WASHINGTON — Introducing President Biden on Friday morning, Brookland Middle School eighth grader Elijah Poole admitted that he had struggled with remote learning throughout the 2020-21 school year.
“I’m not gonna lie, that was really hard,” said Poole, though he added that he persevered and managed to stay on the honor roll. Some other students fared worse. Studies have shown that remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic has led to educational loss and psychological harm for many children confined to “Zoom school.”
Schools across the District of Columbia were closed for the vast majority of the last school year. The same was true for schools in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and other districts across the country where teachers’ unions wielded significant political power and resisted reopening plans.
Now, however, students are back at Brookland, as they are at every other school in Washington, D.C. Data so far suggests that schools have not become the sites of significant transmission, even in the face of the coronavirus’s more transmissible Delta variant.
According to the district’s schools department, out of 48,500 public school students, 87 had tested positive as of Sept. 8, by which time schools had been open for nearly two weeks. The number of teachers and staff testing positive was 43 out of 7,500.
Other districts that stayed remote last year are reporting similar results, though it is far too early to say whether the low infection rates will hold, especially since cold weather, which could rob schools of the ability to hold classes and lunch periods outdoors, has not yet set in.
In Marin County, a wealthy suburban enclave in Northern California, officials are reporting “lower than expected” infection rates in schools, with only 71 cases among about 35,000 students and teachers. Of those cases, only four involved in-school transmission.
In Los Angeles, which has the second-largest school district in the country, two recent outbreaks yielded 20 positive cases in a system of more than half a million students, teachers and staff.
Despite pressure from some members of the city council and parent activists, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and schools chancellor Lewis Ferebee have steadfastly refused to expand remote learning options. Biden praised both Bowser and Ferebee for returning children to the classroom. “You’re doing a heck of a job,” he told the chancellor.
Biden said that when every student at Brookland was vaccinated, they would earn an invitation to the White House. “I’m gonna get in trouble with the Secret Service,” Biden joked, adding that he might let the students test out the presidential helicopter on the South Lawn. That was also a joke.
It was a change in tone for the president, who the previous evening delivered a speech in which he expressed unvarnished frustration at unvaccinated Americans, as well as at Republican governors fighting mask mandates in schools.
On Friday, surrounded by children and educators on what was turning out to be a sun-drenched autumn morning, he struck a more hopeful note. “We’re gonna be OK. We know what it takes to keep our children safe and our schools open,” Biden promised.
Keeping schools open is a major component of the six-point plan Biden introduced on Thursday to fight the latest coronavirus surge, which has been fueled by the highly transmissible Delta variant. He has promised to reimburse districts that mandate masks and are penalized by their Republican-controlled state government for doing so, as has happened in Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis. Biden has also called on governors to mandate vaccination for teachers and school staff.
Earlier this week, Los Angeles said all students in its public schools eligible to receive a vaccine must do so. Children under 12 years old are not yet authorized to be vaccinated, but that could change later this fall.
For now, though, embracing precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appears to be keeping schools open in many of the same, typically Democrat-dominated, places where they were closed for much of last year. At the time, those closures were justified as a public health measure, though some studies suggested schools did not cause significant spread of the coronavirus.
Delta, however, is making abundantly cautious school districts seem prescient. Those that approached the new year with safety measures — universal masking and vaccination requirements for staff — are reaping the benefits.
In San Francisco, there have been only 227 total cases out of 62,000 students, teachers and staff, and the infections almost always occurred outside school.
“Suspected in-school transmissions has been so low it cannot be publicly reported without concern for privacy and confidentiality,” a statement from the city’s health department said.
Schools in San Francisco have been open since late August. Next week, public schools open in New York City, which has the nation’s largest school district.
Still, students in districts that are complying with federal guidelines are missing school because they are being forced to undergo quarantine at home after coming into close contact with an infected person. Even if the quarantined students do not ever become infected themselves, they must still spend several days at home. They can return to school only after a negative diagnostic test.
In the District of Columbia, for example, there were 912 students quarantined as of Sept. 8, more than 10 times as many as have tested positive for the coronavirus.
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