The omicron variant is roiling schools across the country, causing widespread teacher shortages, spikes in student absenteeism, and a dearth of school bus drivers.
Superintendents from Vancouver, Wash., to Portland, Maine, have sought to shift at least partly to remote learning to keep instruction going. But some districts are having a much easier time making the pivot than others.
When it comes to the question of who gets to call the shots on a switch back to remote instruction, states have wildly different answers, an Education Week analysis found. Education Week contacted every state education office to determine how states are handling district decisions about transitioning to remote learning. Forty-six states responded.
In at least five states, virtual learning days are highly restricted, due to state regulations. Districts have limited flexibility to transition to full-time remote instruction in at least 10 other states. More than half of states let districts decide on their own.
There’s going to be a lot of politics at play no matter who makes the call, said Gigi Gronvall, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Public health measures are inherently political,” she said.
And in most cases, there’s no easy way to make the calculation of whether it makes sense to go remote. “It’s not a formula,” Gronvall said.
There are strong arguments, though, for keeping kids in school, she said. For one thing, most students learn better in person than they do virtually. Schools can remain open safely, if they require students to wear high-quality masks, put in place air-filtration devices, and improve ventilation. And, testing students regularly for COVID-19 and encouraging staff and students to get vaccinated also help make school buildings safer places.
“The science supports the possibility of a safe” school day, said Gronvall, who also serves on a public health advisory committee for Baltimore City Public Schools.
But sometimes, the reality on the ground makes in-person instruction untenable, she acknowledged. “Of course, you need staff.”
There's no right choice. And there's no winning choice.
District and local leaders often have the clearest picture of how the virus is impacting their community, said Denise Chrysler, the director of the mid-states regional center of the Network for Public Health Law, a nonprofit organization.
They’re best positioned to answer questions like, “What is the infection rate in our community? What is the risk of transmissibility?” said Chrysler, who served on the Lansing, Mich., school board more than a decade ago. “Do we have the capability to provide good remote learning? Do we have people who comply with mask requirements? The list goes on and on and on.”
But state officials—including governors—may be in a better place to make and explain decisions to the public, Chrysler said.
“There is a plus in uniformity across the state, because it’s a real messaging challenge to explain risk” or significant variation in approaches from one district to the next, she said.
What’s more, sometimes states can provide cover for district officials to make a difficult and controversial decision, absorbing at least part of the blowback from unhappy parents or teachers, Chrysler said.
Following is a look at the different approaches states are taking regarding remote learning:
Highly restrictive approach: The goal is ‘to keep kids in school’
At least five states—including Connecticut, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah—have firm policies to keep districts from pausing in-person instruction.
For instance, in Texas, districts that decide to go virtual forfeit state dollars for each day students are learning at home, with only narrow exceptions. And Iowa passed a law requiring its districts to offer in-person instruction at all times.
In Connecticut, remote learning days don’t count toward a district’s required 180 days of instruction, so if a district opts to move classes online, students and teachers will have to make up the day at the end of the year.
The goal is “to keep kids in school,” said Charlene Russell-Tucker, the state’s commissioner of education, in a press conference this month. “We’re looking really for more time and not less time for their instructional needs.”
But some districts find themselves chafing under the lack of flexibility.
“I wish we were able to have local control to make local decisions,” said Joe DiBacco, the superintendent of the Ansonia school district, not far from Hartford. The district, he said, made major investments in technology during the pandemic: hotspots for students’ homes and laptops for learning. But Ansonia isn’t able to make the most of it, because virtual learning is generally a no-go.
To make matters even more difficult, earlier this month about half of the district’s 19 bus drivers tested positive for the virus and couldn’t come to work, DiBacco said. Plus, another quarter of school staff across the district were out.
Since he wasn’t able to shift to virtual learning, DiBacco closed school for four days. Ansonia will have to make up that time, either by tacking days on at the end of the school year or cutting from spring break or teacher professional development days.
Many Connecticut teachers have expressed significant frustration with the state’s lack of flexibility. Teachers across the state wore black on Jan. 12 to put pressure on state leaders to provide more masks, expand access to COVID-19 testing, and allow local district leaders to move to remote learning if they think it’s necessary without having to make up the time later in the year.
Limited flexibility: Schools must work ‘immediately and aggressively’ to bring students back
At least ten states allow districts to move to virtual learning, but only if certain conditions are met. For instance, in Kansas, districts can shift to remote learning for 40 hours of instruction, or roughly a week of school. After that, districts must get permission from the state board of education to continue. In Illinois, districts can go to virtual instruction, but first, they must consult their local public health department.
In California, districts generally lose state funding if they go remote. But there’s an exception for individual schools with staffing shortages that work in consultation with the state and county education departments.
These limited restrictions might seem like a happy medium that allows both state and district leaders to take responsibility for what can be a no-win decision. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Maryland’s Prince George’s County school district decided to pivot to remote learning from late December until the middle of January, including a previously scheduled winter break, in part because of major staffing shortages.
The state allows districts to temporarily revert to virtual learning “when absolutely necessary,” said Lora Rakowski, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Department of Education. Local school systems that need to go remote must work “immediately and aggressively to bring students back.”
Monica Goldson, the Prince George’s County district’s superintendent, spoke directly to Mohammed Choudhury, the state schools chief, before announcing the move, said Meghan Gebreselassie, a spokeswoman for the district. Still, the district got pushback from the state’s governor, Larry Hogan, who called the decision “a huge mistake.”
“Shutting down an entire school system of kids that have already struggled with distance learning for nearly a year, it’s just outrageous and wrong,” Hogan said in an interview with Fox News last month.
Goldson declined to comment on the governor’s remarks.
Total district control: ‘Superintendents can be as innovative as they need to be’
More than half of states leave it entirely up to districts to decide whether to stick with in-person learning or switch to virtual instruction.
Districts are exercising that flexibility. The Minneapolis School District plans to move back to remote learning for two weeks, after about 400 teachers stayed home this week. In Ohio, Dayton Public Schools went virtual for at least two days this month because employees were out sick. And Oklahoma City Schools are also moving classes back online because of lack of staff.
“This is a manpower issue, and we are simply out of options,” the Oklahoma City district’s superintendent, Sean McDaniel, wrote in a letter to parents.
No district leader relishes sending out a letter like that, said Eileen King, the executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association. Superintendents want students to learn in person as much as possible, she said, but sometimes there are just no workable alternatives.
In Maine, some superintendents are currently working in classrooms, covering for absent teachers, doing contact tracing, and helping administer COVID-19 tests, King said. When possible, district leaders triage, using whatever bus drivers are available for elementary schools, while letting high-schoolers, who generally do better with online learning than younger kids, learn remotely.
“Every day, superintendents are having to sit down and say, ‘Do I have enough bus drivers?’” King said. “Or they might say, ‘I’ve got 48 percent of my middle school staff out today. We’re going to keep our high school and elementary open, but we’re going remote for middle school.’”
Having the flexibility to make those decisions at the district level has been a “blessing,” King said. “All these decisions are made locally, and superintendents can be as innovative as they need to be.”
No matter who makes the call about remote learning, policymakers and district leaders must be able to explain it to the community, Chrysler said. That can be tough, especially since the situation with the virus is so fluid.
“It’s hard to get people to understand that the reason you’re changing decisions is because you either learned more, or your circumstances have changed,” she said. “You need to be able to document [reasoning] for whatever decision you make in real time.”
And, whoever is making the ultimate call, there’s bound to be backlash, Chrysler added. “There’s no right choice. And there’s no winning choice.”
Stacey Decker, Deputy Managing Editor for Digital; Holly Peele, Library Director; and The Associated Press, Wire Service contributed to this article.