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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."

Go deeper

Jan 25, 2021 - Health

The pandemic could be worsening childhood obesity

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The 10-month long school closures and the coronavirus pandemic are expected to have a big impact on childhood obesity rates.

Why it matters: About one in five children are obese in the U.S. — an all-time high — with worsening obesity rates across income and racial and ethnic groups, data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show.

3 hours ago - World

Scoop: Iran preparing to enrich weapons-grade uranium, Israel warns U.S.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi holds a press conference. Photo: Presidency of Iran handout via Getty

Israel has shared intelligence over the past two weeks with the U.S. and several European allies suggesting that Iran is taking technical steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90% purity — the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon, two U.S. sources briefed on the issue tell me.

Why it matters: Enriching to 90% would bring Iran closer than ever to the nuclear threshold. The Israeli warnings come as nuclear talks resume in Vienna, with Iran returning to the negotiating table on Monday after a five-month hiatus.

Biden: Fight against Omicron won't include "shutdowns or lockdowns"

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden on Monday said that the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, is "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic."

Driving the news: Biden said later this week the administration will be releasing a strategy on how "we're going to fight COVID this winter. Not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more."