As Schools Reopen, Parents, Teachers Remain Split on Pandemic Plans

Parents, teachers and students sounded out their concerns about their school districts or colleges holding classes in-person

With thousands of individual school districts in the United States and no consolidated directive on how to begin fall classes — whether in-person, completely online or a combination of both — local communities are facing uncertain times.

Doors to schools closed abruptly earlier this year as teachers, students, parents and administrators nationwide attempted to transition to remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic that has now killed more than 180,000 people in the U.S.

Discussion and disagreements on the best way to educate students for the next school year during the pandemic have been plentiful.

NBC Owned Television Stations put up an online survey asking parents, teachers and students to share their opinions about reopening schools. The questionnaire received more than 2,300 responses.

Though a slight majority of parents do not feel safe sending children back to school, there isn't a clear consensus, according to responses.

"I am not comfortable taking a chance that my son will get sick or will transmit COVID-19 to my elderly mother who lives with us," a parent from California wrote.

In comparison, teachers said they largely do not feel safe returning to classes.

"I would have no choice but I fear my life is at risk," a teacher from Connecticut wrote. "I think there will be a large risk until there is a vaccine. Having teachers and students go back to full capacity is ridiculous."

"Yes but reluctantly," a Massachusetts teacher wrote. "Start remote then bring back kids and teachers slow when this uptick starts to go back down!"

Many working parents said they feel forced to send children back to school.

"I am sending my kids back to school because I am a single mom with a full-time job taking care of 3 kids and unable to work from home," one parent from Texas wrote. "If I was able to work from home, I would not be sending my kids back to school but I do not have that option."

Other parents said they believe the effects of their children staying at home are more of a danger than coronavirus infection.

"Yes, the psychological effects of stay-at-home are much worse than this virus," one parent from Florida wrote.

Parents, teachers, high schoolers and college students sounded out their concerns about their school districts or colleges holding classes in-person

Development: Nelson Hsu
Interactive: Nina Lin
Editing: Andrew V. Pestano

A Gallup poll released in early August found that support for full-time in-person instruction from parents of K-12 children decreased to 36% from 56%. The poll, conducted online from July 13 through July 27 with a margin of sampling error of ±6 percentage points, also found that support for full-time remote instruction increased to 28%, up from the 7% of support found the prior survey conducted late May and early June. About 36% of parents in the recent survey favor a hybrid system.

Many schools improvised bringing the 2019-2020 school year to a close by not only swiftly establishing remote, or distance, learning but by still holding coming-of-age events, such as graduation, digitally.

Schools set their sights on fall as the next opportunity to adjust and educate. However, as the summer months wane and confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. near 5 million, the promise of an uncompromised school year will seemingly not be met — forcing schools to envision and implement what will become the "new normal" for the start of the year.

Though the manner in which schools will educate students is a decision left to state and local authorities, President Donald Trump and his administration, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have repeatedly pressed for schools to reopen for in-person instruction.

Trump has threatened to withhold federal funds to state and local officials who do not reopen schools in the fall, arguing he'd rather see those funds go to parents affected by closed schools.

With schools closed, parents required to report to work may struggle with providing child care. Though some school districts have established meal distribution programs, some parents may find it difficult to provide the meals children normally eat at school. The pandemic has placed parents in a difficult position in attempting to satisfy the requirements of both work and life at home.

When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early July first released draft guidelines on how schools could reopen during the pandemic, Trump criticized them as “very tough and expensive," adding the agency was “asking schools to do very impractical things.” 

The guidelines were similar to what the CDC has asked businesses to implement, such as social distancing, mask-wearing, consistent hand washing and implementing contact tracing when needed.

The agency also recommended staggering student schedules because early CDC disease modeling graphs indicate, though not conclusively, that infection rates could decrease by as much as 80%.

Though CDC Director Robert Redfield stood by the guidelines Trump criticized, the CDC in late July released what the Trump administration called "revised" or "supplemental" guidelines that highlighted the importance of children physically attending school.

The CDC said schools provide "critical services" needed by U.S. families and called closures disruptive to education.

"Schools are an important part of the infrastructure of our communities, as they provide safe, supportive learning environments for students, employ teachers and other staff, and enable parents, guardians, and caregivers to work," the CDC wrote. "Schools also provide critical services that help meet the needs of children and families, especially those who are disadvantaged."

Despite showcasing the benefits of children attending school, the "revised" guidelines did not skew from the CDC's original draft calling for strict preventative measures if schools reopen.

Trump has continued his call to reopen schools by diminishing the threat the virus poses to children.

However, Dr. Deborah Birx, a key member of the White House coronavirus task force who — along with Dr. Anthony Fauci — has become a resonant voice during the pandemic, said distance learning is essential in school districts if there is significant community spread.

"If you have high caseload and active community spread, just like we are asking people not to go to bars, not to have household parties, not to create large spreading events, we are asking people to distance learn at this moment so we can get this epidemic under control," Birx told CNN.

Some of the largest school districts in the country, including the Los Angeles Unified School District and Chicago Public Schools, have already announced the school year would begin remotely. Trump has argued the decision to begin virtually is a politically motivated maneuver in Democratic states and cities.

Other school districts have already opened doors for students and teachers but quickly began finding problems.

In one Mississippi school district, at least 116 people were told to self-quarantine after six students and one staff member tested positive for the coronavirus less than two weeks after school started, NBC News reports.

In Georgia, a second-grade student tested positive after the first day of school last week, forcing the Cherokee County School District to ask 20 other students and a teacher to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Since school resumed, the Cherokee County School District has so far quarantined more than 900 students and staff members because of possible exposure to the coronavirus. The district will temporarily shut down a hard-hit high school in which a widely shared photo showed dozens of maskless students posing together.

Georgia's largest school district, Gwinnett County Public Schools, pushed back the expected date of in-person instruction after about 260 employees reported testing positive for the coronavirus or possibly being exposed to it ahead of the original start of the school year.

Some countries around the world reopened schools with mitigation in place without seeing consequential outbreaks. Those include the European countries of Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany and Norway, as well as the Asian countries of Japan and South Korea.

Experts warn that those results may not apply to the U.S. because those countries had lower rates of community transmission when they reopened, reports.

“In communities where the case numbers are rapidly increasing, it may not be possible to safely reopen schools until disease transmission has lowered,” Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security senior scholar Jennifer Nuzzo said during a July 16 press call on school reopenings. “But in communities where disease rates are declining or stable, it may be possible to think about reopening schools, provided schools are able to put in place measures to reduce the likelihood of transmission.”

Compared with the reopening of the aforementioned European and Asian countries, Israel's reopening has been troubled.

Though Israel took swift action to control the virus's spread, the country's reopening has been followed by a surge of cases. In February when facing the pandemic, Israel imposed strict restrictions and by mid-April, the Israeli government slowly began relaxing rules, including the phased reopening schools with preventative measures in early May.

With the country mostly reopened by mid-May, Israel reported only 5 new coronavirus cases on May 24, the lowest since March 17, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Cases then began to steadily climb.

At one high school in Jerusalem, more than 100 students tested positive and the school was again forced to close at the end of May.

Israel saw its peak new coronavirus cases on July 28 with more than 2,300. Prior to reopening, Israel's peak new coronavirus cases was reported March 25 with about 1,130.

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