The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Despite pressure from Trump, major districts say schools will stay closed in fall

A chain link fence lock is see on a gate at a closed Ranchito Elementary School in the San Franando Valley section of Los Angeles on Monday. Amid spiking coronavirus cases, Los Angeles Unified School District campuses will remain closed when classes resume this August, Superintendent Austin Beutner said Monday. (Richard Vogel/AP)

Resisting pressure from President Trump, three of the nation’s largest school districts said Monday that they will begin the new school year with all students learning from home.

Schools in Los Angeles, San Diego and Atlanta will begin entirely online, officials said Monday. Schools in Nashville plan to do the same, at least through Labor Day.

Several other big cities were considering similar plans, while others have adopted hybrid plans where students will be in school on certain days and at home on others. Some have announced plans to open five days a week, as the White House has demanded, but they appear to be in the minority.

The decisions are another sign that the coronavirus pandemic will continue to wreak havoc on fundamental aspects of American life, and the economy, well into fall. Many parents who need to work will be left scrambling for child care. And while some schools found success with virtual school in the spring, it was a disaster for many, with little indication it will be drastically better in the new school year. In some ways, it may more challenging, as students will be starting with new teachers who do not know them.

Still, some school leaders are concluding that the risk to students and staff is too great to allow in-person education of any kind.

“The skyrocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control,” said a joint statement from the Los Angeles and San Diego districts. They said they would return to in-person learning later in the academic year, “as soon as public health conditions allow.”

Monday’s developments from California and Georgia, two states with surging rates of covid-19 infection, reflect the deep divide that has opened over the risks and benefits of in-person school. Trump and his senior aides emphasize the benefits to children and parents of having students in schools, while others voice concern that reopening will allow the virus to spread.

At the White House Monday, Trump again pressed his case for in-person learning.

“Schools should be opened,” he said when asked for his message to worried parents. “Schools should be opened. Kids want to go to school. You’re losing a lot of lives by keeping things closed.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pressed the same message on Sunday, dismissing concerns about rising case loads as “little flare-ups” that can be managed as they arise.

She also noted that children do not appear to become seriously ill or die of covid-19, though it’s less clear how easily they spread the disease.

Others are concerned about teachers and school staff, who face more significant risks. An estimate from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 1 in 4 teachers are at elevated risk based on their age or underlying health conditions.

Asked Monday about an Arizona teacher who died of covid-19, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany focused on the benefits to children and compared teachers to other essential workers.

“There’s a way for essential workers to go back to work, just as our meatpacking facilities did. Just as you all in the media are essential workers, we believe our teachers are as well,” she said.

The message was more nuanced Monday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a fresh sign of the rift between Trump and the experts who work for his administration. Last week, Trump questioned the CDC guidance on schools opening, calling it too tough and expensive and pushing for changes.

In a briefing for school officials and other decision-makers, a CDC official said Monday that decisions about whether to open schools should depend on the local situation.

“We’re in a very different place in the nation right now than we were even two weeks ago as far as transmission rates go,” said Erin Sauber-Schatz, lead for the CDC’s Community Interventions and Critical Populations Task Force. “There are places where transmission is low. And those places, it will be safer to open schools for students, teachers and staff.”

She said the CDC would soon release new documents aimed at helping parents decide whether to send their children to school.

“There is a lot to consider. It’s not a clear answer at this point in time,” she said. “I can say from personal experience, it’s a really tough choice.”

In Atlanta, the schools had been planning a hybrid option, with students in school on certain days and learning from home on others. But amid rising cases, the superintendent announced a plan for all-virtual learning for at least the first nine weeks of school, or until the spread of the coronavirus falls off.

“In a perfect scenario, we would have a face-to-face engagement for the first day of school,” Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring told the district’s school board. “We also do not want to turn our ears and eyes away from the truth.”

The statement from Los Angeles and San Diego said their decision was a “significant disappointment” for teachers and “an even greater disappointment to the many parents who are anxious for their students to resume their education.”

They added there will be training for teachers and students about how to better use online education.

The announcement came on the same day that California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) put many restrictions on daily life in the state back in place. He ordered bars closed and halted indoor operations of restaurants, wineries ns theaters statewide, among other restrictions.

Some rural districts have said they plan to reopen fully for in-person school. In addition, districts in Kansas City, Mo.; Indianapolis; Providence, R.I.; and Reno, Nev. are all planning to offer in-person school five days a week for at least some students, said Michael Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents urban districts.

But many other urban districts — including New York City, the country’s largest — have announced hybrid plans. The idea is to try to create distance between students by reducing the number in the building at any given time.

“It’s all over the place and changing constantly because of conditions and state directives,” Casserly said.

Valerie Strauss contributed to this report