January forces some schools to expand remote learning, others to reopen classrooms

School Districts across the country are changing their plans with the new year, with some deciding to extend distance learning and others moving to reopen classrooms.

Precarious schedules expected to remain fluid as districts weigh up coronavirus cases in much of the country against concerns about student learning loss and when teachers can be vaccinated.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District said last week that in-person K-12 instruction likely won’t resume until February as coronavirus test positivity rates remain too high. And Chicago, which has been doing remote learning since last spring, is continuing with earlier plans to reopen schools this month for some students despite teachers’ refusals.

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Many states have prioritized vaccinating teachers to speed the return to in-person learning.

“It’s a mixed picture across the country,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a group representing about 75 of the nation’s largest urban school districts. “People set dates as a target to help them with their planning goals.”

Some school leaders are expressing more optimism about reopening with vaccine distribution on the horizon and billions in federal aid to K-12 public schools on the way, Casserly said.

Millions of children returned to school – virtually and in person – this month after a winter break in which coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths hit record highs. Strategies for in-person or remote learning have varied significantly over the past year, with different metrics guiding districts and standards set by governors and other leaders.

Some have recently changed their models, shortening quarantine periods and altering positivity rate thresholds that determine when schools close. The rise in cases has prompted some districts to shut down in-person learning ahead of winter vacation, extending virtual learning for weeks to prevent further spread from holiday gatherings or travel.

Schools in the city of Birmingham, Alabama have postponed a return to their mixed in-person and virtual model after coronavirus positivity rates soared after Thanksgiving. More parents have opted out of in-person learning for the safety of their children and families, Superintendent Mark Sullivan said, and more school staff have become sick.

“I would rather have some confidence in the quality of our virtual program than impose a program just so kids can be in school,” Dr. Sullivan said. “Bringing kids to school just to get them to school was not an option for us.

Growing research has shown that schools are generally not major places for transmission of the coronavirus, depending on strategies to control the spread such as wearing masks, social distancing and respecting them. Increased community transmission has often been one of many factors considered in reopening plans. But there is no scientific consensus on these specific numbers, and children can still contract and spread the virus.

Recently changed guidelines from the governors of California, Oregon and Washington could lead to more reopenings.

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Educators in some states have said they hope rolling out the vaccine, and in particular prioritizing teachers and school staff, could salvage part of the school year. The Connecticut Education Association and the American Federation of Connecticut Teachers said Friday that the vaccination will speed up plans for in-person teaching. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said educators could start scheduling vaccine appointments on Monday.

“I really hope that by the end of the school year, even if it’s just for a few weeks or a month or whatever, we can bring the students back if it’s safe to do so” , said Jon Valant, a senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Des Moines Public Schools sought permission to offer remote learning only to most students through Monday to prevent the spread of the virus from the holidays, as the county’s positivity rate was just below 15%, the state threshold for virtual education. But the Iowa Department of Education denied it, leaving the district to offer both in-person and remote learning.

About 59% of students returned this month for in-person instruction a few days a week, a district spokesperson said.

“My role is to determine how best to meet the needs of the 33,000 students in our district,” said Teree Caldwell-Johnson, a school board member who expressed concern about learning loss. “They are my #1 priority and my #1 responder, so I’ve always erred on the side of meeting students’ needs.”

In Cincinnati, parents are awaiting a Jan. 16 decision from the school board to return to an in-person co-educational model, based on the latest coronavirus data.

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The two sons of Cincinnati Public Schools parent Marsha Thornton — normally busy with extracurricular activities such as basketball or Brain Bowl — have spent most of the past year learning virtually. His eighth-grader hasn’t returned to a classroom at all, while his sixth-grader briefly spent two days a week at school under the district’s in-person learning model earlier this school year.

“It’s just not ideal,” said Ms Thornton, who has worked from home throughout the pandemic. “But, I will say, we’re working on it because catching the coronavirus, spreading the coronavirus, isn’t ideal either.”

Chicago Public Schools’ plan to open its doors to pre-kindergarten and some special education students starting Monday drew outcry from the teachers’ union, which argued conditions were too unsafe and that more mitigation measures were needed.

Educators at the Brentano Math and Science Academy in Chicago taught their online classes outside in freezing temperatures last week to raise awareness of their concerns. “We can’t be the great teachers that we are in these dangerous conditions,” said Anne Kellogg, a specialist preschool educator.