Why Aren’t More Public Schools Opening?

The push for schools to reopen seems to have reached critical mass. Conservative pundits have been banging this drum for months, but they’ve recently been joined by the likes of Jonathan Chait, Matt Bai, and even the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards. President Biden has repeatedly pledged that “the majority” of schools should reopen during his first 100 days. Mike Bloomberg, former New York City mayor and Democratic presidential hopeful, insisted last week that “There’s no reason not to have schools open.” Truth is, Donald Trump’s departure seems to have sucked much of the partisanship out of the reopening debate. 

Meanwhile, tales of boiling parent frustration are legion. For months, communities have been dotted with signs urging local officials to “Reopen Our Schools.” Lately, the pleas are getting more aggressive. One recent viral video features a Virginia father railing that sanitation workers face more risk than anyone in the local schools and thundering to the Loudoun County board of education, “You’re a bunch of cowards hiding behind our children as an excuse to keep our schools closed.” 

Indeed, the science is now pretty clear that the risks of reopening are modest. Two weeks ago, three CDC officials explained in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the US … there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” Dr. Anthony Fauci has noted, “The spread among children and from children is not really very big at all.” Biden’s new CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, has said that “school settings do not result in rapid spread of COVID-19 when mitigation measures are followed” and even added that “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools.” And, of course, many private schools have been open since fall with little evidence of adverse impacts on public health. Meanwhile, the devastating social, emotional, academic, and economic costs of closure have become increasingly clear.

Yet, despite the diatribes and data, more than half of public school students remain fully remote. Worse, the Center on Reinventing Public Education reports, based on its school district tracker, that last fall’s gradual progress toward in-person learning has dissipated—with almost three-quarters of urban school districts once again shuttered. And, as the Associated Press reported Monday, plenty of local school boards and district officials are suggesting that schools may need to stay remote into fall or beyond.

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