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6 Feet or 3 Feet Apart? Why Reopening Schools Is Not So Easy.

This is the Education Briefing, a weekly update on the most important news in American education. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Today, we consider how the same basic guidelines for reopening schools can be interpreted in very different ways. And the University of Chicago gets a new president.

The C.D.C. vs. the experts

Two pieces that ran in The Times this week addressed, from different angles, the question of whether and how fully schools should be open.

One article mapped out the guidelines for schools that were recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidelines divide communities into four different tiers based on the level of transmission, with different recommendations for each tier.

The piece showed where in the country the C.D.C. guidance would suggest that schools be open — fully or partially — and where they should be completely remote.

The bottom line? According to the guidelines, only “4 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren live in counties where coronavirus transmission is low enough for full-time in-person learning without additional restrictions,” our colleague, John Keefe, wrote.

The other article, from the Upshot team, summarized the results of a survey of pediatric infectious disease experts, almost all of whom agreed that elementary schools should be open. It featured quotes by experts about their frustration with districts that have kept elementary schools closed and their concerns about the damage to children from prolonged closures.

The writer Matthew Yglesias noted on Twitter the contrast in tone between the two articles and suggested that someone needed to do “the full kremlinology on the paper’s disparate reporting on the school reopening debate, which seems to cut across several departments which are taking different lines.”

“One team had a scary map saying few counties meet CDC guidelines for school reopening, a different team has experts saying that the benefits of school reopening are worth the risk. These are both true, but also pretty clearly reflect different views of the issue.”

In fact, on the basics, the C.D.C. and the experts were not that far apart. Both agreed that all elementary schools should be open for some in-person instruction, and both said that teachers did not need to be vaccinated before schools could open.

At least some of the experts seemed to agree with the agency’s emphasis on keeping six feet of distance between students and teachers. (The experts were surveyed in advance of the guidelines’ release.)

Nonetheless, the tenor of the two pieces was different, with one reflecting the agency’s caution and the other the experts’ sense of urgency about getting young children back to school.

Claire Cain Miller, one of the Upshot reporters who conducted the survey (whose full results are summarized here), said she and her colleague, Margot Sanger-Katz, were surprised by the consensus among the experts in favor of opening at least elementary schools, which was greater than they had found in earlier surveys of a group of epidemiologists.

She thought the change reflected a number of factors, including that we now have half a year’s worth of data on school openings, which have generally shown that the risk of transmission in schools is less than experts originally feared.

Additionally, she said, as pediatric experts, this group was particularly focused on the impact of decisions to open or close schools on children, rather than the impact on other groups, like teachers.

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“They’re seeing it with patients, in their hospitals: skyrocketing depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, child abuse not being reported,” Claire told me. “They’re really worried about those other aspects of health.”

My colleague Dana Goldstein, who wrote an article this week looking at the growing movement of parents demanding open schools, focused in the Philadelphia suburbs, said that the contrast between the pieces underscored how relatively conservative the C.D.C.’s guidance is.

While the agency states that all schools can open safely with sufficient mitigation measures, and that the risk of transmission in schools is low when precautions were taken, the bright-line rules — like the requirement of six-foot distancing — seem to be all that most local decision makers can process, she said.

“When I was doing the Pennsylvania reporting, I heard about school board members and superintendents saying, ‘We were interested in reducing that 6-foot guidance’” — to get more children back in school full time — “‘but, look, the Biden administration is trusted, and they are saying now six feet is still the standard,’” Dana said.

“So even though there was some subtlety from the C.D.C., that’s not necessarily filtering down to local bureaucrats that have to make decisions.”

Another good read from The Times graphics team: Some experts thought the C.DC. guidelines were not specific enough about what schools should do to improve ventilation in classrooms. This simulation shows how an open window, a box fan and an air cleaner with a HEPA filter can significantly reduce the chances of transmission in a classroom.

University of Chicago’s new president

A few years ago, students who had been accepted to the University of Chicago’s Class of 2020 received a note and a paperback book, called “Academic Freedom and the Modern University.” In the note, the dean of students wrote, “Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.”

He went on, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Class Disrupted

Updated March 2, 2021

The latest on how the pandemic is reshaping education.

    • As classroom closures near their first anniversary, a diverse movement of parents is demanding action.
    • Should your school be fully open? Here’s what the federal government’s latest guidelines say about that.
    • And here’s why doctors and scientists say elementary schools should be teaching in person with proper precautions.
    • A Times audio documentary follows one Texas high school in crisis during the pandemic.

    The letter reflected the guiding principles of the university and its president, Robert J. Zimmer, who cared so much about free expression that he convened a faculty committee to report on it. Now Dr. Zimmer has announced that he is stepping down, effective Sept. 1.

    Dr. Zimmer has served as president since 2006, overseeing the university’s rise from a place for iconoclasts — “where fun goes to die” — to a more widely popular school, with new name recognition, and rising numbers of applicants.

    The incoming president, Paul Alivisatos, is a prominent scientist, former national lab director, and entrepreneur, whose inventions are widely used in everything from biomedicine to QLED displays. Dr. Alivisatos, 61, is currently executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Berkeley.

    Dr. Alivisatos was born in Chicago — though his family moved to Athens when he was 10 years old — and he is only the second UChicago president (out of 14) in its 130-year history who is also a UChicago alumnus. In a nod, perhaps, to the university’s more recent commitment to undergraduate education, he received his undergraduate degree in chemistry there in 1981.

    Dr. Zimmer’s presidency, originally through 2022, was cut short when he had surgery in May to remove a malignant brain tumor. He has since returned to work and is doing well, the university said. When he steps down from the presidency, he will take the role of chancellor.

    In a video statement laying out his vision, Dr. Alivisatos signaled that he would take a particular interest in the university’s relationship with the surrounding neighborhoods. But he also recalled taking a math class with Dr. Zimmer, who, while writing a proof on the chalkboard, celebrated “not what to think but how to think.”

    It was evidence, Dr. Alivisatos continued, of a “fierce commitment to free speech and vigorous debate, that special combination that anyone anywhere will recognize as UChicago.”

    Around the country

    College update

    Dartmouth College is experiencing a significant outbreak of coronavirus cases, which some have blamed on students partying. Common spaces have been closed, and students have been asked to remain in their rooms.

    A good read from The Times: Some colleges invested in fever scanners, symptom checkers, wearable heart-rate monitors and other new screening technologies as they tried to showcase their pandemic safety efforts. It’s unclear if any of those things have actually made anyone safer.

    Struggling financially under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, Becker College in Worcester, Mass., released a statement this week announcing it would likely close. Becker, a private college of 1,700 students, is one of the oldest in the country.

    Faced with a decline in enrollment and state funding, officials in New Hampshire are considering a merger of the state’s public university and community college systems under one administration. The proposal by Governor Chris Sununu is designed to save money.

    At the University of Texas, a traditional song is at the center of a controversy. The university had reviewed whether “The Eyes of Texas” should be abandoned following complaints about its racist derivation. This week the Texas Tribune reported that the reaction from alums had been fierce — they threatened to withhold donations.

    The University of Oklahoma is the latest institution to announce plans to resume in-person classes and a regular schedule this fall, optimistic that the pandemic will be under control by then.

    K-12 update

    A good read from the Washington Post, looking at a D.C. elementary school principal and her staff who embarked on a “communication and information blitz” to convince their school’s mostly Black parents to send their children back in person. They had some success, showing how critical a role teachers and principals can play in building (or maybe, in some cases, undermining) parents’ confidence in reopening plans.

    Gov. Gavin Newsom and California lawmakers reached an agreement on a plan to encourage districts to open, though its impact may be limited. Most of California’s large districts have been operating virtually all year.

    Education Secretary Miguel Cardona shares his “five-point plan to get students back in school full time” in an op-ed in USA Today — though the op-ed actually acknowledges that some students will continue to go to school only part-time for now, to maintain physical distancing.

    Some parents, balking at the possibility of another half-year or year of remote learning, withdrew their children from public school last fall and set up their own learning pods. If families decide to stick with these pods into next year, it could have major implications for districts’ finances, Marketplace reports.

    What happens when teenagers who have been out of school for almost a year get to come back? “When have you ever in your life just snapped your fingers and seen change? But that is what has happened with these students,” says a principal in East Wenatchee, Washington, whose students returned in late January.

    My son, the destroyer

    In The Times’ Parenting newsletter this week, Jessica Winter, an editor at The New Yorker, writes about how her four-year-old son “explores his world by dismantling it.” It’s funny and wonderfully illuminating.

    “Hand him a child-size screwdriver and he can remove several light switch plates and begin unburdening a door of its hinges before you have time to reconsider your options,” she writes.

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    Stephanie Saul contributed to today’s newsletter.

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