Personal Finance

Some schools still can’t reopen for in-person learning, despite new federal guidance

It’s been nearly a year since the coronavirus crisis first brought the nation to a standstill, and some schools have yet to reopen — despite a growing number of examples that it is possible to do so safely.

Crowded classrooms, a shortage of available teachers and aging buildings with poor ventilation systems or windows that won’t open are just some of the challenges these institutions face, along with sudden spikes in Covid-19 cases in pockets across the country. 

“Every day, our kids are missing essential, critical days in their educational development,” Vice President Kamala Harris recently said.

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President Joe Biden said his administration will aim to help a majority of kindergarten-to-eighth-grade schools reopen as soon as possible.

The president’s strategy includes ramping up testing, accelerating the pace of vaccinations and providing more funding for educational institutions.

Under Biden’s plan, schools could tap disaster relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Covid-related expenses, such as personal protective equipment, sanitation, improved ventilation, reconfigured classrooms and upgraded technology.

The Edmonds School District just north of Seattle, which includes 34 schools with 22,000 students, has been fully remote since last March.

There is now a tentative re-entry plan to return to in-person learning on Monday, March 22. At that point, students in kindergarten, first and second grade will be able to attend in-person classes two days a week.

Still, the “teachers are nervous, and they are fearful, and rightfully so,” said Gustavo Balderas, the district’s superintendent. “The longer we wait, the more comfortable people are staying home.”

And yet, “reopening was always the goal,” he said. “Nothing beats having your kids face to face.”

Balderas said the school district has been able to tap some federal funds to purchase personal protective equipment and classrooms have been reconfigured to accommodate no more than 15 students — about half the size of a typical class pre-pandemic.

Federal guidance on reopening

A classroom prepped for students at Oak Heights Elementary School in Washington State.

Source: Edmonds School District

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also unveiled guidance on how schools can safely reopen for in-person learning despite the spread of the virus.

Among the many recommendations, the CDC advises districts to phase in their reopening plans in accordance with the severity of the outbreak in their areas.

All schools, the CDC said, can safely reopen for full in-person learning if they follow appropriate protocols and are in communities that have a positivity rate lower than 8%.

Research shows distance learning has caused a significant setback in educational achievement, particularly among Black and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities.

As long as schools remain remote, the potential loss could be substantial, especially in mathematics — with students likely to lose an average of five months to nine months of learning by the end of this school year, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Company

Balderas said that is one of the greatest issues the Edmonds School District must now face. They are considering a summer session to account for learning loss.

Distance learning has also put outsized pressure on parents trying to balance work, childcare and remote school.

Roughly 1 in 5 parents said they had to change or reduce work hours due to changes in schooling or childcare as a result of the pandemic, according to a report from Country Financial.

Another 7% had to leave a job altogether.

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