Country’s Biggest School Districts Resist Going Remote as Closures Spread Nationwide | Education News

Linda D. Garrow

Pressure is mounting on New York City Mayor Eric Adams to bless remote learning options for teachers and students as schools operate understaffed, thousands of students stage walk-outs and complain of unsafe conditions, and attendance plummets – even as coronavirus infections are now decreasing across the city.

Roughly a quarter of students in the country’s largest school district have stayed home since classrooms reopened two weeks ago – nearly 250,000 students – triggering calls from the leaders of the city’s teachers union for city officials to approve a pivot to virtual learning.

Adams said he is open to the idea but that it would be targeted for students who are absent due to infections and exposures and would take at least six months to develop a robust enough plan. The mayor has been emphatic that schools will remain open to students – no matter what – citing the academic, social and emotional toll remote learning had on children.

“Please hear me New Yorkers: Our schools are going to remain open,” Adams said Tuesday morning.

“We have not announced a remote learning option,” he said. “To turn around and do a remote learning option is not an easy thing to do.”

Los Angeles Unified School District, where students and staff were permitted to return last week with proof of a negative test, is experiencing similar staffing and attendance issues as 13% of school staff and 16% of students tested positive for the virus. According to the district, more than 33% of students, or about 130,000 students, were absent.

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But Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is similarly resisting a return to remote learning, arguing that the district will be “nimble” in how it reacts to the omicron surge and that research continues to show that schools are one of the safest places for students.

“I’m one who believes in science, and we recognize that probably COVID-19 is here to stay,” Carvalho said over the weekend.

As the country’s two latest school districts resist remote options, thousands of schools announced closures or temporary virtual instructions. The school tracking site Burbio identified 6,273 schools reported such disruptions by Friday, or roughly 6% of all public schools in the U.S. – an all-time high for the 2021-22 school year. The figures are up from the previous week when 5,513 schools recorded such disruptions.

The acceleration of disruptions occurred across the country – beyond the Northeast and Midwest regions that had seen the bulk of issues over the previous three weeks – and included several closures in Utah, New Mexico, Texas and Oregon.

Meanwhile, some states are tightening safety policies while others are relaxing them: In Massachusetts, school officials announced Tuesday that beginning this week, schools will be able to receive at-home rapid antigen tests for weekly use by all students and staff. And in Virginia, newly minted Gov. Glenn Youngkin repealed a school mask requirement over the holiday weekend, arguing that parents are free to send their children to school with masks but that they should not be mandated to do so.

A new poll published by Axios shows that a majority of Americans support remote learning during COVID-19 surges. The support is split along party lines, with just 37% of Republicans backing the strategy compared to 70% of Democrats. Low-income families were also more likely to support returning to virtual learning.

The Biden administration is trying to help school leaders keep their doors open at all costs – a signal Democrats understand just how potent a campaign message closed schools will be for the GOP in the upcoming midterm elections. Last week, the president announced the White House would make available 10 million new tests each month for K-12 schools.

The new strategy also included a directive to Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to consider how to prioritize school communities among the federal surge testing sites they operate, including the possibility of locating the testing units on school grounds or establishing specific testing hours for students and staff.

The announcement is just the latest in a long line of efforts by the president and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep students learning in person, full time, including asking states and school districts to direct their federal coronavirus aid to bolster staff shortages, adopt test-to-stay policies that allow exposed students and staff to remain in school and shorten periods of isolation and quarantine from 10 to five days.

“I’m committed to the work it will take to help states and districts get the resources they need to keep educators & students safe,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on social media over the holiday weekend.

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