How Will Biden Approach School Reopenings?

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.

Several months into the 2020-2021 school year, things are bad and getting worse. Most American children are not in classrooms, with many suffering ill effects. The country seems doomed to face increasing coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. There seems to be little chance of improved conditions for the rest of the year.

So what will President-elect Joe Biden do about it when he takes office on Jan. 20?

The incoming president’s coronavirus task force has said it would prioritize open schools over open businesses like restaurants, bars and gyms.

“I would consider school an essential service,” Dr. Celine Gounder, a member of the task force, told our colleague Apoorva Mandavilli. “Those other things are not essential services.”

Biden has promised money — lots of money — to help schools function safely. He has backed plans to send at least $88 billion to local and state governments, which would pay for protective equipment, ventilation, smaller classes and other expenses.

“Schools, they need a lot of money to open,” he said during the last presidential debate.

Biden has also said his administration would create national guidelines for school reopenings. It would also provide advice about remote learning and distance learning, and conduct research into how the coronavirus affects children. Systemically, it would work to close gaps “in learning, mental health, social and emotional well-being, and systemic racial and socioeconomic disparities in education that the pandemic has exacerbated.”

President Trump, by contrast, pushed to keep schools open and threatened to restrict federal funding from noncompliant districts, but did not offer significant funds or guidelines to help meet that goal. Trump’s Education Department, reported our colleague Erica Green, “has all but absolved itself of tracking the virus’s impact and offering solutions.”

Here’s a roundup of comments from other members of Biden’s coronavirus advisory board:

“We all hope we can reopen schools and colleges this fall, but only if the number of new infections is extremely low and controlled,” Dr. David Kessler wrote in a Times Op-Ed this April. He served as the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general, has warned that reopenings “won’t be like flipping a switch.” In September, he tweeted: “When schools/universities reopen without appropriate precautions, they raise the risk of a #COVID19 surge.”

Dr. Atul Gawande, a professor of surgery and health policy at Harvard University, said that targeted shutdowns are preferable. “On a ZIP code by ZIP code basis, you can deploy different restrictions in order to get the virus under control and it’s quite effective. We do not need to go into a nationwide, shelter-in-place shutdown.”

There are still some big question marks about the Biden agenda for schools during the pandemic.

As Erica noted, “the president-elect’s closeness with the powerful teachers’ unions has raised concerns. Unions have come under fire from parents and school leaders who say their opposition to in-person instruction conflicts with science and students’ well-being.”

The president-elect may also struggle to pass a big-ticket funding bill unless Democrats control the Senate, which will depend on the outcome of two closely fought runoff races in Georgia in January.

Rural students can’t get online

Remote school requires an internet connection. For students who live in rural areas, limited service can be a huge obstacle.

Shekinah Lennon, 17, attends online class from a kitchen table in Orrum, N.C., a rural community of fewer than 100 people with no grocery store or traffic lights. This fall, the video suddenly froze. The wireless antenna on the roof had stopped working, and it couldn’t be fixed. Shekinah’s mother called five broadband companies, all of which gave the same answer: Service is not available in your area.

“It’s not fair,” Shekinah told our colleague Dan Levin. “I don’t think just the people who live in the city should have internet. We need it in the country, too.”

In rural parts of North Carolina, some children spend school nights crashing at the homes of more-connected relatives so they can get online for classes the next day. In one district, parents come to the school every two weeks to hand in flash drives filled with completed schoolwork and receive new ones, uploaded with lesson videos and assignments.

Schools During Coronavirus ›

Back to School

Updated Nov. 13, 2020

The latest on how the pandemic is reshaping education.

    • “I made all A’s and B’s. Now I’m failing.” Millions of students lacking reliable internet access, particularly in rural America, are struggling to learn.
    • President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s education agenda is starkly different from the Trump era, beginning with a far more cautious approach to school reopenings.
    • Europe is keeping schools open, but not restaurants. The United States has a different approach.
    • Remote learning, lockdowns and pandemic uncertainty have increased anxiety and depression among adolescents.

    “In school I made all A’s and B’s,” one 14-year-old, who has been forced to rely on flash drives to do his school work. “Now I’m failing.”

    For months, local education leaders have lobbied state and federal officials for systemic solutions, rather than Band-Aid fixes like hot spots.

    Today, many parents use a map of public Wi-Fi locations to help their children get online, and students can often be seen hunched over laptops in cars parked within range of wireless routers.

    “It just adds insult to injury when you’re forced to sit in a McDonald’s parking lot to learn,” said Monique Felder, the school superintendent in Orange County, N.C.

    Around the country

    College update

    Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan announced sweeping restrictions, including the suspension of in-person classes for college and high school students, to combat what she called “the worst moment of this pandemic to date.”

    Athletes at Simmons University, in Massachusetts, have been staying in touch over Zoom while they’re away from teammates, Chloe Janes and Olivia Ray reported for The Simmons Voice.

    An opinion: “Save the Season. Move the start back. Play league schedule and have May Madness. Spiking and protocols make it impossible to play right now.” That’s a tweet from Rick Pitino, the head coach of the men’s basketball team at Iona College, in New Rochelle, N.Y.

    Two Thanksgiving reads: As cases rise, students at Indiana University worry they might accidentally bring the virus home with them for Thanksgiving, Matt Cohen wrote for the Indiana Daily Student. And for The Times, Tara Parker-Pope and Julie Halpert compiled expert advice on how college students can come home safely for the holiday.

    We’d love to keep featuring student reporting on the pandemic. Please email Amelia with links.

    K-12 update

    Parents and teachers in New York City anxiously watched the city’s test positivity rate as it teetered near the 3 percent mark that would trigger a shutdown of in-person classes. So far, schools are still open.

    In Massachusetts, some school districts are experimenting with “pool testing” — grouping samples, and then testing each individually only if the “pool” tests positive.

    In Washington, D.C., the school district and the teachers’ union have made headway toward a deal to start in-person learning.

    An opinion: “The California Interscholastic Federation should abandon any notion of allowing high schools to start football practice in early December with the intent of playing games in January,” The Mercury News wrote in an editorial.

    A good read: The Pew Research Center wrote a birds-eye analysis of how case surges affect school closings. “For now, the national COVID-19 surge that is overwhelming hospitals in some states has stalled any further movement toward opening classrooms,” Christine Vestal wrote.

    Tip: Calculate your Covid risk

    Researchers at the University of Texas-Austin have created a useful tool to help families and school administrators make daily estimates of how many infected people are likely to show up at schools across the United States.

    The Times featured an earlier version of the model in July.

    Sign up here to get the briefing by email.

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