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Push to reopen schools could leave out millions of students

February 1, 2021 6:40 am

President Joe Biden says he wants most schools serving kindergarten through eighth grade to reopen by late April, but even if that happens, it is likely to leave out millions of students, many of them minorities in urban areas.

“We’re going to see kids fall further and further behind, particularly low-income students of color,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform. “There’s potentially a generational level of harm that students have suffered from being out of school for so long.”

Like some other officials and education advocates, Jeffries said powerful teachers unions are standing in the way of bringing back students. The unions insist they are acting to protect teachers and students and their families.

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In a call Thursday evening with teachers unions, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, said the reopening of K-8 classrooms nationally might not be possible on Biden’s time frame. He cited concern over new variants of the virus that allow it to spread more quickly and may be more resistant to vaccines.

Biden is asking for $130 billion for schools to address concerns by unions and school officials as part of a broader coronavirus relief package that faces an uncertain fate in Congress. If his reopening goal is realized, millions of students might still have to keep learning from home, possibly for the rest of the school year.

California was an epicenter of infection in the first part of January, and public health officials say many of the state’s districts are in areas where transmission remains too high to reopen. But a statewide group called Open Schools California is pushing for reopening as soon as public health standards are met.

“I think that data will bear out that the children who have been most disadvantaged are going to be low-income children, Black and brown children, children with special education, learning differences, homeless and foster youth,” said Megan Bacigalupi, a mother of students in the Oakland public schools and one of the organizers.

It’s hard to tally exactly how many schools are open in person now because of the size and diffuse nature of the nation’s school system — and because districts’ approaches change frequently.

By early January, about a third of students in a sample of 1,200 U.S. school districts were in schools where classes had been held exclusively online since last March — many of them in cities. By last week, more than half of students were enrolled in schools where in-person learning was at least an option, according to Burbio, a data service tracking school-opening policies.

For the first time since shuttering schools in March, Atlanta began returning the youngest and special education students to some in-person learning last week. Other districts planning to reopen by early March include Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas; Kansas City, Missouri; Boston and the big Ohio school systems.

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