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COVID-19: US School Reopening Plans in Total Chaos

In Texas, public schools covering 5 million children got the green light to stay closed well into the fall

Saturday July 18, 2020 9:45 AM, Nikhila Natarajan, IANS

US School Reopening

New York: US schools scrambling to finalise hybrid reopening plans for the Fall session are largely silent on what to do if even a single person in the school community actually gets sick with Covid-19 even as millions of students are learning this week that they are unlikely to return to classrooms full time in the Fall as the coronavirus death toll reached record highs across the country.

As the chaos spirals out of control, the White House has blocked top officials of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from testifying next week before the US Congress on reopening schools. All this is happening at a time when US death toll crossed the 139,000 mark Friday with more than 3.6 million people sickened by the virus. The US death rate has been steadily ticking upwards from the high 30s to 42 deaths per 100,000 population.

Fearful of schools becoming petri dishes for Covid-19, the Los Angeles and San Diego school districts, the two largest in California with a combined K-12 student population of about 720,000, announced they won't bring students back to classrooms next month because of rising hospitalizations and infection rates.

"Final decisions likely in August"

In Texas, public schools covering 5 million children got the green light to stay closed well into the fall, with online-only instruction for up to the first eight weeks. Chicago, the third largest school system in the US, is tentatively planning to have two days a week of in-person lessons and three days of remote learning. Most schools have informed parents that final decisions will be announced sometime in August.

In New Jersey, school superintendents have begun circulating letters preparing the community for "difficult decisions" based on guidance from the state, Centers for Disease Control, and local officials. "Our first priority is the health of our children, staff, and community as we work to develop the best options for our schools", said a letter from a Union County school system in New Jersey.

Schools are finding themselves in the middle of an intensely politicised debate as parents and educators weigh the risks of in-person classes. Doctors are waving red flags on reopenings saying they are learning more each day about the virus' behaviour in children and the patterns are grim.

"Challenges with reopening protocols"

Wherever reopening protocols have been finalised, one crucial piece is largely missing: What happens if anyone in the school community contracts Covid-19? The federal government is offering no clear paths forward except to keep repeating that schools must reopen. Public health experts are warning of dire consequences if school reopenings go against the mandated guidelines. America's top infectious diseases doctor Anthony Fauci has said this should be a hyper local decision based on the infection patterns at the county level.

Part-time school with staggered schedules and face coverings for all or a fully online curriculum are the two broad categories of the currently raging debate after the Donald Trump White House inserted itself into the issue over a week ago. Online petitions, mudslinging and surveys are flying thick and fast across America's school districts, the cultural divides are stark and the bad news is unstoppable.

Some parents have threatened to pull their children from school if masks are required, others are ready to go for a full gap year if schools are not willing to offer online-only education.

"My child's life is more precious. If he has to forgo a year of school, so be it", Uttara Kumar, mother of a middle schooler in New York's Battery Park area, told IANS.

"13 school reopening plans"

At least 13 plans from policy organisations are floating around in the public domain and run into many pages each of detailed guidance on everything from cleaning protocols to desk spacing but at best vague on what to do in a real emergency and what happens next.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said this week that "science should not stand in the way of" schools fully reopening for the upcoming academic year. McEnany's comments come as the Trump administration has pushed for schools to fully open for students five days per week.

Trump's push to reopen schools is largely seen as a gamble to win white suburban voters, especially women whose support was flagging, who could return to work and are cracking under the pressure of homeschooling and child care.

Trump's moves have largely been met with defiance. A majority of polls show that voters are opposed to the Trump administration demand that K-12 schools be opened for in-person instruction. These are the same polls where 7 in 10 Americans say the country is out of control.

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