Tuesday, 27 Jul 2021

Trump and Biden Finally Talk Schools

School reopening hasn’t been an issue in the presidential campaign — until last night.

By Amelia Nierenberg and Adam Pasick

This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

The debate over when and how to reopen schools has been a burning question for parents since the pandemic began. But you wouldn’t know it from the presidential campaign — much to the frustration of families and educators whose daily lives have been disrupted.

“Remote schooling in particular has upended so many parents’ lives for months on end, not to mention the effect it’s having on kids,” said our colleague Abby Goodnough, who wrote about the issue this week. “If nothing else, I think families would like to hear the candidates acknowledge the strain they are under.”

Schools did get some airtime in Thursday night’s debate — but only briefly.

“They need a lot of money to open,” Joe Biden said. “They need to deal with ventilation systems, smaller classes, more teachers, more pods. And [Trump has] refused to support that money, at least until now.” Biden touted his “five-step road map” for reopening schools, and called for “clear, consistent, effective” national guidelines, but did not offer specifics, saying those decisions should be made at the state and local level.

That approach reflects a tactical dilemma: Biden’s supporters are split over whether schools should reopen at all. Some of his strongest support comes from teachers’ unions, which generally have opposed efforts to reopen schools. Other Biden backers, particularly some white college-educated parents, are pushing for schools to open with precautions where community spread is under control.

“In my district, everybody has their Biden yard signs but it’s about a 50-50 split as to who wants their kids back in school,” said Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University who studies education politics. “It’s a tricky calculus for him.”

President Trump, for his part in the debate, downplayed the risk that teachers and students would contract the coronavirus. He repeated his calls for schools to open, without offering details about additional funding or support from the federal government. “The transmittal rate to the teachers is very small,” he said. “I want to open the schools. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”

The short exchange “didn’t illuminate much about where the candidates stand,” wrote Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week. “Yet it was the most substantive discussion of K-12 education of any of the presidential debates and town halls with Biden and Trump.”

Elementary schools look safe

A few months into the semester, a pattern is emerging: K-12 schools do not seem to be stoking community transmission of the coronavirus. Elementary schools in particular seem to seed remarkably few infections.

“A couple of months ago, we really couldn’t be sure that elementary schools could reopen safely, even though the data was hinting at that,” our colleague Apoorva Mandavilli said. “Now, we have real-world data that seems to suggest that’s really the case.”

Middle and high school students might be more contagious. And overall, evidence is far from conclusive, and much of the research has been tarnished by flaws in data collection and analysis. Still, a growing pile of research suggests schools may be able to contain the virus if prevalence in the community is low and administrators take proper precautions.

Research suggests that children rarely spread the virus to adults, as long as basic safety measures are in place. One study published in the journal Pediatrics surveyed more than 57,000 child care providers across the nation and found that they were no more likely to become infected with the virus than other adults in the community.

“It’s clear that kids are not superspreaders,” Apoorva said. “Even if they are contributing to community spread, which maybe they are, a little bit, it’s not going to be more than what’s coming from restaurants or gyms or any other adult activities.”

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Young children can become infected with the virus, but they have a remarkably low risk of severe symptoms. Weighed against the substantial harms to children and parents from keeping schools closed, the data so far suggests that elementary schools, at least, should offer in-person learning.

“This is a message to communities: If they prioritize schools, they can have their kids go back,” she said.

Why Boston rolled back

Boston is one of the largest districts in the country to pause its reopening plans as cases rise in the area.

The city reversed plans to bring kindergartners and pre-K students back to classrooms in mid-October after the seven-day average positivity rate increased to 5.7 percent. A phased reopening had already begun on Oct. 1, when about 3,000 high-needs students began in-person classes at least two days a week. Those students include some with disabilities, as well as those who have experienced homelessness and those who are still learning English.

“I’m going to learn less. But what option do I have?” José Maldonado, 18, told The Boston Globe. Maldonado, who attends Boston International Newcomers Academy, came to Boston a year ago from Honduras and is still learning English.

Experts said that closing schools might have been the right decision, but questioned why the city was not closing anything else.

“Why would you ever have restaurants open for indoor dining while you’re closing schools? It’s wrong on so many levels,” said Benjamin P. Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University.

Around the country

College update

The University of Texas at El Paso is fighting to retain and recruit Latino students, many of whom are struggling with food and housing insecurity in the pandemic.

At Boston University, 12 students were suspended for the fall semester after violating the college’s rules on social gatherings. The dismissal comes after 11 students at Northeastern University, also in Boston, were dismissed for similar violations.

The College of Wooster, in Ohio, has moved to remote learning following clusters across campus.

A good read: At the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, college parties triggered an outbreak in September, which then led to more than a dozen deaths in nursing homes. “The spike offers a vivid illustration of the perils of pushing a herd-immunity strategy, as infections among younger people can fuel broader community outbreaks that ultimately kill some of the most vulnerable residents,” The Washington Post reported.

K-12 update

In Missouri, some school districts are declaring teachers essential workers. That means they don’t have to quarantine, even after they’ve been exposed.

In Texas, some teachers with medical risks have been told they must return to classrooms, part of a statewide push to reopen schools.

In New Jersey, one of the largest school districts switched four schools back to remote learning after a spike in cases.

A good read: In Las Vegas, casinos reopened in June, but more than 300,000 public school students are still learning remotely. High Country News took a piercing look at the toll of remote learning on working families.

Answers: What about day care?

Our friends over at Parenting spoke with an epidemiologist, a pediatrician, an economist and two child care experts to get some answers on how best to make decisions about child care for the youngest kids.

Sign up here to get the briefing by email.

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