When New York City opened its schools for more than a million children this week, complete with balloons, streamers and a visit from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, it wasn’t simply a momentous occasion for a city crippled by the coronavirus at the outset of the pandemic and where many students hadn’t stepped foot in a classroom since March 2020.
Back to school in the Big Apple was the capstone of America’s public school system whirring back to life. And for parents, educators and school leaders across the country who have been pining for a hopeful narrative, the reopening of the largest school district in the U.S. felt like a win – even if it wasn’t theirs.
“I’m excited for these kids, and I’m excited for the families,” Cardona said, speaking outside an elementary school in the Bronx. “They did it right, and I know this is going to be an awesome year for New York, for everyone.”
He later announced a back-to-school bus tour across the Midwest, set to take place next week.
More good news followed for parents of children too young to be vaccinated: An updated timeline for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that could have shots in the arms of children age 5 to 11 by Halloween and children 6 months to 4 years perhaps as early as Thanksgiving.
For parents who turned into school aides overnight while juggling full-time jobs amid an uncertain economic landscape, for children plucked from classrooms, away from friends, teachers and all types of school-based support systems, and for educators who knocked on students’ doors when they didn’t log into class and delivered meals, tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots, it seemed like after a year-and-a-half of pushing through impossible circumstances, the headwinds were at long last retreating.
Yet by the end of the third day of school in New York City, 169 classrooms shuttered due to outbreaks and 125 more experienced partial closures as 403 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 – a swift and grim, if not expected, reminder that even school districts that deploy aggressive risk mitigation strategies, like the masking, vaccine and testing mandates that govern New York City schools, cannot fully inoculate themselves from the highly contagious delta variant.
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To be sure, the counts represent a fraction of the entire city system, as do the counts of school closures across the country. Out of 98,000 schools, roughly 1,700 that began the academic year in person have since temporarily closed due to outbreaks or pivoted to virtual or hybrid learning, according to Burbio, up from about 1,400 last week.
Evidence mounts for the promise of high vaccination rates allowing schools to safely reopen and stay open: In San Francisco, 90% of students age 12 to 17 are vaccinated, according to city officials, and there have been no recorded outbreaks since students returned to classrooms Aug. 16.
But the interruptions to learning remain severe in states and school districts with low vaccination rates and mask-optional policies. More than 51,000 students in Texas have tested positive for COVID-19 since the first week of school in August. The same is true for 20,000 students in Mississippi.
Meanwhile, in Florida, more than 26,000 children tested positive just last week, and children under the age of 12 became the age group with the highest new COVID-19 case count. In Georgia, cases in children 11 to 17 years old quadrupled over the last month since schools reopened. According to the state’s public health officials, Georgia is experiencing the highest number of COVID-19 outbreaks since the pandemic began – more than half of which are connected to K-12 schools.
The third pandemic school year had presented new challenges, too.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker activated the National Guard to help fill critical shortages in bus driver positions amid backlash within the profession to mask and vaccine mandates, which are driving a nationwide shortage of qualified drivers. In a recent survey, half of student-transportation coordinators called the situation “severe” or “desperate.”
Last week 70 bus drivers in Chicago quit over the district’s new vaccine mandate, leaving more than 2,000 students – nearly half of them in special education – without a ride to school. In Pittsburgh, where the school superintendent delayed the start of the school year by two weeks due to bus driver shortages, the district still lacked 650 bus seats for the first day of school last week. Some districts are so desperate that they’re offering $4,000 bonuses or offering to pay parents $300 a month – up to $3,000 for the school year in Philadelphia – to find a way to get kids to school on their own.
Meanwhile, the school board wars rage on, transplanting the most partisan of political debates from state houses to school houses. Parents, besieged by a steady stream of misinformation and whipped into a frenzy by conservative provocateurs who wax about the loss of freedoms and stoke fears of indoctrination by liberal ideologues, continue to flood school board meetings to oppose mask mandates, vaccinations and the return to virtual learning – even as the government’s top public health officials say they are seeing a measurable and concerning increase in pediatric cases and hospitalizations as a result of the delta variant’s transmissibility.
“Vaccination requirements in schools are nothing new. They work.”
Despite all that’s been learned over the last 18 months about how to keep children safe and schools open during a pandemic, the start of the school year has felt just as doomed as ever for some parents – especially those in big urban districts, many of which are not providing a remote option despite high community transmission rates. And until vaccines are available for the youngest learners, kids are making up an increasing proportion of new transmissions, alarming public health officials even though severe infections, hospitalizations and deaths remain rare among children.
Most recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association reported that nearly 29% of the cases recorded in the week leading up to Sept. 2 were in children. And after declining in early summer, child cases have been increasing exponentially, with over half a million cases added in the last two weeks.
Recognizing the limited powers the federal government has over K-12 schools, President Joe Biden is taking aim at governors, pushing them to mandate vaccines for school staff and leaders, demanding they establish robust testing programs that would identify cases before they shut down entire schools.
“I’m calling on all governors to require vaccination for all teachers and staff,” Biden said last week. “Some already have done so, but we need more to step up. Vaccination requirements in schools are nothing new. They work.”
The issue being elevated to the White House speaks to the president’s immense frustration over the fact that after three rounds of federal coronavirus aid – to the tune of more than $190 billion – most schools still haven’t implemented the full suite of risk mitigation strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reopen safely and stay open.
While a growing number of states are mandating masks, a recent analysis of 100 large and urban school districts, including the 30 biggest in the country, found that only 10% required vaccinations for school staff and just 18% required testing, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has been tracking how school districts are providing education during the pandemic.
Cardona, for his part, is pressing school leaders to vaccinate as many eligible students as possible, and he recently gave his most full-throated endorsement to date of school vaccine requirements for students.
“In those places where they are doing vaccine mandates, I do support their efforts to get the students in, so you know it’s safe,” he said, underscoring that those decisions are inherently local.
As it stands, Los Angeles Unified School District is the only major school system to implement a vaccine mandate for students 12 and up. New York City requires student athletes and those in certain in-person extracurricular activities to be vaccinated, as does Fairfax County in Virginia, and a handful of small school districts across the U.S.
Polling has shown for months now that a majority of Americans support more stringent COVID-19 safety protocols, like mandating masks and vaccines – despite efforts by a handful of governors to block school districts from implementing them. But California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s victory over a Republican-backed recall effort this week provided some concrete evidence.
Californians voted by a roughly 2-to-1 margin to keep Newsom in a race in which the Democratic governor campaigned on the very pandemic policies that led, in large part, to the recall attempt. In doing so they displayed that voters may not be eager to replace governors and other state leaders who enacted sweeping COVID-19 safety policies – a major Republican strategy heading into the 2022 midterms.
“We said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic,” Newsom said. “We all, certainly in this pandemic, want to feel safe and protected. Those are universal facts.”