The debate over reopening America’s K-12 schools, explained

Freedom Preparatory Academy, an elementary school in Provo, Utah, was closed on March 16. Many cities are now grappling with whether or not to open their schools in the fall. | George Frey/Getty Images

Solving the school problem is crucial for parents and kids. Here’s what experts say would help.

This spring, Kwesi Ablordeppey worked nights taking care of veterans at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in Massachusetts, where at least 76 patients have died of Covid-19.

During the day, though, he has been the resident IT consultant at his home in Springfield — his two teenage daughters often needing his help troubleshooting problems with their Zoom lessons. Like most students around the country, the 10th-graders shifted to online learning earlier this year when their school closed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

This left Ablordeppey, a single dad, with the dual burden of working and managing his kids’ education — something many American parents have struggled with in the pandemic. “It’s not something that I’m comfortable with,” he said, but “we have to adapt to the situation.”

Adapting to any situation is easier when there’s an end in sight. But pulling sleepless nights, trying to work with kids on your lap, and sometimes even moving across the country to be with family members who can provide child care are not permanent solutions. And as Covid-19 cases skyrocket across the American South and West, and many families enter their fifth month without reliable child care in sight, the question is growing louder and louder: What’s going to happen in the fall?

It’s a question with high stakes for all involved — children, parents, teachers, and staff — a total of tens of millions of people across the country. While some have called on the federal government for help, President Trump instead waded into the fray this week with his trademark all-caps bluster to insist that schools must open in the fall without any clear solutions. He also threatened to withdraw federal funding from schools that don’t open their buildings.

But Trump’s blanket statements belie the complexity of the problem. On the one hand, it is clear that the transition to online school has led to serious setbacks in learning in the spring, especially for students who are already at a disadvantage in the school system. For example, researchers found that after the shift online, student math progress declined by about half at schools in low-income zip codes, but not at all in schools in high-income areas, according to the New York Times.

 Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Trump hosted an event on July 7 with students, teachers, and administrators about how to safely reopen schools.

And while some parents, many of them higher-earning professionals, have been able to supervise their children’s online learning while working from home, many lower-paid service workers don’t have the option to work remotely. They could soon be forced to choose between caring for their kids and getting a paycheck — if they haven’t been already. “Closing public schools on a prolonged basis poses real difficulties for low-wage workers,” Michelle Holder, an economics professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Vox.

But at the same time, reopening schools runs the risk of exposing not just students but also teachers and staff to a highly dangerous virus. Parents, including Ablordeppey, are wary. His daughters’ district has not yet announced final plans for the fall, but his children’s safety from Covid-19 will come first in any decision he makes, especially given his experience caring for patients. “I’ve seen it with my naked eye,” he said. “When I’m looking at anything, I’m looking at that perspective.”

Many teachers are also worried about going back into the classroom without a clear plan to keep everyone safe. “Every teacher I know desperately wants to go back to work,” Sarah Mulhern Gross, a high school English teacher in New Jersey, told Vox. “We want to be with our students, just not with possible long-term effects or, God forbid, fatalities hanging over our heads.”

Despite a lack of federal direction, there are solutions: Experts have proposed a number of ways to help kids learn and parents work while mitigating the risks — from outdoor classrooms to a corps of workers who can care for children in small groups while they complete online lessons. But that will take the political will of federal and state leaders to actually confront the problem.

“The government has the capacity to do this stuff,” Lisa Levenstein, director of the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program at UNC Greensboro, told Vox. “We’re just choosing not to.”

Online-only learning is causing real problems for kids

As the coronavirus spread around the country in March and April, schools closed in all 50 states, and most stayed closed through the end of the academic year. The closures were meant to help slow transmission of the virus, which had already sickened parents, teachers, staff, and students nationwide, though it is unclear how many infections occurred in schools.

With school buildings closed, most districts switched to delivering instruction online, a process that posed its own challenges. Experts worried, for example, about how the 17 percent of children who lack a computer at home would complete remote schoolwork, and about how homeless students — who number more than 114,000 in New York City alone — would find a place to study. And many feared that the shift to online learning would exacerbate existing racial and economic inequalities in education.

Those concerns, it turns out, were warranted. One analysis of online-learning data from this spring found that the shift could put the average student seven months behind academically, while the average Latinx student lost nine months and the average Black student lost 10, according to the New York Times.

Students who are homeless or housing-insecure experienced especially great difficulties with remote learning, Raysa Rodriguez, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the Citizens’ Committee for Children, a co-convener of the Family Homelessness Coalition, told Vox. New York and other cities did provide iPads and other devices to students who didn’t have computers at home, but even then, space was an issue. “You’re dealing with two or three students literally, without exaggeration, in a small room, four walls,” Rodriguez said. “Remote learning looks very challenging, to say the least.”

For all these reasons, some experts are calling for a return to in-person instruction in the fall if at all possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, stated in June that it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” The group noted the risks not just to students’ learning but to their overall health if in-person school cannot resume.

“Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation,” the AAP statement read. “This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality.”

Indeed, teachers and other school staff are often the ones to spot the signs that a child is being abused at home, experts say. And when kids don’t go to school, those signs could be missed entirely. In North Texas, for example, reports of child abuse and neglect were down 43 percent after the pandemic began. It’s not an indicator there’s less abuse, “it’s an indicator of child abuse not being recognized by adults out there,” Lynn Davis, president of the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, told NBC.

School psychologists are worried, too, that students’ mental health could suffer with the shift to remote schooling, especially given the added stress of the pandemic. In one April survey by the Education Week Research Center, less than a quarter of school leaders said they were able to meet their students’ mental health needs to the same degree as they had before the coronavirus crisis.

While many parents remain concerned about the public health risks of returning to school amid a pandemic, without some solution to the already-evident problems of remote learning, a fall semester online could set students back further. And those who are already marginalized within the education system and society as a whole, including students of color and low-income students, are likely to suffer the most.

“If we don’t figure out how to do this right, in the long term, what we’re going to be grappling with is even greater inequities,” Rodriguez said, “even a wider gap between those who are doing well and those who are struggling every day.”

Parents are buckling under the demands of online school

Meanwhile, the shift to remote learning has placed enormous strain on parents, who have been expected to take over as part-time educators, assisting their children from home. Online learning often requires more support from adults than in-person learning, not less, as Jennifer Darling-Aduana, a soon-to-be assistant professor at Georgia State University who studies equity in digital learning, told Vox in the spring.

Young children may need constant attention from parents to keep them on task during online lessons and to help them complete assignments that could once have been done in class. And while older students may be able to complete more work on their own, they still may need help navigating new learning technology — as well as paying attention and actually getting work done when there’s no classroom to go to. For students with special needs, meanwhile, parents often must figure out how to replace the additional support, such as one-on-one aides, that schools ordinarily supply.

And a lot of that support has come from mothers, 80 percent of whom said they were shouldering the majority of homeschooling responsibilities in an April poll by Morning Consult for the New York Times.

Parents are already cutting their hours or dropping out of the labor force entirely due to child care problems — according to one survey conducted between May 10 and June 22, 13 percent of US parents had done so. And there’s evidence that mothers have been cutting back more, with 28 percent of mothers in the Morning Consult survey saying that they were working less than usual, compared with 19 percent of fathers. Meanwhile, one California mom, Drisana Rios, is suing her employer after she says she was fired because her kids made noise during work calls; experts say more cases like these are likely to follow.

These issues of work and income bring to light a function of the public school system that was often unacknowledged before the pandemic: For many families, school offers more than education — it’s “a place where parents can trust that their children will be safe,” Holder said. That’s crucial for working parents, especially those who can’t afford private child care like nannies or babysitters.

Those with the ability to work from home, especially in two-parent households, have sometimes been able to cobble together schedules that allow them to care for kids while working — often putting in hours of work late at night or early in the morning. But parents who work outside the home have been left with few options, especially if they’re raising kids on their own.

 Leila Navidi/Star Tribune via Getty Images
Andrea Royce (left) is homeschooling her three children together with Carlota Bernal (center) and her child during school closures due to Covid-19.

Such parents are disproportionately likely to be women of color. Over half of Black children live in single-parent homes, compared with about 20 percent of white children, Holder said. Meanwhile, single mothers are among the poorest demographic in the US, with more than a third living in poverty, she added. And Black and Latina women are overrepresented in many essential and front-line jobs that require in-person work. All of this means that the impact of school closures falls particularly hard on Black and Latina moms, who are less likely to have the work flexibility, disposable income, or help from a partner that can make pandemic child care possible, if not easy. “The problem really looks very bad for women of color who are mothers,” Holder said.

As months drag on with no child care solutions in sight for many families, “people are going to be faced with really impossible choices,” Levenstein said, like “do I leave my kids without supervision because I need to go to work and be able to buy them food?” or “do I decide I can’t go back to work?”

Ablordeppey, the Massachusetts nursing assistant, hears stories of such choices from fellow essential workers in his union, SEIU Local 888, where he is chapter president. “Some people are still at home, because they’re torn between their kids and their job,” he said.

“They ask you as an essential worker to report to work, no matter what, but they have to also know that you are a parent,” Ablordeppey said.

In-person education during a pandemic comes with real risks

And yet no matter how much students, family, and the economy may struggle under an online-only education model, there are clear public health risks to reopening schools. Coronavirus cases are rising across the country and surging disturbingly in several states, including Arizona, Texas, and Florida. And schools, at least as they’re traditionally structured, bring together hundreds of people every day, often for prolonged indoor contact with lots of talking — exactly the kind of activity that experts say is likely to spread the virus.

There is some evidence that K-12 schools may not be as dangerous for coronavirus spread as some other settings, such as restaurants and bars, because of the age of the students. While children can become severely ill from the coronavirus, they are more likely than adults to have mild cases, and some data suggests they may be less likely to become infected or transmit the virus. For example, child care centers that have remained open to care for children of essential workers have reported relatively few cases of the virus, as Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist who helped write the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, noted in an interview with the New York Times.

However, O’Leary and others acknowledge that if schools reopen, there will likely be Covid-19 cases there. And teachers and staff, who as adults are more likely to become seriously ill than students, have voiced concerns.

Gross, who teaches 9th- and 12th-grade English in New Jersey, created a shared document listing educators’ questions after the state announced that schools would have to offer at least some form of in-person learning in the fall. So far, more than 600 people have submitted questions, she told Vox, ranging from whether a teacher would lose sick days for self-quarantining after a Covid-19 exposure to who would pay any ongoing medical bills if a teacher did contract the disease at school.

In general, teachers “all know we work in an occupation where we’re constantly exposed to illness,” Gross said, “but for the most part that’s predictable and we know what the flu is like.” Covid-19 is something new, and the uncertainty of going back into a classroom during a pandemic gives a lot of teachers pause.

“I think a lot of teachers are leaning toward distance learning as the safest option for now,” Gross said.

Union leaders have also voiced concerns about district reopening plans, with Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, calling Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent proposal for the state’s schools insufficient because it doesn’t place a limit on class size or require 6 feet of distance between desks. “We did not rush in opening the state economy,” Najimy said in an interview with WCVB TV Channel 5 on Sunday. “We cannot rush into opening schools just because the calendar says we have to return to school by August or September.”

Meanwhile, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, blasted Trump’s threats to schools that don’t reopen in a Thursday interview with Today. “If too many of our members believe Donald Trump’s hyperbole instead of somebody like Andrew Cuomo’s caution about their health and safety, we’re going to have a whole lot of people retire early, quit, take a leave,” she said.

It’s not just teachers who face exposure if students come back to school buildings. As economist Emily Oster points out at Slate, it’s also staff like janitorial and cafeteria workers — groups of workers who have already faced disproportionate risks in health care settings, as they sometimes lack access to PPE.

Some have argued that working in education should be considered essential work during the pandemic, alongside jobs in health care and grocery stores. “I am an essential worker,” said Holder, who teaches college students, “and along with that come certain responsibilities and expectations.”

But essential workers in other sectors of the economy haven’t always been given the protections they’ve asked for, and many — including grocery store workers, nurses, and transit workers — have fallen ill and died. And due to looming state and local budget cuts, as well as crumbling school infrastructure, teachers are worried they won’t be protected either. “So many teachers purchase a lot of their own supplies” as it is, Gross said. “To think about going into a building with kids and staff providing a lot of their own PPE is scary.” (Some districts have already said they will provide masks for students and staff, though the price tag will be high.)

Meanwhile, many school buildings are old, with aging HVAC systems that may not meet the ventilation standards experts increasingly believe are necessary to mitigate the risk of Covid-19. “I think if teachers are essential,” Gross said, “we would agree if our schools receive the funding that actually mirrors that.”

There are solutions that would help — if policymakers listen

In an effort to balance parents’ desire for in-person instruction — and pressure from elected officials, including Trump — with the risks of crowded classrooms, many districts are proposing hybrid models of instruction. Under these models, class sizes would be smaller, allowing for some physical distancing. But students would only be physically present in school some of the time; the rest of the time, they would be learning remotely.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, announced a hybrid model on Wednesday under which students would be physically in school two or three days a week. The Miami-Dade County Public School District announced on Monday that parents could choose between online-only and in-person instruction for the fall, but warned that schools might only be able to offer in-person classes part time, depending on enrollment.

While these models would allow students to get some of the benefits of classroom instruction, some of the inequities of online learning, including digital access issues, would likely remain unless specifically addressed. It’s also not clear whether many districts will offer options for child care for parents who need to work during the hours when their children are doing instruction at home. De Blasio said on Wednesday that help for parents was “something we’re going to be building as we go along.”

Beyond hybrid models, experts have proposed broader solutions to help parents and students, some complex and some simple. For many, getting kids back to school starts with controlling the virus, and actually prioritizing education in reopening plans. As epidemiologist Helen Jenkins wrote in a series of viral tweets, the key question is not how to safely reopen schools amid high viral transmission, but how to keep community transmission low enough that schools are safe. That might mean keeping other venues, like bars or restaurants, closed in order to maintain a low level of the virus in the community, as Vox’s German Lopez has reported.

“Activity in some other sectors of the economy will need to be reduced to preserve the education, feeding, socialization, and safety of our children — and the ability of parents to do their work,” Jenkins and fellow epidemiologist William Hanage wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “Schools should be prioritized.”

Beyond keeping the virus under control, some have called for changes within schools. Outdoor classes, for example, would likely reduce transmission risk in places where weather permits. For teachers who do go back to the classroom, hazard pay would at least help compensate them for the risk they face.

“The case can be made quite easily that there are some jobs where the risk of exposure is much greater, and thus like any other risky job, such as coal mining, you take risk into account in terms of the compensation,” Holder said. “If an essential or front-line worker gets sick, they need resources to rely on if they do have to withdraw from the labor force.”

And while hybrid models could keep students and teachers safer by reducing class size, parents will need solutions for the hours when their kids are home. One possibility, for some, is paid leave. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, parents are already entitled to up to 12 weeks of leave at partial pay if a child’s school or day care center is closed due to the virus.

However, as with other paid leave provisions in recent legislation, many employers, including those with over 500 employees, are exempt from the requirement, Pronita Gupta, director of the job quality program at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), told Vox. And employees have to negotiate leave with their employers, which could make it difficult for them to get the time they’re entitled to, especially if hybrid schooling in the fall necessitates a complex child care schedule.

The paid leave requirement expires on December 31, but CLASP advocates for it to be extended, as well as expanded to cover workers not currently included, Gupta said. Still, paid leave under the CARES Act “is definitely not a long-term solution for the issues around child care,” she said. “We see this as very, very much a temporary relief situation.”

Others have proposed larger-scale solutions that would help parents work even if kids don’t go back to school full time. For example, Elena Tuerk, a child psychologist at the University of Virginia, has proposed a corps of child care providers, potentially paid for by states or the federal government, who could supervise children when their parents are at work.

Such an effort could be administered through the existing AmeriCorps program, and families could apply based on their work schedules and financial needs and be matched with trained caregivers in their communities, Tuerk told Vox. Ideally, those caregivers “would see this as an opportunity to serve, which it really is,” she said.

But such a program — and indeed, all broad-based solutions to the problem of education in a pandemic — would require government investment and administration. And so far, there’s been little political will to tackle the problems that families are facing this fall. Instead, Trump, for his part, appears to be merely antagonizing school leaders, making threats about pulling funding that he may not even legally be able to fulfill.

“I think we’re sort of taking for granted that parents are going to make do the way they might have in the spring,” Tuerk said, “but the amount of disruption that is causing to people’s work lives, and in particular to women’s work lives, is not okay long term.” In addition to the economic impact, there’s also evidence that parents’ mental health is suffering — in one survey conducted between late April and early May, 46 percent of people with children under 18 said their stress level is high most days, compared with 28 percent of people without young kids. Meanwhile, 71 percent of parents said managing distance learning was a major source of stress.

Ablordeppey is intimately familiar with the anxiety of trying to raise kids during a pandemic. “You come home, you can’t even sleep,” he said, “then you have to go back to work.”

As the pandemic continues, parents like him who work outside the home need financial support to help them afford child care. “You can hire somebody to come and watch your kids,” he said, but then, “the little money that you’re making at work, you have to pay the babysitter.”

But so far, Ablordeppey has seen little leadership from politicians to address the needs of families like his. He also believes, whether online or not, schools should provide counseling to help students deal with the mental health impact of the pandemic. Instead, he said, “it’s like everybody’s on their own.”

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