This week, New York City Public Schools, the largest school district in the country, will follow through on an audacious public policy bet: nearly 500,000 students will return to in-person schooling. The city has come far from its days as the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in April, and local experts and politicians herald its accomplishments in reducing spread of the coronavirus and keeping the burden on emergency care workers low. The debate over the future of the public school system grew to encompass nearly all of New York’s local news bandwidth in August and early September, as Mayor Bill de Blasio repeatedly pushed back the targeted reopening date. It was really a month earlier, though, in early to mid July, that Americans had to debate amongst themselves whether or not to reopen schools in a quickly approaching fall term.
According to a series of articles by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the most significant challenges for urban districts have to do with existing overcrowding of school facilities, which makes sparse seating arrangements and empty hallways impossible. A student-taken image of a Georgia high school made the rounds online in early August, showing shoulder-to-shoulder congestion and few mask wearers. Several students were diagnosed with COVID-19 just days later, and the district was forced into temporary remote instruction. Other logistical challenges include poor ventilation of old school buildings--a last-minute test of the 1957 ventilation system in a Worcester County, Mass., high school failed on all counts, sparking upheaval among parents. An analysis by the Government Accountability Office found that 41% of districts urgently need ventilation replacements in at least half of their buildings. New York City is no exception—many of its schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan are housed in renovated buildings nearly half as old as the country itself.
Finally, in many states, suburban school districts with wealthy, white populations neighbor poorer urban ones—products of decades of white flight. In Connecticut, for instance, Bridgeport School District is made up of 87 percent students of color, while in Salisbury, 83 percent are white. And because Connecticut is one of many states where a majority of funding to districts comes from local property tax revenues, Salisbury spends about $7,000 more per year per pupil than Bridgeport. Put in COVID reopening terms, lower spending per pupil means less money for new spaces and extra payroll expenses that might make class sizes smaller.
With all this in mind, it might be easy to conclude that few schools, if any, should have reopened this fall. But experts have repeatedly claimed that in-person schooling is critically important to early childhood development. Young children require attention from adults to complete assignments; students with special needs often require uninterrupted assistance; all children depend on frequent interaction with a growing body of peers to develop socially. The remote alternative also requires a stable broadband internet connection, whose rates of deployment are significantly lower among communities of color. Thirty million students also depend on school for up to two meals per day, as well as recreation and access to mental and physical healthcare.
Remote learning is also simply not as high quality, even when delivered seamlessly. Middle class and wealthy families can afford to hire private tutors for small, in-person meetings that have been dubbed “learning pods.” But poorer families often don’t have this luxury, and recent studies have described how significantly such disparities in financial muscle can exacerbate an already-troubling achievement gap between white students and students of color. This article wouldn’t be complete without mention of the heroic efforts that many public school educators, administrators, and support staff are making to make the most of remote learning—an article in the New Yorker from Northwestern’s own Professor Peter Slevin tells the story of such efforts in Chicago’s schools last month.
With that said, public K-12 schools aren’t the only kind to face daunting reopening challenges. Northwestern University has attempted to find a middle ground in its reopening plan. The Evanston campus is open to approximately half the undergraduate population, and frequent testing and strict social distancing guidelines are in effect. The university has reported 116 cases as of midnight on October 4th, a respectable figure in comparison to other national institutions. Schools like the University of Georgia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have invited students back to their campuses, including to dormitories, but limited in-person course meetings. This strategy does not seem to have worked. UGA has diagnosed over 3,500 cases since reopening, the most in the country, and UW-Madison has diagnosed nearly 2,800, while forcing thousands of dormitory residents to quarantine in their rooms for weeks. At universities across the country, concerns remain around the behaviors of undergraduates living off campuses in private housing, as universities find it significantly harder to punish their infringement of local COVID guidelines.
The University of California system, the largest public college system in the country, decided relatively early in the summer that it would opt for a fully remote fall semester. Many private institutions have struggled to make such decisions, because they depend more heavily on revenue from students, who no longer pay for housing or collectively demand tuition reductions. From the administrator perspective: students and families itch for a return (or introduction) to their campuses, refuse to pay full price for remote alternatives, and often disregard protocols upon receiving a grudging invitation back. From the student perspective: another term delivered remotely means an extension of challenging social isolation and lower quality instruction, whose cost only ever seems to go up.
No single party is left with an easy set of decisions, on either the K12 level or the collegiate one. We want to hear your thoughts on the subject when we discuss school reopenings on this Monday night at 7pm CST. We hope you’ll join us.
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