Oct 26, 2020 - Economy

The dangerous instability of school re-openings

Illustration of hand writing and crossing out open and closed on a chalkboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Schools across the country have flip-flopped between in-person and remote learning — and that instability is taking a toll on students' ability to learn and their mental health.

The big picture: While companies were able to set long timelines for their return, schools — under immense political and social strain — had to rush to figure out how to reopen. The cobbled-together approach has hurt students, parents and teachers alike.

  • "In hindsight, we can say it would have been better to go all-remote," says Jon Hale, a professor of education at the University of Illinois. "But there was so much pressure to open."

What's happening: Without clear federal or state standards, re-opening strategies — which range from lottery systems that determine who gets to come to school to on-and-off in-person learning depending on the week's caseloads — have been disorganized at students' expense.

  • The instability has affected students within big districts: New York opened for in-person learning and then closed some schools in response to case spikes. Atlanta, Boston and Chicago have all delayed re-opening plans.
  • Smaller districts have been affected, too: St. Cloud, Minn. and Lowell, Mass. schools switched from in-person to remote learning in response to case spikes.

Why it matters: The flip-flopping is hurting already-vulnerable students and exhausting teachers, experts tell Axios.

  • Teachers in the many districts that are using hybrid or opt-in for remote models are struggling to manage in-person and at-home students simultaneously, says Dennis Roche, co-founder of Burbio, which has been tracking re-opening plans.
  • The uncertainty is especially difficult for students with special needs who often rely on structure during the school day.
  • The interruption in services like after-school care and free and reduced-price lunch is disproportionately affecting students of color, who tend to be lower-income, the University of Illinois' Hale says.

In the longer term, this precarious period threatens to destabilize the whole public education system as parents lose faith in it, says Hale.

  • Wealthy parents are increasingly pulling their kids out of public schools and enrolling them in private schools that are offering in-person learning because they don't have to contend with teachers unions and local lawmakers to do so.

The bottom line: "It's just such tradeoff," says Meira Levinson, a Harvard professor of education.

  • It probably would have been better to commit to a remote fall in June so schools could plan the logistics and services, she says. "But on the other hand, everybody agrees that in-person education is better."
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