Back to School, Ready or Not
By Eromo Egbejule
Putting aside the medical world, has any aspect of life been as dramatically affected by the pandemic as schooling? Now, after 18 months of hybrid teaching, endless hand-washing and mind-numbing headaches for parents and teachers alike, classrooms are beginning to reopen en masse across America.
But as they do, the dynamics around what that ought to look like are shifting — again. Some districts are mandating masks for children riding the school bus, but not while they’re in class. In parts of the country, Republican-dominated state legislatures are threatening to withhold pay for school administrators who insist that students mask up. Anger is mounting on many sides as political ideologies, poor planning, and new policies pit parents against schools and local authorities. Read on for our deep dive into the state of play — plus the creative solutions these unique times are forcing upon all involved.
NEW SESSION, NEW SURPRISES
This month, growing discontent among parents in California, Colorado and South Carolina devolved into public protests. In San Francisco, a city with one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the state, parents last week protested against school district authorities’ plans to return to in-person classes amid rising COVID-19 cases. The demonstrations were entirely different scenes from this past March, when hundreds of protesters, including children, thronged the city’s streets to call for a full reopening of schools. Meanwhile, officials nationwide are pressing ahead despite the probability of transmission of the delta variant at schools and despite parental nervousness about exposure.
For some schools in Philadelphia and some cities in California, classes are now starting earlier than before, presenting a new set of logistical challenges to students and parents: Will the new commute times mean more traffic on California’s already gridlocked streets? Can children learn properly if they’re sleep-deprived? According to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, more than two-thirds of American middle- and high-schoolers are already not getting the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. Mental health experts warn that an erratic sleep schedule could lead to an increased risk of depression and other psychiatric disorders. San Francisco parent of three Sacha Xavier says the new start times are also disrupting schedules for parents who are working longer hours compared to when they were office-bound. “With [school] start times starting earlier, I can’t move bedtime any earlier because we barely have enough time to shower, eat dinner and just spend quality time,” she tells OZY. “My kids literally have lost an entire hour . . . because they get up earlier but haven’t shifted their p.m. bedtime.”
The back-to-school season has also caught some schools napping. Many are facing acute bus driver staffing shortages due to the closure of vehicle licensing offices that has, in turn, resulted in a scarcity of licenses for new drivers. Years of budget cuts in school districts have made it more difficult to attract new teachers, and substitute teachers in a host of districts currently earn less than many fast-food restaurant employees. In Pittsburgh, public school officials have told almost a thousand students they might have to walk to class after already delaying the start of the school year because of a bus driver shortage. School administrators in Kentucky also say teachers have left the profession due to the increased workload caused by the pandemic. New research suggests that 1 in 4 teachers are thinking about quitting due to higher stress levels and general dissatisfaction with their job.
They say every cloud has a silver lining, and the severe shortage of drivers has turned out to be a blessing in disguise — for the drivers. In states like Vermont and Connecticut, bus drivers are being offered juicy bonuses ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 just for signing up. Other school employees are being urged to drive the routes in addition to their regular jobs. Things are so bad in Delaware that one school is offering parents $700 to chauffeur their child to and from class for a year. And for those with multiple children? A bonanza is afoot, as they get paid per child. According to Aaron Bass, head of the Wilmington, Delaware, EastSide Charter School, “We’ve been looking like crazy for everybody you can think of: janitors, cafeteria workers, psychologists, counselors, bus drivers.”
THE POLITICS OF MASKING
In the Buckeye State, Gov. Mike DeWine has made an about-face on a plan that would have seen the compulsory wearing of face masks in schools as they reopened last week. DeWine, whose hands are tied by a controversial new state law that overturns health-related restrictions such as mask mandates, has said the delta variant could pose a serious risk to returning students. Still, the Republican governor’s critics say his decision not to enforce a mask mandate is more political than practical, especially in a state where daily infections are rising and only 55% of Ohioans over the age of 12 are vaccinated. Democrat Nan Whaley, who is seeking to replace DeWine in the forthcoming primaries, was especially brutal, accusing the incumbent of being “Willing to let children get sick in order to win an election.”
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott remains determined to punish schools that make masks compulsory. That is despite threats from President Joe Biden to overrule states positioning themselves against mask mandates and a Texas Supreme Court ruling this month that declined to block injunctions against the mask ban. Meanwhile, another legal effort by parents of children with disabilities is in place to challenge Abbott. Frustrated by his stance, the parents of at-risk children have dragged the Republican governor to court, citing a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. All 14 plaintiffs in the lawsuit are ineligible for vaccination because they are below the age of 12.
Defiance in Paris, Texas
While the lawsuit challenging Abbott’s actions is pending, several school districts are already acting in defiance of the mask ban. One in Paris, Texas, is circumventing the ban by adding masks to its mandatory uniform and claiming that its new dress code is backed by the Texas Education Code. Lawyers argue that under the code — a statewide law allowing school boards to oversee their own affairs — schools can mandate masks in the same way they can require students to wear certain types of shoes or clothing. “The Board believes the dress code can be used to mitigate communicable health issues,” it said in a statement.
But Texas is only one of seven states attempting to enforce a ban against mandatory masking, with Arkansas making the move as far back as April. “It is important to respect the individual decisions made by private businesses,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared at the time. How things have changed. Several weeks ago, Hutchinson publicly expressed his regret for banning masks. Now, having watched COVID-19 infections surge in his state, the governor is calling for an amendment to protect children heading back to class and has urged lawmakers to act quickly given the delta variant’s rampant spread.
HIJACKING THE HICCUPS
One of the pandemic’s side effects has been to allow (some would say force) parents to find one another and work together in districts where schools are closed to in-person teaching. Groups like the San Francisco Parent Coalition have sprung up since last summer to help organize protests and picket school board meetings as a way to press for policy changes. The nonprofit coalition is devoted to securing funds for schools’ human resources and payroll support. Another issue that’s top of the group’s list is increasing enrollment in public schools after witnessing a decrease across 41 states that could translate to huge funding cuts.
What’s California’s recipe for keeping kids tuned into class amid the pandemic and for years to come? Handing out free lunches. In July, the state signed into law the universal school meals program, which will make food available for all 6 million public school students beginning in the 2022-2023 academic year, regardless of household income. The landmark decision was prompted in part by the fact that some public schools were used as food distribution sites for the needy at the height of the pandemic. Maine followed suit with a two-year budget for its own free meals program.
Vaccines for Kids
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on School Health has recommended that children under 12 be vaccinated as soon as it is safe and possible. Currently, vaccine makers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are conducting trials on kids ages 5 to 11. Pfizer suggests results could come in September, but Moderna is believed to be operating at a slower pace. The need to protect the youngest members of the population from the virus couldn’t be greater. Last week, over 3,000 public school students and staff in Brevard County, Florida, were forced to quarantine due to a surge in infections.
Zoom tended to dominate remote learning and work over the past 18 months, but for many schools in California, the homophonous “Zum” seems set to be the driving force for the post-pandemic school year. Also known as “Uber for kids,” Zum has been around since 2015, when it launched as a ride service for children of busy parents, before diversifying to include a dashboard service that allows parents to track rides and interact with one another. During the pandemic, it added laptop and lunch delivery to its list of services. And now that students are back, Zum has embedded contactless thermometers and plexiglass partitions in its vehicles and is working with over 4,000 schools and districts.
- Eromo Egbejule, OZY Author Contact Eromo Egbejule