This is the time of year when many public-school systems send out notices to parents that it is time to enroll our children for the next school year. For parents living in states like Florida, whose schools have been open full-time with teachers back in the classroom for most of this year, the process is straightforward.
But for the parents of students in parts of the country where fearmongering, bureaucratic incompetence, and the whims of powerful teachers’ unions have taken hold—places where our children haven’t been back to school with a teacher in the classroom for more than a year—being asked to sign up for that experience again next year borders on the absurd.
According to the school reopening tracker Burbio, an increasing number of schools in the country are back to full-time, in-person learning—albeit far more often in red states than in blue. Most notably, as the Return to Learn tracker developed by the American Enterprise Institute noted recently, the school districts that have not reopened to in-person instruction at all are also the most low-achieving (11 percent). Among high-achieving school districts, only 4 percent are still fully remote.
But even the definition of what constitutes “open” remains subject to debate.
In Washington, D.C., where I live (and where my kids are in public schools), Mayor Muriel Bowser and Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee insist that schools are open. Not surprisingly, a brief glimpse at the byzantine details of schools that are supposedly “open” reveals a lot of weasel words and caveats about what “open” really means.
As the many D.C. parents whose children remain stuck at home know, the real decision-making about reopening, which Bowser punted to individual school principals, has produced an inconsistent, bureaucratic morass of poor policies, fewer in-person learning slots than parents are demanding, and deep frustration among parents while children continue to languish in Zoom classrooms.
It’s hardly a secret. In its application to the Department of Education for a waiver for federal education testing this year, Washington D.C. admitted that nearly all its public school students (88 percent) are receiving full-time distance learning as of March 20. As for its “hybrid” learners? D.C.’s application notes that nearly all hybrid students are in school for only one day per week (Burbio’s tracker only counts as hybrid schools that are offering at least “2-3 days per week instruction”).
In other words, D.C.’s version of hybrid learning isn’t even in-person enough to qualify as in-person education. One of my sons’ public high schools offers students who want to return in person the opportunity to take only one class per week, which means they are physically in school for a whopping three hours per week. D.C. shouldn’t call its school plan “Reopen Strong.” They should call it “Reopen Maybe (but Probably Not).”
Parents at elementary schools across the city report frustrating waitlists for the small number of in-person learning slots that schools made available for the year’s final term. Other schools, like one of my kids’ high schools, School Without Walls, haven’t even bothered to try to return students to classrooms this year. In a recent town hall meeting with parents, school administrators claimed that it was simply too “disruptive” to their schedule to do so.
Asked about next year, School Without Walls administrators said they are “planning” on a return to full-time, in-person learning, only to immediately hedge by saying the “constraints” of the CDC guidelines about cohort mixing and social distancing would present challenges. And yet, D.C. is already violating CDC guidelines, such as they are today. In D.C., Mayor Bowser recently announced the reopening of venues such as movie theaters and the easing of capacity limits for other non-essential indoor venues, even as schools remained closed.
Our experience seems maddeningly typical. Parents in Fairfax County, Virginia, have been given a similar runaround by officials who have done nothing but offer empty promises and poor planning for their school districts. In Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union continues to delay and obstruct the reopening of high schools in the city. The Los Angeles Teachers Union recently demanded free childcare from the state if it wants to see teachers return to classrooms.
Parents who want to know why their kids can’t go back to school this spring are rarely told the truth (in D.C., it’s because the Washington Teachers Union negotiated a deal with the Mayor to allow any D.C. teacher the right to refuse to return to in-person teaching). Instead, parents are repeatedly told that there isn’t enough demand for in-person learning; in an outrageous display of circular logic, one of my sons’ schools claimed that it couldn’t offer in-person instruction because the parents they surveyed didn’t want it. That’s probably because the “survey” they based their decision-making on didn’t even offer in-person instruction in a classroom as an option.
The CDC guidance clearly states that “K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely. This implies that schools should be prioritized for reopening and remaining open for in-person instruction over nonessential businesses and activities.” What’s more, the CDC’s own data indicates that a staggering 80 percent of teachers, school staff, and childcare workers have received at least one dose of a vaccine that protects against COVID-19.
None of this is about safety anymore. Rather, it is a species of bureaucratic inertia that has hardened into an intolerable intransigence over the course of this pandemic year. That intransigence is actively harming this country’s children.
Even self-professed liberal and progressive parents are aghast at the way some of the most entrenched Democratic constituencies (notably, the teachers’ unions) have lied and obstructed and thwarted the needs of children in favor of amassing greater power for themselves. It has seriously undermined the trust many parents had in our kids’ teachers and school administrators, to say nothing of our elected officials.
The cavalier disregard of scientific evidence, all while claiming to be adherents (and voters for) the “party of science,” should not be forgotten by parents. This has been a lost year for so many students, not only because of the unpredictable nature of a deadly pandemic. It has been lost because of the bad choices made by people in positions of power.
Parents whose children are being denied that right shouldn’t let incompetent school administrators, elected officials, and teachers’ unions ever forget how they violated those rights this year.