A Report Card for U.S. Schools

This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

For the past few months, my colleagues have worked on a sweeping project on the state of American education. They wanted to address a simple question, said James Dao, a national editor at The Times who oversees education coverage: “Are American children getting adequate schooling in the pandemic?”

“It is the most basic of questions,” he continued. “And yet in a country with 13,000 self-governing school districts setting 13,000 educational policies, one that is impossible to answer.”

Inconsistency and disruption have been the only constants. Nearly every district in the U.S. has had to forge its own way and use its own safety standard; the Trump administration and the federal government provided little guidance or data.

So instead of trying to take a numbers-driven approach, James said, “we set a more humble ambition for ourselves: to provide snapshots of seven districts that, together, provide a cross section of America in all its diversity.”

Some students have been in school buildings since the fall, while others haven’t seen a classroom since March 2020. Some split their time between remote and in-person instruction. There is only one common link: However students are learning right now, it has been a hard time for everyone.

But not everyone has struggled equally. Districts serving high percentages of nonwhite or poor students were significantly more likely to remain fully remote this fall. Many reported higher proportions of students failing classes, which many critics have reframed as classes that failed students.

“We believe these snapshots bring us closer to understanding how educators, parents and students are navigating what has arguably been the most disrupted school year since World War II,” James said.

Here’s a condensed version of each district profiled, but we strongly suggest you read it in full.

Los Angeles

Most students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, have not been in classrooms since March. Now, high rates of virus transmission and overwhelmed hospitals dominate headlines. The majority-Latino district will keep learning remotely for the foreseeable future.

Achievement gaps are widening. Compared with last year, D’s and F’s increased 15 percent among high school students, and reading proficiency dropped 10 percent among elementary school students, Austin Beutner, the superintendent, said.

“There is just no question this is disproportionately hurting students who can least afford it,” he said.

Cherokee County, Ga.

In August, schools opened in Cherokee County, Ga. to crowded hallways, packed football games and optional mask requirements. Contagion was swift: Within the first two weeks, nearly 1,200 students had to quarantine in the majority-white, Republican-leaning district outside Atlanta.

Many parents said that their children benefited from attending school in person. But by mid-December, more than 1,000 students and staff members had tested positive. After winter break, the entire district closed for at least two weeks because there were too many teachers in quarantine.

“This is what you get when you don’t try to protect the people in the schools,” said Lizzy Palermo, 17, who said she was one of few students to consistently wear a mask.

Wausau, Wis.

Wausau, Wis., a small, majority-white city, became a flash point for a parent-teacher fight over open classrooms.

After starting classes virtually, the school board bowed to community pressure and voted to open schools to students in November — just as the pandemic was surging across the state. Tensions flared.

“She didn’t swear at me, but she yelled,” one member of the school board remembered, after a parent harassed her. “I had to call the police.”

Since in-person classes began, hundreds of students and staff members have moved between in-person and remote learning, after possible exposures.

Washington, D.C.

Students in the District of Columbia Public Schools, a majority Black district, haven’t learned in classrooms since March. Many are “chronically absent” — they rarely log in to class.

The impact on learning is starting to show: A recent study of assessment scores this fall found students were, on average, four months behind in math and one month behind in reading. Black students had even more distance to cover.

At one public charter school, teachers make house calls to try to find missing students. “We try to let them know we’re not focused on judging,” a teacher said.

Providence, R.I.

This summer, Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island deployed the National Guard to help reopen schools for in-person learning. Remote teaching would disadvantage nonwhite and low income students and that was not an option, she said.

Schools During Coronavirus ›

Class Disrupted

Updated Jan. 21, 2021

The latest on how the pandemic is reshaping education.

    • What grade would U.S. public schools earn during the pandemic? To find out, Times reporters studied seven districts and the impact on students.
    • Teacher shortages caused by outbreaks are shutting down schools.
    • What does a more contagious coronavirus variant mean for education?
    • Amid one pandemic, students are training for the next.

    In Providence, more than 70 percent of the district’s majority Latino and Black students returned to their classrooms. That’s rare. In other American cities, Black and Latino families have by and large elected to keep their children learning from home.

    Even as the state battles a dangerous new surge, classrooms are open. “I am grateful that she’s back in person,” one parent said about her daughter.

    Lubbock, Texas

    By the end of the first grading period, 77 percent of high school students in the Roosevelt Independent School District were failing at least one class. Those who opted to attend in person, by contrast, were mostly passing.

    So the tiny, rural, mostly Latino district in West Texas made the fraught decision to require all students to return to classrooms. Academic performance rose, but so did infections. About a third of staff have tested positive this school year.

    Still, teachers and administrators said it’s the best thing for their students. “This works for us in our little school district,” the superintendent said. “It’s not going to work everywhere.”

    Edison, N.J.

    Edison, N.J., a large suburban district where a majority of the students are Asian, has struggled to make hybrid education work.

    Stephanie Rasimowicz, a math teacher, must balance teaching a handful of in-person (and socially distanced students) while attending to nearly 20 learning online. “Even if their cameras are on, you still don’t know exactly what they’re doing,” she said of her remote students.

    Hybrid learning will always be a compromise.

    “There’s no book for this,” a principal said. “The word of the year is ‘fluid.’”

    Around the country

    College update

    The University of Wisconsin public college system could be in long-term financial trouble.

    Brown University plans to hold commencement in person for graduates, but family and guests will attend virtually.

    Baylor University will require weekly coronavirus tests for students. Those who don’t comply could be locked out of campus Wi-Fi.

    A good read: The Chicago Tribune checked in with college athletes at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois struggling with their mental health after an interrupted season. “I really, really missed just having a schedule,” one volleyball player said. It’s not just athletes: A new study found that college students nationwide are grappling with more depression and anxiety.

    K-12 update

    Chicago will begin vaccinating teachers by mid-February.

    President Biden signed an executive order designed to reopen schools. He’s pushing for more testing, more personal protective equipment, more data and more vaccines.

    Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland urged schools to reopen by March. “There is no public health reason for county school boards to keep students out of schools,” he said.

    A neat series: The Institute for Nonprofit News has been working with newsrooms around the country to look into rural schools right now. The most recent piece comes from New Mexico In Depth, previewing the spring semester.

    A good listen: Evelyn Lauer, a high school teacher, hosts a podcast called “Beyond the Bell” where she interviews other educators. This week, she spoke with Sachin J. Jhunjhunwala, a math teacher. It’s a zippy, insightful conversation.

    A good read: There has been a nationwide surge of children in mental health crisis during the pandemic. One 11-year-old boy in Texas considered suicide after months of remote learning.

    Tip: Podcasts for kids

    At this point, we’re all looking for anything to entertain little ones at home. Podcasts geared toward children might be a saving grace.

    “Girl Tales” offers feminist fairy tales, performed by actors and playwrights. “What If World” is fantastical improv. And “Animal Sound Safari” is, well, just what it sounds like. Plug in, sit back and enjoy.

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