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U.S. Pupils in Online Limbo Even as Cities Make Deals to Reopen

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Michael B. Marois
·4 min read
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(Bloomberg) -- Two major U.S. school districts made progress toward getting children back in the classroom this weekend after tensions among parents, teachers and school districts about coronavirus safety measures threatened to boil over.

On Sunday, Chicago announced a tentative agreement with teachers on a timetable to restart in-person classes later than the city had proposed, avoiding the prospect of an imminent strike. Unions representing San Francisco United School District employees announced a preliminary deal to resume in-person class. The city had sued its own school district to try and force the schools to reopen, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Despite the progress, in some cities local officials are still pitted against teacher unions on how and whether it’s safe to have teachers and students in the classroom after, in some cases, almost a year of remote learning designed to thwart the spread of coronavirus.

Philadelphia’s teachers’ union has told members to ignore an order to prepare for in-person instruction on Monday. And the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second biggest in the U.S., says the virus is still too rampant for students to return to in-class instruction, even though most health officials agree that schools aren’t a significant source of spread.

The pressure to reopen is growing as the U.S. economy tries to regain its footing almost a year into the pandemic, amid a slow and chaotic vaccine rollout, and as new daily virus cases recede quickly from their peak just a month ago.

The pushback is complicating efforts by President Joe Biden to fulfill a promise to get children back into classrooms in the first 100 days of his administration. And parents are stuck in the middle as their children struggle to learn virtually as the grown-ups juggle working from home -- or are forced to stay out of the workforce entirely.

Biden, in an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday, reiterated his view that it’s time for schools to “reopen safely.”

Read more: Why the Mutated Coronavirus Variants Are So Worrisome

“If the children are doing remote learning, there has to be a parent there helping them do it, and that’s fairly time intensive,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. If public schools reopen, “it’ll free up millions of people who have chosen to stay home.”

About 35% of American children in kindergarten to Grade 12 are attending only virtual schooling, down from a peak of 62% in early September, according to Burbio, a data service that aggregates academic calendars.

Under the deal reached in Chicago, students will return to the classroom in phases starting on Thursday, and the school district will provide at least 1,500 first vaccine doses per week to employees.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s governing body and its rank-and-file members must review and assess the details before an agreement is finalized.

Read more: Biden’s Bid to Reopen Schools Risks Reigniting Union Tension

Although overall cases are down, districts are contending with varying Covid-19 infection rates from state to state and challenges obtaining enough vaccines. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week that teachers don’t need vaccinations before schools reopen. Many teachers disagree.

The rift comes as the nationwide rush to get vaccines into arms ramps up after stumbling initially, though in some states teachers haven’t been given top priority.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told the union’s more than 11,000 members on Thursday that the district’s 250 school buildings remain unsafe for teachers to return Monday as planned, and asked for a neutral third party to evaluate the conditions.

William Hite, superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, said the union’s advice to its members not to return next week “is deeply disappointing.”

Read more: Covid Testing Experiment in Schools Hits Logistical Snarls

In Los Angeles, a pediatricians’ group says the time that most of the area’s 1.5 million students have been out of classrooms is accelerating inequality and harming mental health. City Council President Pro Tem Joe Buscaino agreed with the doctors and said he’ll ask the city to consider a lawsuit similar to the one in San Francisco.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner said case counts remain too high, and that the city has fumbled by allowing businesses to open while closing testing sites.

“Educators want to be back in the classroom, but as the pandemic continues to ravage our communities, we are in the untenable position of fighting to save lives because our elected officials have failed to do so,” Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles union, said in a online Jan. 29 presentation.

(Updates with progress on deals in Chicago and San Francisco)

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