In the News – Going Back to School

In the wake of the pandemic, parents are struggling with keeping their children’s education on track. Remote learning, while necessary during the initial months of the pandemic, has failed many students who are suffering academically, mentally and emotionally.

So after nearly 365 days away from schools, where does the decision stand? And why are so many public schools still closed, or only offering partial in-person learning, while private schools have been back in the classroom for months?

First: The Data 

  • From the CDC: Last month, a study from three Centers for Disease Control scientists said that with precautions like distancing and face coverings, “the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings in schools.” 
  • The achievement gap continues to grow, with disadvantaged children hit the hardest, according to a study out of Columbia University.  The study found that remote learning is widening the achievement gap because it is less effective than in-person schooling.
  • Children’s Mental Health: In Las Vegas, a rise in student suicides has driven Clark County schools, the fifth largest district in the nation, to push to reopen as quickly as possible. According to a doctor from the CDC, “school districts have reported suicide clusters” since COVID-19 lockdowns began.
  • Which States are Open? Currently, 7 of the 10 largest school districts in the nation have been at least partially open for in-school instruction at some point in the school year. That includes New York, where the district reopened elementary schools in December. Here’s a state-by-state map of school closures and openings.

Second: Local Control

Parents, children, educators, and policymakers have the same goal: Get kids back in the classroom safely. President Biden said this was a “top goal” for his first 100 days. Unfortunately, this statement is at odds with many public-sector teacher unions that, from California to Virginia, have blocked in-person learning. But not all. One union leader has backed the goal of getting kids back to school, but noted the funding challenges that some schools face for providing masks, hand sanitizer and even soap amidst budget cuts.

Public-sector unions are governed by state laws, and each state determines what issues, such as offering in-person or virtual learning, must be negotiated between school districts and teachers’ unions. This also comes into play with teacher strikes. States determine if unions can walk out over “safety concerns” or for other matters. 

And “when teacher unions walk out – as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) was poised to do before reaching a delayed agreement with the school district on Feb. 7 – they walk out on kids,” says Illinois Policy Institute’s Mailee Smith. “Parents can’t just choose a different provider as easily as they could if workers were striking at their preferred grocery store.” 

Third: A Moving Goalpost

When school districts think they’ve met union demands about safety, the unions have changed or increased their demands. For example, the Fairfax County, Virginia, school system demanded (and received) priority vaccinations for their teachers, then the Fairfax Education Association president said the union would not support a return to full-time, in-person education even in the fall. Now the union wants students to be vaccinated before in-person instruction resumes. 

There are similar frustrations across the country, showing the out-sized influence of teachers’ unions, with priorities that aren’t always in line with the educators they represent.

What are parents to do?

Balancing the wants and needs of teachers and families is critical to solving this issue. Parents are the best advocates for their children and should learn about local control and teachers’ unions in their communities and states.

How to take action today:

  1. Dive into our K-12 Education Policy Circle Brief to learn more on this issue, and host a discussion with your Circle or network.
  2. Get to know the education community in your area: Look into education governance, such as school boards that set goals and visions for school districts. is a good source to look for policies of K-12 education, agencies, and school board elections.
  3. Explore government programs in education in your state or community: Identify the education programs in your state by searching for the following terms: “[yourstate].gov education.” Look on your state government website for state agencies, or look for an “education” drop-down menu.

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