”

Levin-Sheldon, who has a math degree, sometimes helps students understand geometry concepts that may be difficult to grasp. She worries about the students who don’t have as much support at home.

She’s used her professional skills to analyze public data on issues like increases in youth suicide rates, using her findings in her efforts to advocate for reopening schools. And she and her children have spoken before their local school board multiple times.

“I can get my kids through this year, but my biggest concern is all the kids who are home alone during this, all the kids who are not only doing virtual school alone but are also helping their younger siblings, kids in abusive situations, kids with food insecurity,” Levin-Sheldon said. “There are some kids for whom school truly is the only safe place.”

States struggle to find a balance

The situation has tested every layer of school governance, which is affected by local, state, and federal laws. And state leaders have wrestled with a carrot vs. stick dilemma. Many have sought to create conditions for safer reopenings by releasing new guidance and prioritizing teachers for early vaccine doses.

But an increasing number have sought to impose more direct mandates. When states take such actions, it can present an array of health, employment, and logistical challenges for districts.

In Iowa, the Des Moines district has sparred with the state over how to operate its schools since the start of the school year, even unsuccessfully suing to operate in remote learning. Among its concerns: Iowa’s health metrics that would allow schools to close based on the level of infection in their communities were much looser than those in other states, part of an inconsistent patchwork of state policies around the country.

Schools in Des Moines eventually opened shortly after Labor Day under a hybrid model, in which students learn in classrooms and remotely on alternating days. That model, which allows for more spacing of desks and students, isn’t possible under the new law, which requires five days of in-person instruction and prohibits even short-term closures unless the governor issues a new emergency order.

“This limits what we can do to mitigate COVID in schools,” district spokesperson Phillip Roeder said. “Some things, most notably social distancing, will be a thing of the past.”

Some have also criticized Reynolds for signing onto the new school mandates while she also lifted other policies, like mandates and limits on businesses, designed to reduce the risk of community spread.

About 65 percent of Des Moines students plan to return to full in-person learning when the district offers it, starting Feb. 15. The option is more popular among students in younger grades, Roeder said. Having that many students in the building full-time means twice as many desks in classrooms, he said.

The district feels like it is “preparing for the first day of school while school is going on” as it readies for the transition. Principals have placed additional directional signs on walls and floors in an attempt to limit crowding.

And the district partnered with a local health provider to give the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to 1,000 employees, prioritizing bus drivers and cafeteria workers who work in close quarters.

Whose call is it?

In some states, leaders at various levels of government have faced off over who bears the responsibility —and the blame—for school reopening decisions.

School leaders say efforts to return to classrooms must be accompanied by community wide efforts to get virus rates down through actions like prohibiting indoor dining and limiting the capacity of stores and businesses.

In California, the city of San Francisco has sued its district to push for in-person learning. And some Los Angeles leaders have pushed for a similar action.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner responded with a Feb. 5 open letter, calling the potential lawsuit “a grandstanding political stunt.”

“We are ready to reopen and want nothing more than to welcome children back to classrooms safely, but we cannot break state law to do so,” Beutner wrote. “What we cannot control is the community spread of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles area, which has not for one single day since the beginning of the crisis met the state standards for school reopening. ... That should be of grave concern to all of us because each of these new cases is a human being. And the continued high rates of the virus are having a disproportionate impact on the low-income families of color served by our schools.”

The school district was not the one that decided to reopen “indoor malls before infection rates were low enough to unlock the schoolyard gates.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said in a Feb. 9 press briefing that he is nearing a deal with state lawmakers “get our youngest children back into schools in small cohorts.”

Negotiations, still in progress this week, center on issues like additional funding and statewide standards for the use of protective equipment, social distancing, and testing in schools.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has promised to release similar federal guidance this week at Biden’s direction.

“Not to open is not a plan,” Newsom said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Governors, State Lawmakers Pressuring Schools to Reopen Their Doors for In-Person Learning

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