“We’ll be covering the on-again, off-again efforts of districts to restart or expand in-person instruction,” said James Dao, a national editor overseeing education coverage at The Times. “What will it take to make teachers and students feel safe? What role will the Biden administration play in making that happen?”
To open or not to open?
Most of the country’s largest districts were teaching remotely at the end of 2020. In New York City, the country’s largest school system, fewer than 20 percent of students were in classrooms even part of the time.
“I’m going to be paying close attention to whether New York can get more kids into classrooms before the end of the school year in June,” said our colleague Eliza Shapiro, who covers education in New York City.
There are many factors that will make it difficult to change the status quo:
The coronavirus is at record highs across the United States, with fears that a new variant could accelerate the spread.
Many teachers’ unions have resisted calls to resume in-person learning, or to keep schools open as cases rise, citing fears that districts have not done enough to make schools safe.
Many parents are also leery of sending children back to school. Based on data and interviews by Times reporters, families of color — who have disproportionately borne the impact of the pandemic and the shortfalls of remote learning — are often the most likely to have doubts.
“For all levels of our fractured education system, from kindergarten through college, we’ll be looking for ways to interrogate how the pandemic has exposed deep inequities — and how school superintendents, college presidents and elected officials are trying to address them,” James said.
When will teachers get vaccines?
The U.S. vaccine rollout has not gone smoothly, with only a small percentage of distributed doses actually administered. And the prioritization has been scattershot: Many states, like Utah, have moved educators up near the very front of the vaccine line, while it’s unclear exactly when teachers in New York City will be eligible.
“We know the vaccines are coming,” Shelley Moore, 52, a middle school teacher in Basking Ridge, N.J., wrote to us. “We know that this year, even if it’s not until September, we have a strong shot of seeing full classrooms once again.”
“I’m worried that, after the vaccine rollout, we will be expected to make everything go back to normal instantly once we’re in the classroom again,” Shulamith Nosek, 32, a special-education teacher in Queens, N.Y., wrote to us. “Students will need a significant period of adjustment.”
Remote learning and the damage done
Even before the school year began, experts said that disruptions at the beginning of the pandemic had cost schoolchildren months of learning time. The impact was the most severe for poorer and nonwhite students.
In the absence of a coordinated federal response, many districts spent the summer planning on how to reopen classrooms. When that proved impossible, they made few plans for remote learning — even though that’s what school has looked like for millions of students since March.
Now, with the first anniversary of school shutdowns approaching, remote learning is still a mess in many places, as many of you wrote to us:
“I feel selfish for wanting to go in-person because a consequence would be spreading Covid-19 to my family,” said Lilly Kurtz, 16, an 11th-grade student in Seattle. “At the same time, I cannot focus in my home.”
“Teachers are exhausted and feeling helpless as we see our students and families struggle,” said Cara Carney, who teaches English as a second language in Methuen, Mass. “Achievement gaps are getting larger and inequities in education are profound.”
Sarah Larson’s two teenagers in public school in Vancouver, Wash. have less motivation than before: “Just because the older students can do remote learning does not mean it is in any way healthy or ideal.”
“I cannot imagine how we will sustain this for another six months,” said Kathryn Gullo, 48, a teacher in California.
There has been an undeniable toll for the millions of students who have had their educations disrupted by the events of the last year — exactly how large, we do not yet know.
“Given that many districts are sure to remain disrupted for weeks, probably months, to come, we’ll try to explore remote education, looking for ways to document what has worked, what hasn’t and why,” James, our colleague, said.
“One theme I’ll be exploring is how government agencies, districts, schools and educators are working to address the challenges and inequities of remote learning,” said our colleague Natasha Singer, a reporter covering technology and education.
Around the country
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will start the spring semester on Jan. 19 as planned, but will delay in-person undergraduate classes for three weeks.
Philander Smith College laid off 22 faculty and staff after enrollment dropped, threatening the historically Black college’s finances.
Howard University, a historically Black institution, released a public service announcement encouraging people to take the vaccine. “When your time comes, get the vaccine,” Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, the university’s president, said. “We can’t get to the other side of this pandemic without you.”
A good read: Community colleges have been working to help distribute emergency food to students in need, Inside Higher Ed reports. “Food insecurity among college students is nothing new, but the pandemic is exacerbating the problem.”
Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, resigned on Thursday, a day after a mob incited by President Trump breached the Capitol. “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me,” she wrote to him.
In Los Angeles County, perhaps the worst-hit place in the U.S. at the moment, the public health director called for all K-12 school campuses to close (or stay closed) through January.
Pennsylvania encouraged districts to bring younger students back to classrooms. The union that represents thousands of teachers in the state pushed back.
A good read: The president of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators said about a third of students are failing at least one core class. “There are children that we have not heard from since March,” he told WSAZ. “They have signed up for virtual education, but for whatever reason are not participating. We are losing them.”
One more reader testimony
Thank you all for taking the time to reply. Here’s a welcome dose of optimism:
“As I return to teaching in 2021, there is still an uncertainty looming, yet it feels more hopeful,” Sophie Katzman, a fourth-grade teacher in New York City, wrote.
“Undoubtedly, it will be a challenging six months as the pandemic continues, but we have newfound strength to carry us through. We will continue showing up for our students; we will continue to triumph. Through the hardships of this year, we and our students will emerge with greater flexibility and resilience for future days to come.”