California's two largest school districts will start the fall semester with online-only classes because of skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 infections, school leaders in Los Angeles and San Diego announced Monday.
The schools' announcement — especially that of Los Angeles, the country's second-largest district — gives momentum to a movement to keep schools online as the coronavirus spreads in much of the country. It comes in direct opposition to recent calls from President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for schools to reopen for in-person instruction.
Other districts around the country in virus hotspots may follow Los Angeles and San Diego, especially as more teachers and school leaders express concerns about returning to class. Last week, Nashville schools and some districts in Phoenix also said they'd start school online.
The Los Angeles and San Diego school districts collectively educate more than 800,000 students. The districts said they would work to reopen schools in person "as soon as public health conditions allow."
The positive rates of COVID-19 have spiked in California, including in rural areas, and ICU hospitalizations have increased 39% over the past two weeks, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday. Shortly after L.A. and San Diego schools released their decision, Newsom required counties to close their indoor operations for restaurants, movie theaters, wineries, zoos, entertainment centers, museums and bars.
"We're seeing an increase in the spread of the virus," Newsom said. "COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon."
Schools struggle to define reopening plans
Back-to-school plans devolved into chaos last week, as cases continued to spike and deadlines loomed for parents to choose in-person or online courses for their children. Schools began to push back start dates. In Arizona, the governor pushed back the start of school two weeks to Aug. 17, while some Phoenix districts went further and said they would keep instruction entirely online until at least October.
In Burlington, Iowa, an in-person summer school program that started last Monday went online after two days. Eight students were running temperatures.
The Metro Nashville School District in Tennessee announced that its 86,000 students will all start the year learning from home. The district, like others around the country, was going to give parents the option of in-person or virtual instruction. But as coronavirus cases mounted, leaders changed course.
In Florida, where daily COVID-19 cases hit a new high of around 15,000 Sunday — the most daily cases of any state — the board of Palm Beach County Schools is recommending the school start the fall semester with all 176,000 students learning online.
That's despite the fact that Florida's education commissioner called last week for all schools in the state to reopen fully in fall.
Returning to all-online learning is "a heavy consideration for many of our districts," said Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association.
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Teachers nervous about returning full-time
Educators are nervous about a return to in-person instruction, a number of polls and surveys show. Early research on children and the coronavirus suggests kids with the virus don't get as sick as adults, and young children may not transmit it as readily as teenagers or adults. Still, there's little research on what will happen when many adults come back together and work in close quarters indoors, much less in close proximity to so many children.
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In Los Angeles, 83% of about 18,000 teachers union members said schools should remain closed in the fall, according to a survey from the union.
About one-third of principals surveyed nationwide said they had misgivings about their ability to keep staff safe and students safe if school buildings reopened, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Another third felt they could open their schools safely.
School leaders have spent the summer trying to determine the safest and most effective way to get kids learning again. But the work has been complicated by Trump's assailing the idea of virtual learning. Last week, he called for all schools to reopen fully in the fall.
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Trump has pointed to other countries that have reopened their schools without a spike in cases — but those countries only did so once infection rates were low.
In the U.S., by comparison, cases are rising in the majority of states and exploding in places like Texas, Arizona, California and Florida.
DeVos has threatened to withhold money from schools that don't reopen for in-person instruction, even though most education experts say she doesn't have the authority to do so.
It's unusual for DeVos to be so opposed to online learning. She has championed virtual learning as an avenue for more efficient and personalized education. She's also long supported the idea of leaving choices about how schools are run to local leaders, not the federal government.
What do health experts say?
The nation's leading health groups have recommended opening schools in person, but only in areas where the coronavirus is under control and only with physical distancing protocols in place.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended spacing out children and adults in schools for in-person instruction. Their guidance is not entirely consistent. The CDC recommends a spacing of six feet; the Academy says three feet may be sufficient. In American schools, students' desks are often clustered in pods or connected in rows to facilitate group work and maximize space.
To facilitate distancing, many districts have been leaning toward a model of instruction that would include a couple of days a week learning at school and another couple of days learning at home. That's the approach schools in New York, the nation's largest school district, plan to take.
So far, researchers think that's one of the safest paths to reopening with any kind of in-person instruction.
Brian Gill, a senior fellow at Mathematica, a research group, led a team of four researchers who modeled different types of school reopening scenarios at the request of the state of Pennsylvania. They concluded cutting class sizes in half and reducing children's time in school was the safest way to conduct in-person instruction.
The team's memo, published in June, was approved by the research arm of the federal Department of Education. In other words, part of DeVos and Trump's administration approved research directly in opposition to their call for full-time, in-person instruction.
Gill said there are compelling reasons to get schools back open again, because evidence suggests remote learning for most kids this spring was not very effective. And continuing to have schools entirely closed creates enormous educational costs and enormous hardships for families.
Learning at school for two days a week, and remote learning at home on the other days, could mean more seat time for students than if everyone returns full time — and then is sent home again to control an outbreak.
Many schools opening to all students right away, Gill said, will have to rely on kids' successfully wearing masks and maintaining physical distance to keep the virus from spreading.
"Given the uncertainty about all of those things, I don't understand the response that says we should be getting all kids in school every day starting Sep. 3," Gill said. "Because if you're wrong, you could be disastrously wrong. That's the nature of a pandemic."
Contributing: Meghan Mangrum of the Nashville Tennessean; Michaele Niehaus-Steffensmeier of the Des Moines Register; Lily Altavena of the Arizona Republic.
Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @emrichards.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Schools reopening: LAUSD, San Diego lead COVID move to online classes