New York became last Thursday the first big city of United States in reopen the public schools, a milestone celebrated as a decisive step towards normalcy in what was ground zero of the pandemic in coronavirus in the country. “This is a key moment in our rebirth,” proclaimed Mayor Bill de Blasio triumphantly. But the joy did not last long.
Just four days later the state governor, Andrew Cuomo, ordered to close more of 300 schools in nine districts of Queens Y Brooklyn. And it did not do so because outbreaks had been detected in the classrooms, but because of the significant increase in the incidence of covid-19 in the surrounding communities. All of them with abundant population of ultra-orthodox Jews, reluctant to put on the mask and comply with social distance.
Each region of the USA is a world, but the New York example illustrates the difficulties that the resumption of the face-to-face classes in most of the country after the abrupt closure of schools in March. In seven states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, they remain closed or partially closed, according to data compiled by Education Week. Which does not mean that in the rest something similar to normality has been recovered.
The new course began in August with virtual education as the norm and, since then, face-to-face classes have been expanding, although without much uniformity and following different models. Such a puzzle in which there seem to be no perfect solutions, which has led to a very bitter debate that has quickly become politicized.
If it were for Donald Trump, the schools would be full of children from August. The president has been championing his reopening, to the point that it has threatened to withdraw funding from school districts that refuse to follow its instructions.
“When he says they have to open, he means completely,” his spokesman said in July to add: “Science shouldn’t get in the way.” But Trump it does not have a federal mandate to impose its criteria. This authority rests with the states, which in many cases have made their reopening times dependent on the evolution of the pandemic, leaving the final decision in the hands of the municipalities and electoral districts.
One step forward, one step back
Other states ordered the resumption of face-to-face classes in full increase of infections. It did not go well. Georgia, Tennessee or Indiana had to close shortly after the start of the course, putting thousands of students in quarantine due to the outbreaks that broke out in some schools.
Photographs of a Georgia institute with their students crowded in the corridors without the slightest safety distance, they came to symbolize the initial lack of foresight. The trend has not changed: it is a step forward, one back. In Connecticut, where half of its school population has returned to face-to-face classes, 12 schools have backtracked, as has happened in six New Jersey school districts, according to The Cut.
In many reopened centers, the decision to return to the classroom is left to discretion of the parents. This has happened in New York, the largest school district with more than one million students, where almost half have preferred to continue with virtual lessons.
“I will not send my daughters to school until it is safe again, but I understand that there are parents who cannot take care of their children because they work outside the home or have special needs,” says Caroline Pierson, mother of three girls in Washington, where the mayor has just announced that she will reopen some nurseries and primary schools on October 9.
It will be a luck of experiment. There will only be teachers in one class per course maximum. And priority will be given to homeless children, immigrant students with English as a second language, and special education students. The rest can go to school if their parents wish, but they will have to continue with virtual education and no teachers let them be watched.
As it initially happened in New York, his labor union considers that classrooms are not yet ready to teach safely and has also demanded that students be paid teachers a plus danger and there is at least one full-time nurse in the schools.
Among the teachers, very poorly paid throughout the country, there is no unanimity on the way forward. “We should have reopened from day one to perhaps later move to a hybrid model,” says Sara Arranz, program coordinator at the Houston School de Washington. “In my school there are many students with problems at home and virtual education is not working. We are failing the children,” she adds.
New York has opted for one of those hybrid models. Your students will only have face-to-face classes between one and three days a week to ensure that classrooms do not exceed more than a third of their capacity and safe distances are maintained. The remaining days will be studied from home. In addition, the temperature of the students will be taken upon arrival. The windows will remain open and the mask will be obligatory. And periodically thousands of tests will be carried out on students and teachers to prevent coronavirus outbreaks.
The results so far throughout the country are not entirely promising. Currently 10% of all those infected by coronavirus in the US are minors, when in April they were only 2%, according to a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Some infections that began to increase in September, as children returned to school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But more than schools being the source of contagion, experts believe that among older students are the parties and the bares and, among the little ones, sports, extracurricular activities waves stay with friends, which have been resuming as pandemic fatigue gripped parents.
Although health authorities state that children are at less risk of developing serious complications from the virus, and only 2% have had to be hospitalized, 51 minors of school age have died in the US from Covid-19.