An instructor helps a West Brooklyn Community High School student navigate an online lesson in New York in October. Large school systems in liberal cities and counties are coming under increasing pressure from mayors, governors, educators and public health experts to provide in-person learning as soon as the current COVID-19 spike abates. Kathy Willens/The Associated Press
Since the summer, the simmering state and local debate over reopening K-12 public schools has reflected the nation’s deep partisan divide on the coronavirus, with Republicans favoring openings and Democrats more likely to support a cautious approach.
But new scientific evidence showing that in-person learning has resulted in relatively few outbreaks of COVID-19 — combined with growing concerns about learning and social development setbacks for kids — may be closing that chasm.
For now, the national COVID-19 surge that is overwhelming hospitals in some states has stalled any further movement toward opening classrooms. Scores of schools are closing in hard-hit states, and major cities are shelving plans to reopen schools for the first time.
Still, large school systems in liberal cities and counties are coming under increasing pressure from mayors, governors, educators and public health experts to provide in-person learning as soon as the current COVID-19 spike abates.
The presidential election and coming departure of President Donald Trump also may affect Americans’ attitudes toward reopening schools, said Michael Hartney, an assistant professor of political science at Boston College and co-author of a recent study tying national politics to school closure decisions.
“Some percentage of very anti-Trump voters may soften their feelings about school openings and say, ‘Wow, this has gone on too long, maybe it’s time to reopen the schools,’” he said. “By January, they may be able to separate their desire to get their kids back to school from the person in the White House.”
Last summer, when Trump urged all states to open their schoolhouses and told the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to rewrite its K-12 COVID-19 public health guidelines accordingly, the issue of school closures became as politicized as masks and bar openings.
The CDC suggested that school districts open classrooms based on the rate of new COVID-19 infections in their communities but gave state and local officials wide discretion to set their own benchmarks.
When the school year began in August, most Democrats in major cities and suburbs were calling for a cautious approach, putting public health above all else. In counties and states that leaned Republican, where many residents objected to wearing masks and shuttering businesses, the push for schools to reopen for in-person learning was much stronger.
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