1 Year Later, an Unequal Return to Classes in the US

The country stands out for its slow reopening of schools. Millions of students are still learning from home; meanwhile, the social divide and anxiety increase

Elisa, 8, is euphoric. She’s also a bit nervous. This Monday she will return to in-person classes at a public school in Montgomery County, Maryland. The last time she set foot in a classroom was one year ago; since then, she has gotten bored, cried and become frustrated many times as a result of the virtual learning system that she was forced into because of the pandemic. Elisa doesn’t really like Zoom, but her desire to socialize has been even greater; despite online classes beginning only at 9 a.m., she and her classmates would get online 30 minutes earlier to talk to their friends. During recess, nobody would get out of their chairs. She is one of millions of students, from coast to coast, who will this week face the new normal inside classrooms. However, there are still dozens of cities keeping their schools closed. Meanwhile, the social divide expands and children’s anxiety increases.

In the U.S., the country hit the hardest by COVID-19, reopening schools has political connotations and stands out because of how slow the process has become in comparison to most countries on the other side of the Atlantic. Republican areas have been more flexible than Democratic areas regarding health guidelines that must be met for classrooms to open. That is why there are states such as Florida and Wyoming where in-person classes from Monday to Friday have been going on for months. On the other hand, there are states such as Maryland and California, in which fewer than 20% of students can attend in-person classes, according to the monitoring portal Burbio.

The decision to reopen schools is made primarily by district authorities and by the educational institutions themselves, who must weigh the risk of contagion, if they reopen, and the academic, economic and social impact if they do not. Meanwhile, teachers’ unions are demanding safety guarantees, and parents are putting pressure on the process 12 months after classrooms closed. Nearly half of American students go to in-person classes every week, led by the youngest; this is a measure supported by scientific research that shows younger children are less likely to spread the virus or suffer grave consequences if they are infected.

“She would get frustrated seeing other schools reopen and not Elisa’s school. Her class went from 24 kids to 19 [dropouts from public schools have increased in many neighborhoods]. … It was clear how complex this was to many families,” explained Gabriela Hilliger, Elisa’s mother, who considers that the school staff did a “heroic and titanic job,” but local authorities are not up to the task. For the return to classes, the parents made a community purchase of disinfectants and accepted that nobody would measure students’ temperatures at the door. Hilliger, who has a 3-year-old in a private day care, sees the contrast in infrastructure and equipment with her older daughter’s public school. Health specialists warned that on many occasions, remote learning disproportionately harms children from lower-income families, students with disabilities, and minorities.

Negative Effects

Last Saturday, a few streets from the White House and in front of Washington’s City Hall, a group of parents and students conducted a protest to demand the complete reopening of schools for the next academic trimester, which starts at the end of April. Public schools in Washington now have only 20% of their students in attendance, and some schools can’t completely reopen until September. Schools have to follow local guidelines that limit classroom capacity to 11 students and establish a distance of a 1.5 meters [4.9 feet] between students. The demonstrators asked for the removal of these rules. Meanwhile, the African American rights group Black Lives Matter, highlighting inequality, mocked that the demonstrators’ kids “probably have good access to medical services and transportation.”

Maria Vethencourt, a psychologist with the Ayuda Foundation, dedicated to helping immigrants with limited resources, explains that in poorer communities, schools are the space that children have in which to talk about their problems or where educators detect problems such as child abuse. “On the screen, professors can’t see that, there isn’t this support system,” she said by phone. Among the people she helps, she has seen many women who had to leave their jobs to take care of their kids or were let go because of the crisis. In other cases, they leave their kids in the care of their older siblings. “Emotionally, this may have limited the development of social skills and slowed down their academic learning. There are children who have lost opportunities,” the specialist said.

From a health perspective, there is also another problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency hospital visits related to mental health issues among 12- to 17-year-olds increased 31% between March and October 2020, compared to the prior year. Studies show higher rates of depression and anxiety. According to a study conducted by the CDC, 25.5% of young adults between 18 and 24 years of age said that they have seriously contemplated suicide in the past month. The percentage was higher than front line health workers, volunteer senior caretakers and African American and Latino supermarket staff.

Amid this difficult situation for the vast majority of families with children, in mid-February the CDC published guidelines for schools, elementary through high school, to have students in attendance once again. “Schools should be the last to close, after all other community mitigation efforts have been adopted, and the first to reopen,” the CDC stated. The document states that vaccinating teachers should be a priority, but not a prerequisite for reopening. Some teachers’ unions, dissatisfied with the CDC guidelines, are demanding safety measures related to air quality inside schools.

The largest school districts in the country allowed their progress to be followed. This Monday, New York, with more than 1 million students, will reopen its doors to high school students, who will join elementary and middle school students. Half of the 488 schools will have all their students attend five days a week. Los Angeles, with more than 600,000 students, largely remains with its long-distance learning system due to peaks in virus cases in California. Last Wednesday, authorities announced that if teachers are vaccinated and cases fall, the youngsters may return to classes in mid-April. In Chicago, after intense negotiations between the city and the teachers’ union, which threatened to go on strike, schools reopened in February. Although younger students can already go to in-person classes, high school students do not have a return date.

President Joe Biden made it an objective that most schools would open in the first 100 days of his presidency, which began on Jan. 20. Thursday marked this deadline’s halfway point, and the general overview leaves serious doubts about whether it can be accomplished. Furthermore, the White House sent confusing messages on what it considers an “open” school. “Open” could mean a few hours, a couple of days or a whole week. Success will depend on which metric is chosen. The Democratic president trusts that his stimulus bill, which passed last week, will accelerate the process and balance out the difference between public and private schools. Schools will receive $130 billion for the safe reopening plan, which includes the acquisition of protective equipment, modernization of ventilation systems and medical personnel.

*Editor’s Note: The quotations in this article, though accurately translated, could not be verified.

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