America resorts to remote learning, against pupils’ interests

GRAMIVEN THE The way the fight had been proceeding, it ended on a groan. On January 10, a confrontation between the Chicago teachers’ union and its mayor, Lori Lightfoot, turned into personal insults. Jesse Sharkey, the union president, called Ms Lightfoot “relentlessly stupid”. She responded by calling him an “awkward, privileged white male.” Hours later, teachers agreed to return to work, ending a nearly week-long strike over Covid-19 safety fears. The city complied with its terms, but agreed to increase testing and supply more KN95 masks.

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Across the United States, more than 5,000 public schools, about 5% of the total, switched to remote learning for one or more days during the first week of January due to COVID-19. It is a controversial call. The case for canceling in-person learning was strongest early in the pandemic. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” says Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District in Texas, whose schools are now open for in-person learning. Without a vaccine and consistent mitigation measures, teachers and students were at risk. But prioritizing health over education had many serious consequences.

Remote classes led to huge learning loss. According to NWEA, an educational research company, student performance declined 3-7 percentage points in reading and 9-11 percentage points in math by the end of the 2020-21 school year. McKinsey, a consulting firm, estimates that students lost four to five months of learning that year. the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that students who participated in distance learning also had more mental health difficulties than children who attended school in person.

The evidence on health risks in schools is mixed. A study published in October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that U.S. counties that opened schools saw an increase in case growth rate of five percentage points on average. Another study, published in April by the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that opening schools in North Carolina caused little spread of the virus. The authors credit schools’ public health measures, including daily screenings and mask-wearing for pupils and adults, with minimizing the impact.

In-person learning is better for many students, and immunizations have reduced the risk. But vaccination rates lag in the United States, particularly among youth: 73% of adults are fully vaccinated compared to 53% of 12-17 year olds. Only 25% of children ages five to 11 have received at least one dose since becoming eligible in November.

School leaders could encourage vaccination by providing families with information on how to get it or by organizing clinics. They could consider mandates similar to the current vaccination requirements for childhood diseases in all 50 states. Frequent testing could also support a safer environment, but the United States has struggled to provide enough kits. The Biden administration promised to make 200 million home tests available per month by the end of December, but has not done so (on January 12 it pledged to more than double the number of tests available to schools, with an additional 10 million per month). month). month). Families struggle to find evidence in their communities, says Tracie Sanlin, CEO from Chicago Collegiate, a charter school in Chicago. She plans to provide free testing on campus.

Research on the general public shows a clear link between masking and slowing the spread of covid. However, four states, including Florida and Texas, have implemented mask bans for schools. In Florida, eight school districts defied the rule, resulting in a loss of state funding. Legal challenges have been unsuccessful in Florida, but others have prevailed. Mr. Hinojosa’s school district is one of several in Texas that resisted the state’s executive order against mask mandates. A federal judge ordered a halt to enforcement of the ban, allowing districts to insist on wearing masks.

Another concern is the shortage of substitute staff caused by the general shortage of teachers. Ms. Sanlin hoped to open her school last week, but she decided to switch to remote learning when 40% of her staff tested positive over winter break. “If I only have 60% of my staff, that means grade levels are collapsed,” she explains. “We would have been babysitters. Whereas by choosing to go remote, we can teach our children and we can actually do some schoolwork.” As a charter academy, Ms. Sanlin’s school was not hampered by negotiations between the teachers’ union and the school district. She returned to in-person learning on January 10.

The Chicago union claimed that mitigation measures, such as testing, had not been properly implemented. His teachers refused to return until his concerns were addressed. The city’s mayor rejected this claim. The students and their families were caught in the middle. The Chicago dispute is simply the most public and flashy. Few imagined that America’s schools would still be struggling to stay open nearly two years after the first wave of closures in March 2020.

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This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “Classes Canceled”

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