Despite the fact that many school districts worked at being prepared during the pandemic, this fall has been a tough road for students, parents and educators. Most used some form of hybrid learning, but many have felt it's not safe enough to have children in the classroom. And for some students, virtual learning means that they are falling further behind. Amna Nawaz reports.
Despite the fact that many school districts worked at being prepared, this fall has been a tough road for students, parents and educators.
Most use some form of hybrid learning, but many have not yet felt it safe enough to have children back in the classroom. Some cities had children return, and then had to pull back to virtual again. And for some students, virtual learning means they are falling further behind.
Amna Nawaz reports on this dilemma.
For millions of students, the past nine months of school have looked something like this.
Bella, do you like remote learning?
This is 9-year-old Bella. And that's her mom, Michele Canty.
Let me think about it.
OK. Let me ask you this. Do you prefer learning at home, or would you rather be in school?
Bella, who is in the fourth grade, has been attending virtual school from her Newport News, Virginia, home.
When do you remember the day when they said, everybody, go home, this virus is too much.
It was March 13. I was at my office, and we got this message that schools were going to close. And…
And what did you think of that moment?
I panicked. I completely panicked.
Michele's been juggling working full time with overseeing Bella's school work. Months into the remote-learning experiment, she says she's worried.
I think that she is right on the cusp of kind of coming out of the younger — learning how to read, learning how to write and things to really understand, reading comprehension, looking for clues, learning more complicated math.
And I feel like those are really the things that she needs to be in a classroom for.
Even as the U.S. continues to break new COVID records, state and local officials remain under pressure to reopen schools. And earlier this month, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield endorsed that idea.
We now have substantial data that shows that schools, face-to-face learning can be conducted in K-12, and particularly in the elementary and middle schools, in a safe and responsible way.
The CDC released guidelines to help officials decide when to reopen, weighing the number of new cases per 100,000 people, or the percent of positive tests within 14 days.
The CDC also suggests schools employ masks, social distancing, disinfection, contact tracing, and hand hygiene. But politics has come into play, with red and blue areas adopting contrasting approaches.
In Tennessee's Shelby County, for example, schools can open as long as the coronavirus testing positivity rate stays below 25 percent. In Iowa, counties set that limit at 15 percent. And, in New York City, a 3 percent limit forced schools to readjust plans through the fall.
Further upstate, superintendent Roberto Padilla oversees a district of 12,000 students.
A significant frustration for us is that we're being asked to do more with less
In September, they began the school year fully remote. In October, they went to a hybrid model, two days remote, two days in school. In November, as cases began to rise, Padilla consulted with county health officials, and moved back to fully remote learning.
It's sometimes dealing with messages from the federal, state and local levels, that's been a real challenge for us. We're absolutely doing the best we can, but it changes frequently.
So, it's been the art of pivoting.
For some teachers, like Shana White in Atlanta Georgia, it's just not working.
I have 18 in the classroom and I have 14 on my Zoom. So, you come in my classroom and try to do that at the exact same time and teach a subject that's pretty complex, in computer science, successfully, and tell me how it turns out for you.
A third-generation educator, White is rethinking her path after the pandemic.
I have very strong intent to leave the educational field within the next year or two, because it's become too much.
And she's not alone. A September survey revealed one in three teachers said they're now more likely to leave teaching earlier than planned.
In rural districts, like Covington, Tennessee, limited resources to support remote learning mean schools have stayed open. And teachers like Kathryn Vaughn do their best to stay safe.
We had a mandate in place for a couple of months, for August and September, but, as of October 1, it went away.
Vaughn chooses to wear a mask, because she says it's impossible to keep kids distanced in her elementary classroom.
I see over 100 children a day. I clean tables in between every class. I have set up a fan in my window to blow in fresh air during the class. And then I turn it around for my five minutes in between classes to pull the air out of the classroom, as I disinfect the tables and wash my hands.
Teaching in a pandemic is a lot.
And while children can transmit COVID-19 in a classroom setting, less is known about the long-term health impacts for children who get the virus.
According to the COVID Monitor, which tracks COVID-19 cases, there have been 363,791 confirmed positives reported in K-12 schools. According to Education Week, four states, Florida, Arkansas, Iowa, and Texas, all with Republican governors, require that an in-person learning option is available to all students. Eleven states have ordered regional closures or have hybrid-only learning, while D.C. and Puerto Rico remain fully closed.
But the bulk of states have left decisions entirely to schools or districts. For parents, many of whom rely on schools reopening to return to work, concerns their kids are falling behind are growing.
Seven families are now suing the state of California, alleging it failed to provide basic educational quality to minority and low-income students.
Bridget Terry Long:
I'm very concerned about the long-term impacts.
Dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Education, Bridget Terry Long, has been watching the growing calls for schools to reopen.
What's your reaction to that?
The difficulty is, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It depends so much on the particular context of the school, not only what's happening with public health, but school buildings themselves and what they're able to do in terms of circulation.
You really have to take into account all of those different factors, the age of the child, learning difficulties in students with disabilities. But, given the high stakes of these decisions, not only for the students, but also for the teachers and the administrators, we have to balance these multiple factors.
Recent studies show students in remote learning are already falling behind.
According to NWEA, a research nonprofit, students scored an average of 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math compared to last year, with students in grades three four and five experiencing the largest drops.
In Virginia, one of the largest school districts in the nation, Fairfax County has seen failing grades nearly double. Meanwhile, for students like Bella, what they miss most are the other students.
Bella, you want to send a message to your friends? If you had to say something to them right now, what would you say?
Oh, don't cry.
Oh, babe, I'm so sorry.
It's OK. It's OK. It's all right. We're going to see them soon.
The question of how soon is one Michele can't answer just yet. So, until then, she says, it's staying home to stay safe and staying as optimistic as possible.
I would say, I miss you guys, I love you guys forever and ever and ever.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.
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Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Courtney Norris is a deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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