The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden is meeting his modest school-reopening goal — but progress is uneven

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, right, talks to students Thursday at White Plains High School in White Plains, N.Y., as part of his school-reopening tour. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
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There was never much doubt that President Biden would meet his goal of reopening most schools by his 100th day in office, especially after he made clear that he was only talking about K-8 schools and that “most” meant 51 percent.

The country was almost there in January, when Biden took office, federal data shows. Since then, data from several sources shows school districts have been on a steady march toward more in-person learning. In February, 47 percent of schools serving fourth-graders and 46 percent of schools for eighth-graders offered full-time, in-person classes.

On a recent visit to a Maryland elementary school, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona swayed along as pre-kindergartners danced during a morning movement break. “This is why reopening matters — the sense of energy, the vibe that’s going on,” he said.

For many parents and children, the reopening has brought relief if not joy. Esther Shanahan’s kindergartner daughter did fine with virtual school, but her twin brother had grown miserable.

“Everything was a fight. Just trying to get him to sit down and do the work, just sit down and participate. It wasn’t a good situation,” Shanahan said. She hesitated as first, but now they are both back four days a week in their Wyomissing, Pa., district. “It’s like a night-and-day difference with my son,” she said. “He’s happy.”

But the trend toward reopening, while significant, obscures vast unevenness across the country. The people least likely to be in school are students of color and those living on the coasts. It’s in communities where Biden’s support is highest that children are most likely to remain at home.

More than half of school districts in counties where President Donald Trump won were fully open during the first week of April. But where Biden won, just 25 percent are open for full-time classes, according to the Return to Learn tracker run by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Nat Malkus, an education policy expert who runs the tracker for AEI, said the presidential vote was the biggest predictor of whether a school district is fully open. He sees it as a reflection of culture: In Trump districts, people are simply less worried about the dangers of the coronavirus.

The gap is driven partly by conservative, mostly White rural districts, which have fewer students and felt comfortable opening school buildings long before most urban areas got even close. It’s also because of pressure exerted last year by Trump, who all but demanded that schools reopen. Under his influence, for instance, GOP governors in the big states of Texas and Florida ordered their schools to resume in-person operations.

It’s not clear that Biden has exerted the same dramatic impact among his supporters, though he has taken steps to facilitate in-person operations.

He championed a coronavirus rescue package that is now delivering $125 billion to K-12 schools, an enormous financial boost. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed through on Biden’s promise to issue guidelines to help schools manage reopening safely. When the first version wound up discouraging schools from reopening, the CDC scrambled to conduct additional research and then eased the requirements. The Education Department has put out two handbooks with practical advice, including advice for managing racial and other disparities. And the president pushed states to prioritize teachers for vaccination and included them in a federal program in hopes it would make them more willing to go back to the classroom.

Nonetheless, in big cities and suburbs, teachers unions have resisted a full and sometimes even partial return to school, arguing it is not yet safe. Many systems are operating with hybrid systems where students are attending in person a few hours or days a week, and at home the rest of the time. That has frustrated some parents who argue the scientific consensus is that schools can operate safely with proper precautions in place.

“There has been enough data that has shown the spread is not happening in the schools,” said Nancy Griffin, who started a loosely organized group called the Chicago Parents Collective. She finds it “very frustrating” that schools are still operating on a part-time schedule.

The group was formed in reaction to the Chicago Teachers Union, which battled the city over its reopening plan. Similar disputes played out elsewhere. The White House stayed neutral.

Biden “trusts the mayor and the unions to work this out,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when asked about Chicago. “We are hopeful they can reach common ground as soon as possible.”

The Chicago parents group and others like it have been criticized for being dominated by White parents when many parents and students of color are far more hesitant to return.

Just over half of White fourth-graders were in school full-time in February, a federal survey found. That was true for 30 percent of Black and 32 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders and just 15 percent of Asian Americans, federal data shows.

Jean Kim, a Korean American mom in Silver Spring, Md., said she didn’t see anything inherent in her ethnicity that led her to keep her second-grade son at home when schools offered in-person classes this spring. Still, she realized, two close friends who made the same choice were both Asian American as well.

Her reasoning was that her son still would have been learning on Zoom, just from inside the classroom, so the teacher could teach those students at home at the same time: “I had already written off the year in my mind. From a logistics standpoint, it wasn’t worth it to us.”

In many big cities, in-person school has proved more popular, and more available, in wealthier and predominantly White neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, there were only four communities where more than 40 percent of students were expected to return to classrooms, the Los Angeles Times reported this month. All four were higher-income, majority-White areas where coronavirus rates were lower.

In the District, the schools planned to add more than 4,100 seats for the final quarter of the academic year. Just 48 of them were in the two wards with the highest concentration of poverty and where the virus has hit hardest.

Parents of color, particularly those in marginalized, underserved communities, simply don’t trust that the schools will keep their children safe, said Eboni-Rose Thompson, a community activist who serves on the D.C. State Board of Education.

She said parents reason it this way: “Pre-covid, I couldn’t count on the fact that I could send my kid to school and there would be soap and toilet paper in the bathroom, and now you’re telling me when we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic that all of a sudden my kids’ needs will be met?” If a school was already desperately in need of renovation, she said, how can parents trust that its ventilation system is working properly today?

“You really can only move at the speed of trust,” she said. “Trust is hard-earned and it is easily disrupted.”

“I’ve seen the ventilation we have. It is not well supported,” agreed Samyah Smalley, 18, a senior at Central High School in Philadelphia. “Corona already is affecting Black and Brown communities more so if we send them back, it would be more mortality in our community.”

Advocates for reopening have pointed to data showing significant learning losses during the pandemic, particularly for students of color. But parents of color are far more concerned with loss of life, said John B. Diamond, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“A lot of people in communities weigh learning loss versus health and safety and they may choose health and safety over some potential learning loss,” Diamond said. The reasoning, he said: “Kids are resilient and they can make up what they lose, but you can’t do the same with a loss of life.”

His own high school student son was offered the chance to go back but decided to continue with remote learning, a decision Diamond supported.

Asked about the racial gaps, Cardona, the education secretary, said he’s concerned. He said he understands why families of color are hesitant and said government needs to do a better job to win their trust.

“It really reminds us of our work as educators to address the disparities that exist in education,” he said. “We have to do a better job connecting, engaging and building that level of trust that we need to help support these students and their families.”

Donna St. George contributed to this report.