- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Schools across the country are using a patchwork of distance learning and in-person instruction as COVID-19 cases climb, reflecting differences in exposure risk, infection rates, management strategies and public pressure from coast to coast.

New York City schools this week reopened for the second time during the pandemic, but schools in Los Angeles are shutting down all in-person tutoring and special services.

In Texas, about half of all public school students are receiving in-person instruction, while all of Florida’s 67 county school districts are open for in-person classes.

“We see this movement from one instructional mode to another as school divisions react to changing metrics,” said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. “Everyone wants the students back in the classrooms, back in the school buildings. That’s something we all want: to have this pandemic in the rearview mirror and in-person instruction again the norm from one end of the state to the other.

“These can be difficult decisions for school boards,” Mr. Pyle said. “You have different viewpoints within the community, within the jurisdiction. Parents who certainly are feeling a lot of stress, who want their children back in school, but you also have voices in the community that are urging school boards to be very cautious about returning to in-person instruction. So you have viewpoints that they have to weigh and they have to look at the data. So it is a lot to navigate.”

Los Angeles County, whose 650,000 students make up the nation’s second-largest school district, will shut down all face-to-face instruction Thursday because of a surge in COVID-19 cases. The campus closures will affect 4,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and outdoor conditioning for athletes, schools Superintendent Austin Beutner said Monday.

“Because of the dangerously high level of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles area, it is no longer safe and appropriate to have any students on campus. We will also be asking those who are currently working at schools to work from home if at all possible for the rest of the semester,” Mr. Beutner said in a community update.

While Los Angeles schools were preparing to shut down, those in the neighboring Torrance and Las Virgenes districts were welcoming back many students Monday.

On the East Coast, New York City students have returned to the classrooms for a second time in just weeks after schools shut down in-person learning because of climbing COVID-19 cases.

The nation’s largest public school system, with 1.1 million students, on Monday brought back preschool students and children in kindergarten through fifth grade whose parents opted for a hybrid of remote and in-person learning. Last month, the school system shuttered its doors over concerns that the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests surpassed the 3% threshold.

Schools will reopen Thursday for District 75 students, whose disabilities require instructional support, the New York City Department of Education said.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said the district can reopen safely and tweeted that he is proud to welcome back 190,000 students. He previously said that the “unparalleled value” of in-person learning has been evident over the past few months as school systems report lags in learning and increases in absences and failing grades.

The reopening plans exclude schools in state-designated “orange zones” or “red zones” denoting exposure risk. Students in sixth through 12th grade, except for those in District 75 schools, will learn remotely “until further notice.”

Any student in first grade or higher returning to school buildings is required to submit a consent form to be tested for COVID-19 in school by their first day back. The reopened schools will test staff and students randomly on a weekly basis.

More than 1,800 students and 2,320 staff in New York City’s public school system as of Tuesday have been infected with the coronavirus since the school year began in mid-September, according to city statistics.

The rate of positive tests now exceeds 5%, but Mayor Bill de Blasio has said it’s safe to reopen schools by ramping up testing because few infections have been linked to schools, The Associated Press reported.

In Texas public schools, it appears that about half of its students are receiving in-person instruction. Of the 5 million students enrolled, an estimated 2,873,692 are on campus, of whom 40,985 have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to state health data. Of the 800,078 school staff, 24,567 have been infected with the coronavirus.

According to the Texas Education Agency, school districts have a four-week back-to-school transition period to provide remote instruction for health and safety reasons. After four weeks, a school district can extend the transition by another four weeks if its school board approves and receives a waiver. The Texas Education Agency must review any request for an extension beyond eight weeks.

School districts can close a campus for five days for disinfecting and cleaning if a COVID-19 case is confirmed.

Thirty-six school districts last month asked the Texas Education Agency to close all or some of their campuses for longer than five days because of a rise in COVID-19 cases, KXAN-TV reported. The Texas Education Agency oversees about 1,247 public school districts and other types of learning institutions.

‘We all want kids back in school’

In Florida, all 67 county school districts have been open for in-person instruction. Nearly 65% of the state’s nearly 3 million students, or 1.85 million, are receiving in-person instruction, and about 1.2 million are learning remotely, according to an emergency order issued late last month by Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

“Parents are thankful that Florida is offering a wide range of educational options so they can choose the best environment for their child. The vast majority of our school districts … report that 95 to 100% of teachers have returned to work,” department spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said.

The order expands on a mandate issued in July and directs all school districts to continue opening bricks-and-mortar schools at least five days per week for all students per health department guidance. Parents have the option of virtual learning but must opt in or else their child will have to return to the classroom for in-person instruction. The order also requires educational interventions for students who might be falling behind.

The Florida Education Association, which has more than 145,000 members, reported Friday that 8,578 pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. Twelve schools have fully closed since the state started to reopen on Aug. 10, and 901 classroom closings and quarantines have been confirmed, the labor union said.

The state has a pediatric positive testing rate of 12%, according to the Florida Education Association, and a statewide rate just under 8%. Both rates are above the 5% threshold that health authorities recommend to return children to school.

The association in July filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, saying the order issued by Mr. Corcoran to keep schools open violated the state’s constitution. A circuit court granted a temporary injunction against the order in August only to have an appeals court reverse the lower court’s temporary injunction.

“The emergency order mandated, under threat of lost funding, a return to in-person learning in August without regard for the health and wellbeing of the people in our schools,” the labor union said.

Mr. DeSantis has said parents should decide what is best for their children, making the case for every school district to offer both in-person and virtual learning options.

In the Midwest, about 1.2 million of Illinois’ 1.9 million pre-K-12 students are learning remotely, and 584,776 are receiving a blend of in-person and distance instruction. About 170,203 students are solely learning in-person, data from the Illinois State Board of Education shows.

Chicago Public Schools plans to begin opening its buildings after winter break for families who choose to return. Preschool students have the option to return Jan. 11, and kindergarten through eighth-grade students can come back Feb. 1. High school students will continue to learn at home as the school district weighs options to return those students to the classrooms next year.

Other school districts across the state have halted in-person student instruction and switched to remote learning because of climbing COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, according to media reports.

The Illinois Department of Health has confirmed 13 school outbreaks and listed 825 schools with potential COVID-19 exposures.

One of the state’s largest teachers unions last month called on Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, and school officials to shut down school buildings because of soaring COVID-19 cases across the state.

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said the union also is asking school officials to establish and enforce clear metrics for school districts to guide them for any future closures, the Chicago Tribune reported.

In Virginia, some of the commonwealth’s largest school districts are either fully or partially virtual, accounting for about 80% of its 1.2 million students, said Mr. Pyle, the state education department spokesman.

“During recent weeks, as cases have spiked, we have seen divisions suspending in-person instruction and switching to all virtual for the entire division or for one or more schools. School divisions are making these decisions in consultation with local health departments,” he said.

Only 10 of 132 school divisions in the state are offering in-person instruction more than four days a week. A quarter of the school districts are offering fully remote classes for most of its students, a state snapshot from the education department shows.

This week, Virginia Beach and Mecklenburg County schools have switched to fully virtual instruction after allowing some in-person learning and services. Chesterfield County returned to all-remote learning late last month, and the Bristol County school board voted Monday night to continue in-person instruction with mitigations in place.

Mr. Pyle summed up the situation: “I think everyone, at the local and state level, we all want kids back in school. That’s where they are going to thrive. We know that this is going to have an impact.

“Some students are doing well learning virtually, but we also know this is not a very good model for many other students, particularly our most vulnerable students: students with disabilities, early learners who are learning English,” he said. “There will be learning losses that will have to be addressed.”

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