(CNN) — School is out for an early summer for most US kids — and discouraging signs about the spread of coronavirus are starting to cloud hopes of a return to class in the fall.
Despite pressure from President Donald Trump for a swift resumption of lessons, forecasts of higher than expected death tolls and a stubborn plateau of infections are already threatening the 2020-21 academic year in the worst affected regions.
Since the return of kids to school will be one of the most tangible signs that the country is getting back to normal — and will begin to make significant steps towards economic recovery — the issue has a strong emotional as well as societal dimension.
While many states have expressed a firm desire to get going in August, the California State University system announced Tuesday that almost all of its classes would be conducted remotely in the fall semester. And the University of California said it was likely none of its campuses would fully reopen in the fall either. The moves highlight how schools with thousands of students are potential Covid-19 hotspots and also face concerns that students may struggle to travel to campus.
One of Trump’s top coronavirus task force advisers, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told a Senate committee it would be a “bridge too far” for colleges to expect a vaccine or widely available treatment to be ready by the time students return to campuses.
Fauci’s warning will resonate among school principals and authorities and college presidents who are trying to plot a strategy for some kind of resumption of in-person classes. It underscores the reality that while kids in states with low infection rates will go back next academic year, those in hotspot areas may be out for weeks or months longer.
New projections that 147,000 Americans may die by August 4 by an Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model often cited by the White House suggest stark months may be ahead that will inevitably complicate plans for a resumption of teaching.
Anxiety among parents of high-school and lower-aged kids, meanwhile, is growing after a rising incidence of an inflammatory syndrome that may be linked to the coronavirus has dampened confidence that kids are immune to the disease’s worst effects.
Parents were already worried that sending kids back to school will not just make them prone to infection but could turn them into asymptomatic carriers who could infect vulnerable elders. On the other hand, the educational and developmental damage inflicted by months out of school is also weighing on families.
But lagging testing has made it more difficult for schools to open. Fractured state budgets that could lead to job cuts are also complicating the picture. And school superintendents have warned that without billions of dollars in extra funding, states and districts could struggle to put in place protocol like staggering classes, social distancing measures and extra bus runs to keep infections down.
Like workers who have lost their jobs, school kids are also victims of the worst public health crisis in 100 years. Many have already lost weeks of crucial education that they may struggle to make up for. Kids from poorer families often lack computers or learning environments needed for online lessons. Millions of kids are having to take AP and other exams crucial to their future without proper teaching and from home.
And many young Americans will leave high school and universities in the coming weeks without the cherished rituals of adulthood like graduations and commencement ceremonies.
Paul and Fauci clash over schools
The contentious nature of school closures — effective in 48 states and the District of Columbia, according to a CNN count — exploded in a Senate hearing Tuesday after Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul warned Fauci he wasn’t the “end-all” authority on issues like when kids should go back to class.
Paul pointed out that mortality rates for young people were comparatively low and misleadingly suggested that outside New England, the virus had been relatively “benign.”
“I think the one-size-fits-all — that we’re going to have a national strategy and nobody’s going to go to school — is kind of ridiculous,” Paul said. “We really ought to be doing it school district by school district. And the power needs to be dispersed because people make wrong predictions.
“If we keep kids out of school for another year, what’s going to happen is the poor and underprivileged kids who don’t have a parent that’s able to teach them at home are not going to learn for a full year … I think it’s a huge mistake if we don’t open the schools in the fall.”
Fauci warned Paul that the country needed to be “very careful” about underestimating the effect of Covid-19 on young people, specifically citing the inflammatory syndrome that has killed a number of children in the United States and Europe.
“I think we better be careful if we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects,” Fauci said.
Hopes for a return to classes largely rest on the administration making good on its repeated vows to massively scale up coronavirus testing programs and efforts by state governors to make up for the shortfall in the federal effort.
The administration’s repeated failures to honor its promises to massively increase testing is one reason why there is skepticism that education can get fully back to normal from August.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers labor union, which has put out a plan on how to get American schools open again, complained that the testing available to everyone in the country was not up to the standard that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have provided for themselves at the White House.
“I am a really big believer that if it is safe, and if we can make it safe, that we need to get kids back to school voluntarily over the summer and in school in the fall,” Weingarten said.
But she added: “You have to have an infrastructure of testing in a community that is wide enough and broad enough that you are maintaining a minimal level of the virus and then, if you see a case, you immediately trace contact and isolate.”
Trump wants schools to get going
Trump, aggressively pushing to reboot the economy that is vital to his reelection campaign, first pushed state governors to open schools several weeks ago.
“A lot of people are thinking about the school openings. And I think it’s something … they can seriously consider and maybe get going on it,” Trump said.
The way forward for education dominated the virtual Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chaired the panel, broke with the White House’s triumphalism on testing to call for an improved effort to bring schools and colleges back online.
“Widespread screening of entire campuses, schools, or places of work will help identify those who are sick, trace down those who are exposed,” Alexander said. “That, in turn, should help persuade the rest of us to go back to school and back to work.”
Adm. Brett Giroir, a pediatrician and the assistant US secretary for health, told the hearing that the situation for students would depend on community spread in their areas. But he voiced optimism that testing could get up to speed quickly enough for school to resume in August.
“We expect there to be 25 million to 30 million point of care tests per month available. It is certainly possible to test all of the students,” he said, but added that surveillance strategies could mitigate the need for blanket testing.
Giroir also suggested some “promising” strategies that could be used to test waste water for an entire dorm to establish whether there is coronavirus in sewage.
States and cities still hope to open, but warn it depends on science
The White House wants decisions on when schools go back left to state and local authorities.
A resumption of academic life is in phase two of the White House’s plan to reopen America in states and regions where there is no evidence of a rebound in infections or that have satisfied criteria for falling incidences of disease.
Many states are already going ahead with openings despite coming nowhere close to the guidelines for a 14-day fall in infections to even enter stage one of the program. The White House is doing nothing to get states to observe the guidelines.
In the absence of strong federal leadership, school and college resumption is likely to mirror the patchwork wider effort to open the national economy.
Some jurisdictions have doubled down in recent days on their hopes to reopen in the fall. Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera said Monday it was “fully our intent” to be ready for the next academic year, though cautioned that data would drive the Keystone state’s decisions.
And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday “at this moment” he believed city schools could open in September — though cautioned he was watching the inflammatory syndrome carefully.
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