Debate on Opening Schools in America Stirs Political Dispute

Summer break ends after a season of long-distance classes that has deepened inequalities, as the debate becomes an electoral battle.

Montgomery County, Maryland, is one of the 13,506 school districts in America that are divided. Following months of debates, consulting parents, teachers and medical professionals, the educational authorities have decided that public schools will remain closed and all classes will continue to be online. On the other hand, private schools are preparing for reopening. Weeks later, the county authority said they would not be able to reopen. The state’s governor corrected her and said they could open.

These unclear instructions and tensions are occurring throughout the country. “Schools must open in the fall!” tweeted President Donald Trump, desperate for any sign that indicates a return to normality in a country economically and socially devastated by the pandemic. Meanwhile, Congress has stalled amid negotiations for a second economic stimulus package and has not approved resources that representatives from both parties consider necessary to safely resume in-person classes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pushed for reopening, while being accused of having succumbed to pressure coming from the White House. Anthony Fauci, a prestigious epidemiologist from the COVID-19 task force, defends the best option as being the opening of classrooms. The U.N. secretary general argues that closing schools may cause a “generational catastrophe.” Most parents say that they want their kids to return to classes, but not in the previous manner. The beginning of a new school year in the U.S., the country most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, drowns in a quagmire typical of a sporting championship.

Summer break is ending without anything close to a national consensus on how to handle the beginning of the school year amid the pandemic, and anxiety is growing among families. The balance between the risks associated with COVID-19 and the academic, economic and social impact of keeping schools closed is the most recent major issue polarizing America. Furthermore, with the presidential election in November, the issue has been rapidly contaminated with political biases.

They knew how to close classes, but nobody seems to know how to reopen them. The school year has already begun in some parts of the country; in many other districts, there has not yet been a decision on how to resume classes. Cherokee County, Georgia, reopened schools last week and has detected 13 cases of COVID-19 among students, which led to over 300 children and teenagers being put under quarantine. “Our parents wanted an option for their kids, and we gave them one. It isn’t perfect, we know that, but perfection is not possible in a pandemic,” summarized the school’s authority on Friday during a community message.*

At the moment, of the 20 largest elementary, middle and high school districts, 17 plan on reopening remotely, according to Education Week, an independent news website about education. But the city of New York, which is by far the largest district in the country with over 1 million students, announced last week that it is planning a hybrid system.

Long distance learning opens a clear social gap. Families with more resources are seeking out private tutors for their kids or are transferring them to private schools. The poorest families worry about how their kids will be able to keep up with online classes, who will stay with them at home and how they will be fed without school lunch. “Further, the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities,” acknowledged the CDC in a report late July.

Another gap is opening between rural and urban districts: 55% of the latter, compared to 4% of the former, plan on beginning classes entirely virtually. There are also politically motivated contrasts: schools in Republican territories are more likely to open their classrooms, and those in Democratic territories are more likely to opt for remote options. Of the 153 districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 considered in an Education Week survey, 67% plan on starting classes entirely remotely. Of the 307 surveyed districts won by Trump, 58% plan on opening classrooms entirely or partially.

“All schools can open. If anyone can open schools, we can open schools, we have the best infection rate in the country,” said Democrat Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, the state that was most affected by the pandemic, but now has a positive test rate of 1%. The World Health Organization recommends opening schools in districts that have registered a rate below 5% for two weeks, and that is the limit that many school districts have adopted. However, governors from other states, such as Republicans Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbot, from Florida and Texas respectively, went further and incentivized opening schools, even though the pandemic remains out of control.

According to a July 24-31 survey from the Washington Post, given three available options, 44% of parents prefer that schools offer a mixture of online classes and in-person classes; 39% prefer that everything be online; and 16% prefer that everything be in-person. The teacher’s unions insist that it is not safe to open classrooms. The second largest teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, published a resolution supporting eventual strikes against orders to return to classrooms.

The pressure coming from Trump and his administration, whose relation with the educational community is weak, has strengthened many teachers’ resistance to returning to the classroom. But the pressure on syndicates has also increased on other fronts: All of them know that reactivating the economy and the return to work will require a functional school system. Nobody can dismiss the fact that the experience of the first semester with long-distance learning was far from satisfactory for many families and has deepened social and economic inequalities. In a summer in which many schools have committed to reopening classes or hybrid systems, many observe that little has been done to improve the quality of online education for this new school year.

In Brazil, the Return to In-Person Classes Divides States

The reopening of public and private schools to in-person classes in Brazil follows different protocols according to the guidelines set out by the state government from each state. For instance, in Amazonas, nearly 110,000 high school students from the public system returned to classes this Monday, respecting prevention measures such as social distancing, mandatory and appropriate use of protection masks, temperature checks, cleaning rooms and making hand sanitizer readily available. The Amazonas government plans on returning elementary and middle school students by Aug. 24. The Syndicate of Education Workers from Amazonas even attempted legal action in an effort to stop a return to in-person classes, but the request was denied.

On the other hand, last week Sao Paulo announced the postponement of in-person classes until the start of October. Previously, the date proposed by the government was Sept. 8, but according to Gov. Joao Doria, the necessary conditions for the return to in-person classes were not met; therefore, the postponement was due. Schools in the state have been closed since March 24, when quarantine was established in Sao Paulo.

However, the Sao Paulo government has agreed to ease the return to schools in parts of the city according to the proposed activities. Starting Sept. 8, municipal institutions that have been for at least 28 days in phase yellow, the third phase of the Sao Paulo Plan for economic recovery, will be able to receive students for recovery and additional learning classes. Currently, 86% of the state’s population is in phase yellow.

*Editor’s Note: This quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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