Back to school. In pre-pandemic days, it was the most mundane of catchphrases, a bit corny and comical, freighted with a bittersweet wish that the chlorine-scented days of summer could last a little longer.
Now, across the coronavirus-haunted United States, those words are a signifier of existential dread, a political lightning rod, a confounding multiple-choice question that has no real right answer, but plenty of wrong ones.
Parents, especially working ones, are desperate to get their kids back into the classroom. President Trump, eager to revive a devastated U.S. economy, is demanding that schools open for in-person instruction.
But a pandemic is raging, particularly in the country’s South and West, and with days ticking down to a new school year, no one is sure how to keep students, teachers and school workers — and, like the radiating spokes of a wheel, all those who come into contact with them — safe from contagion.
School administrators are scrambling, trying to figure out rules on everything from facial coverings to plexiglass separators if students do physically return, and how to manage months of online learning if they do not. And any guidelines agreed upon now could change before the school bells ring.
In tens of millions of American households, the overarching dilemmas are personified in small, wriggling, restless bodies — schoolchildren like Keily Mitchell’s 8-year-old son, Eli.
When schools in Vidalia, Ga., shut down along with those in the rest of the country at the outbreak’s onset in March, Eli rapidly discovered that he hated distance learning. And Mitchell, a 41-year-old registered nurse who works in a local hospital, equally hated standing over him and nagging him to do his worksheets.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, is leaving the decision of reopening up to local school districts, setting the stage for a patchwork approach as COVID-19 spreads rapidly across the state. The state has seen more than 115,000 cases, and nearly 3,000 deaths.
Big public school systems in Atlanta and Savannah have announced virtual-only school openings, but in many suburban and rural areas, classrooms will throw open their doors in late July and early August.
Some, like Vidalia, a small city about 170 miles southeast of Atlanta, will offer a virtual-learning option as well. But Mitchell and her husband, although worried, think they will most likely take their chances and send Eli and his 13-year-old sister Annika back to the classroom.
“I really, truly don’t know what the best answer is,” Mitchell said. “Bottom line, as a working parent, I don’t have another option but to send my kids to school.”
In the nationwide back-to-school debate, critics of the Trump administration see a macabre replay of the misguided push for early reopening of businesses and public spaces in the very states — many in the South — that are now inundated by the virus. The U.S. has experienced more than 136,800 deaths related to the coronavirus and at least 3.4 million people have been infected.
School openings will be a crucial component of any economic recovery, with classroom time, or the lack of it, woven tightly into the working life of every parent.
But Trump and his allies have sought to frame the argument in terms that essentially ignore urgent public health concerns, asserting that the social and developmental perils of missed learning outweigh the risks.
Frustrated critics say the question isn’t whether being kept out of school harms kids — it does, of course, they say — but that it is deeply irresponsible to try to strong-arm school districts into in-person openings without taking the scale and severity of area outbreaks into account.
Florida, which has more than 300,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 4,510 deaths, has issued a directive requiring all school districts to offer in-person instruction. With the state a coronavirus epicenter, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has come under criticism from many municipal leaders over the state telling school districts they must hold classes in person.
In theme-park-heavy Orlando, Adelise Berrios has taught kindergarten at Oakshire Elementary School for 20 years. She’s extremely worried about safety protocols — especially with a roomful of irrepressible little charges prone to “playing with boogers or whatever.”
“You get children that will sneeze all over the table and another child comes in and just leans on the table,” Berrios said. “You don't know because you cannot have your eyes on every single student.”
Her district could seek state permission for virtual options, but only weeks before the start of school, “not knowing, it’s just killing us,” she said. Like many other teachers, Berrios said she’ll work with whatever instructions she’s handed, but the details — or even the broad outlines — remain unclear.
“If they say, ‘OK, next month or next week, you have to be in school,’ I will be in school, taking all the precautions,” she said. “But then it's like driving blind. You don't know who has it. If we open the school and one person gets COVID, do we have to close the school because there is one case?”
Trump has at times appeared dismissive of the wrenching dilemmas faced by parents and teachers. Asked in an interview that aired Tuesday on CBS what he would say to those opting for online learning because of safety fears, he replied: “I would tell parents and teachers that you should find yourself a new person, whoever is in charge of that decision, because it’s a terrible decision.”
Trump allies like Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, have suggested that keeping children out of school is a ploy by Democrats to harm the president’s reelection prospects.
“They’re using our kids as political pawns, and to them I say unashamedly, they can kiss my ass,” he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Monday. “That’s wrong to do that to the kids of America.”
Schooling, like wearing a mask, has become increasingly politically fraught. In Texas, where new cases have spiked above 10,000 a day, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the state education agency have insisted schools reopen next month, although they face growing opposition from local officials and teachers.
Texas' death toll stands at nearly 4,000, with almost 300,000 cases. Last week, officials in the border cities of El Paso and Laredo, where infections have jumped, issued orders barring schools from reopening. And officials in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley have also asked the governor to postpone reopening schools due to a soaring infection rate.
According to the state, reopening means districts can teach remotely for three weeks, but must offer in-person options. If districts refuse, Abbott and other officials have said they will lose state funding, a large portion of their budgets.
“That’s a form of blackmail,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Austin-based Texas State Teachers Assn., which represents about 65,000 school staff. Citing health vulnerabilities on the part of many teachers, he called Texas’ coronavirus numbers “just out of control.”
Teachers’ unions and school officials have argued that major expenditures are needed — for physically reconfiguring classrooms, setting staggered hours, setting up medical-grade cleaning regimens, but no new funding has been forthcoming.
Without proper precautions, they say, not only will pupils and teachers will be imperiled, but the risk spills over to everyone in a given child’s circle — parents, grandparents, siblings, any of whom could have particular health vulnerabilities.
“It’s a scary time — no matter what we do,” said Tom Lee, 39, an eighth-grade teacher at Dalton Middle School in northern Georgia who is still waiting for his school district to finalize its plans for a school year that is supposed to start the first week of August.
His school district, he said, had been fairly proactive about sending out surveys and inviting teachers to focus group meetings, and is still weighing three options: start school fully face-to-face, usher in a hybrid plan that would combine digital and face-to-face learning, or have everyone move to digital learning.
“It’s just a slate of bad options,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable with the students sitting at home. I also don’t feel comfortable taking them to into a building.”
Lost opportunities are hard to quantify, but some parents — and pupils — are already feeling the sting of chances that might slip away.
In Seattle, public schools plan to offer at least two days a week of in-person instruction for kindergarten through 12th grade, with the option for families to choose online-only learning. But administrators say plans could change, depending on public health guidelines. Washington state, hit hard and early, has seen more than 44,000 confirmed infections and at least 1,400 deaths.
Mercedes Diggs, 47, said her son, August, an athletic 13-year-old who is about to enter eighth grade, is beside himself with eagerness to get back to Denny International Middle School, a public school in Seattle.
“My son is African American, and we’re so pleased with all the rich programs they have,” Diggs said, citing in particular an elective class for Black male students, teaching Black history, cultural knowledge, positive self-identity and literacy.
August — a sociable youngster who was on two tournament basketball teams as well as the school basketball team, with track practice about to start when the lockdown began — coped with the school closure, but was “miserable,” his mother said. He’s happy for two days a week of school attendance, but would love to go every day, she said.
Diggs is torn, but ultimately sees it differently. For safety reasons, she would prefer online learning only.
“It would be excruciating for my son not to go to school,” she said. “But as a parent, if they end up going only online, I’m OK with that.”
Times staff writers King reported from Washington, Jarvie from Atlanta and Baxter from Orlando, Fla. Staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston and Richard Read in Seattle contributed to this report.