Stumbling Back to Class
Bloomberg Businessweek|February 15 - 22, 2021
Biden wants to reopen schools fast. Teacher pushback and new virus strains mean progress will be bumpy
Rachel M. Cohen, with Christopher Palmeri

Joe Biden pledged in early December to reopen most U.S. school buildings within his first 100 days as president: “It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school,” he said. Soon after, however, he narrowed that goal to a majority of elementary and middle—rather than all K-12—schools. And on Jan. 28, Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, warned that meeting even the lower target “may not happen.”

In fact, it may have happened already. There’s no comprehensive list of nationwide school reopenings. But according to a tracker by Burbio, a company that specializes in aggregating school calendars, more than half of the 53 million K-12 students in the U.S. had access to some in-person learning during the first week of February, and the number of students attending virtual-only schools trended down throughout January.

A reopened school isn’t necessarily one where all students learn in person five days a week; millions of kids so far have a hybrid schedule with a mix of online and in-person learning. The arrangement is often necessary to keep class sizes small enough to meet social distancing requirements and prevent the coronavirus’s spread. Other students could opt to stay virtual full time if their families have the choice.

Although the White House can work with industry to ramp up vaccine production and mobilize federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help distribute it, school decisions ultimately rest at the state and local level.

Political leaders want more schools reopened not just to aid the economic recovery but also to provide much-needed relief to students and families. Douglas Harris, director of the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice at Tulane University, warns of learning loss, mental illness, child abuse, and malnutrition resulting from keeping schools closed.

“Aside from their parents, there’s nothing children depend on more than their schools,” Harris says. Where it’s safe to do so, he adds, “it’s important to give students the option of in-person instruction as soon as possible.”

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