This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.
The Chicago Teachers Union said on Sunday that a majority of its members had voted to authorize a strike if the nation’s third-largest school district sought to force teachers back into school buildings.
Chicago Public Schools said it would delay the teachers’ return, originally scheduled for today, by two days for “ongoing” discussions. Students are still due back on Feb. 1.
Teachers unions are flexing their muscles nationwide. This weekend in Montclair, N.J., an affluent suburb of New York City, the union also delayed a planned reopening of schools. And in Bellevue, Wash., district officials sought an injunction against the union after teachers, concerned about safety, refused to participate in in-person instruction.
These actions may complicate President Biden’s plan to reopen schools in his first 100 days in office. He has vowed to throw the strength of the federal government behind an effort to “reopen school doors as quickly as possible.” But our colleague Dana Goldstein reports that the return to normality may be anything but speedy.
About half of American students are still learning virtually. Teachers are uncertain about when they will be vaccinated, and their unions are fighting efforts to return their members to crowded hallways. But some school administrators, mayors and parents feel increased urgency to get children back into classrooms, especially those who are struggling academically and emotionally.
Biden has ordered federal agencies to create national school reopening guidelines, and support virus tracing and data collection. The White House is also pushing a stimulus package that would provide $130 billion to schools for costs such as virus testing, upgrading ventilation systems and hiring staff.
But teachers and unions are still leery, and administrators have begun to say what was previously unthinkable: that schools may not operate normally for the 2021-22 school year. Labor leaders are seeking to tamp down Biden’s expectations, and seek measures that would address teachers’ anxiety about in-person school.
Biden’s pledge is “an arbitrary and a political statement, not a pedagogical statement or a science or health statement,” said Kenzo Shibata, a high school teacher and official with the Chicago Teachers Union. “It doesn’t inspire a lot of faith in me.”
School closures and suicides
Since school buildings in and around Las Vegas closed in March, 18 students have died by suicide, compared with nine last year, according to Jesus Jara, the Clark County superintendent. Now, the district, the nation’s fifth largest, is scrambling to bring children back to classrooms.
“This story isn’t about the ‘pro-reopening’ movement,” tweeted Erica Green, our colleague who covers education policy for The Times. “This story isn’t about ‘anti-union’ sentiment. This story is about how the pandemic has tested the resilience of this generation’s children like never before.”
This month, the Clark County school board gave the green light to phase in the return of some elementary school grades and groups of struggling students, even as greater Las Vegas continues to post huge numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths.
Schools During Coronavirus ›
Updated Jan. 25, 2021
The latest on how the pandemic is reshaping education.
- President Biden vowed to reopen schools quickly. It won’t be easy.
- In Wisconsin, a school board voted to keep classrooms closed. Parents revolted.
- In Las Vegas, a surge of student suicides pushed schools to come back.
- What does a more contagious coronavirus variant mean for education?
Adolescent suicide during the pandemic cannot conclusively be linked to school closures. National data on suicides in 2020 have yet to be compiled and, even in normal circumstances, suicides are impulsive, unpredictable and difficult to ascribe to specific causes.
But the pandemic has created conditions unlike anything mental health professionals have seen before, making causation that much more difficult to determine. The parents of a 14-year-old boy in Maryland who killed himself in October described how their son “gave up” after his district decided not to return in the fall. In December, an 11-year-old boy in Sacramento shot himself during his Zoom class. And the father of a teenager in Maine attributed his son’s suicide to the isolation of the pandemic.
Schools “are the nexus of adolescent life,” said Suzie Button, the senior clinical director for high school programming at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit based in New York that works on suicide prevention.
“And in times like this, young people are sometimes the canaries in the coal mine.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
Around the world
The University of Michigan paused “athletic activities in all sports” — games and training sessions alike — after several people in the department tested positive for the new coronavirus variant.
Dickinson College is splitting its semester: First year students and sophomores are on campus right now; juniors and seniors will switch in halfway through to finish.
First year students at the University of Pennsylvania are reportedly partying in violation of coronavirus guidelines, Abi Murugadoss reported for The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student paper.
Applications to Harvard surged by 42 percent to more than 57,000. The dean of admissions attributed the influx to generous financial aid, online recruiting and optional standardized tests.
Students will not return to campus at Harvey Mudd College this spring.
Rutgers University will not require students to be vaccinated to return to campus in the fall.
A good read: College students in France are suffering, as financial distress exacerbates mental health challenges. Through a coordinated effort, they’ve pushed their struggle to the top of the national agenda, The Washington Post reports.
Fans can attend high school sports games in Idaho under state orders that allow gyms to function at 40 percent capacity. But unmasked spectators have been seen sitting close together in the bleachers, The Idaho Statesman reported.
In Texas, some teachers are prioritizing basic skills during the pandemic. Bekah McNeel, a correspondent at The 74, described it as “a surgical approach to keep young students at grade level, focusing on a core curriculum of must-have skills in reading and math.”
Fourth and fifth graders in Denver are back in classrooms after mostly learning remotely since March. “I was nervous at first, but then I saw they were doing it carefully and I felt really excited because I get to see all of my friends,” Kennedy Fox, a fourth grader, told Chalkbeat Colorado.
A teacher remembered: Matthew Beaver, 40, was a middle school physical education teacher and coach in North Carolina. He died after contracting the coronavirus, and had been teaching in person. “He affected so many people in a positive manner,” a colleague said. “Made me a better teacher.”
A defiant school board: Patrick Key, a 53-year-old teacher in Cobb County, Ga., died on Christmas after contracting Covid-19. During a moment of silence, at least two members of his school board refused to wear masks in his honor.
A good read: For months, early childhood educators have been hailed as heroes. But unlike teachers, who often belong to powerful unions, they may not get priority for vaccines, EdSurge reports.
Tip: Eat healthy
Money has been tight for many families during the pandemic, and it can be expensive to buy produce. But most teenagers in the United States do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our colleague Christina Caron offered some tips and suggestions for thinking through a diet change.
Kate Taylor contributed reporting.
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