The attempt to bring children back to the US classroom this fall has turned into a slow-spinning train wreck, with at least 2,400 students and staff infected with COVID-19 or isolated from exposure, and the majority of large school districts opted online this summer amid rising viral infections.
President Donald Trump and Education Minister Betsy DeVos have almost cleared the situation unraveling this week in states like Georgia, Alabama, Indiana and Tennessee, where schools opened after a month’s hiatus because of pandemic – only to quickly get back to as soon as the infection reappears.
Trump and DeVos have ordered schools to be open full time and threatened to withdraw federal funding if the institutions fail to do so. At a White House event this week, DeVos made no mention of the crisis in Georgia and elsewhere and said that families should not be held captive “for other people̵7;s fears or agendas.”
DeVos has “consistently said the decision to reopen should be taken at the local level and that some schools may need to temporarily maintain a virtual state based on local public health,” says Angela. Morabito, an Education Ministry spokesman, told ABC News late Thursday. an email response to questions about recent school closings.
Morabito wrote: “For the past 30 years, she has always insisted that parents and families need choices when it comes to educating their children and that has never been clearer than now.” “Parents need to have access to secure, live options as well as distance or distance learning options if that’s the best thing for their family. The key word here is safe.”
But what is “safe” is completely unclear to most school officials and has been at the center of a heated debate that took place just months before the presidential election.
There is a general agreement that direct instruction is better than online classes and is especially important for students at risk. But local officials warn of complex factors: crowded corridors, masked protests, dilapidated buildings with closed windows and reluctant staff.
“There is no way for us to distance society and adhere to other principles,” said Helena Miller, president of the Rock Hill School in Red Carolina State, with five-day direct guidance. week.
The schools in the neighboring states this week also seemed to be on the same page as they struggled to maintain operations within days or weeks of reopening – many students did not wear masks and walk in crowded hallway. Georgia’s Cherokee County – which was the hardest hit – reported that nearly 1,200 students and staff isolated themselves after exposure.
There are other schools as well. A community college in Mississippi asked 300 of its students quarantined after nine positive cases were confirmed, along with students in Gulfport and Corinth counties. Indiana schools were also affected with an estimated 500 students quarantined in some counties, as administrators expressed concern that there would not be enough staff to continue teaching.
“Unfortunately we are in a situation where a parent is likely to send their child / child to school even if they have symptoms or possibly even if they, as a parent, have are checked and are waiting for the results, then they are found to be positive, “Reece Mann, director of Delaware Community School Corporation in Muncie, Indiana, wrote in an email to parents, according to the Associated Press.
There are no federal standards for when it is considered safe to reopen schools, although the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published various documents suggesting reopening ” step by step “and recommend that children and staff wear masks and keep students six feet apart.
As a result, most schools have become overly focused on their local viral data, with some turning to the World Health Organization’s recommendation that less than 5% of daily tests of an area must be positive for 14 days before district schools can reopen. Currently, only 16 states meet that criterion.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Big City Schools Council, a consortium of the nation’s largest urban public schools, said: “We were completely oblivious to what the White House had to say about this and most large city school districts too. systems.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, asks the community to consider the number of new COVID-19 infections in a given week for every 100,000 people. If the increase in new cases is higher than 10%, that’s cause for concern.
If “you’re in the red zone, I think you should be more careful,” he said Thursday during a discussion streamed live sponsored by the Walter Reed National Army Medical Center.
Miller, of South Carolina, said her board was heartbroken for months before finally deciding to offer parents a “combined” option, starting Sept. 8. This option allows parents to choose direct instruction to their child two days a week – a move that reduces the number of children in one school at a time to facilitate social exclusion.
The hybrid model was severely criticized by DeVos when it was first introduced earlier this summer by a Virginia school district. At the same time, DeVos argued that a national plan for schools was unnecessary because the schools were run by local officials.
“There is no country director, nor should there be, so there are no national plans to reopen,” she said last month.
Many parents agree with DeVos and want to at least try to get through live classes as much as possible.
“I definitely still say, ‘Try this.’ I think there is a way to do this in person, “Carlo Wheaton, a parent of a Woodstock High School student in Georgia, told WSB-TV in Atlanta after the school announced they had to shut down temporarily. after 14 people test positive for the virus and another 15 are waiting for the test results.
One solution is money, says Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the Association of School Directors. His team estimates that schools need $ 490 per student – an estimated $ 200 billion nationwide for the 54 million students currently enrolled in the US – to allow schools to reopen in a way. safe.
This money can be used to improve ventilation and extend classrooms to allow teachers to teach their students while socially distant.
On Wednesday, Trump announced that he plans to provide 125 million masks to students. Domenech says he’ll pick it up but it’s a drop in buckets for schools.
“We see what’s happening in Washington: nothing,” said Domench.
Miller said at her local school board politics and the White House events were not part of the equation and she relied on the local health department and the governor’s office to figure out those What to do without books.
“There are no correct answers,” she said.
ABC News’s Sophie Tatum contributed to this report.