Dana Goldstein, a Times education reporter, weighs in on questions that she hears frequently from parents.
Amelia Nierenberg and
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I’m Dana Goldstein, and for two exhausting and contentious years, I’ve covered K-12 education through the pandemic.
The past month has been a whirlwind. I wrote a series of articles about how the surge of the Omicron variant is affecting schools, families and national politics. At the same time, my daughter’s Brooklyn preschool went remote unexpectedly, because of rising case counts. Then, just as the school was about to reopen classrooms, one of her teachers tested positive — though she heroically read to her students over Zoom while sick.
We’ve met new substitutes, scrambled to source tiny KN95 masks, and once again found ourselves wondering how to amuse (and tolerate!) two exuberant children during a frigid, virus-constrained winter.
All to say, I’m here with you during this pandemic. And I’ve heard many questions from parents during the Omicron surge. Here is what I’ve learned from my reporting.
Is it less safe to attend school in-person now than in previous phases of the pandemic, because Omicron is more contagious?
Research on the coronavirus and schools has been reassuring, with studies showing in-school spread can be contained through masking, sanitation and distancing. It could be months before we have updated, rigorous data on schools and Omicron, specifically. But there are reasons to be hopeful, according to Dr. Sara Bode, the incoming chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health. For one thing, all teachers and school-aged children now have access to vaccines. And in many parts of the Northeast and Midwest, the virus surged over the holiday break, when schools were closed but families and friends were frequently gathering in homes.
Now, with schools largely open, the curve is dipping in many regions. “We don’t see higher spread of Covid with attendance in school in person,” said Dr. Bode, who advises the Columbus, Ohio, public schools on the coronavirus. Where she has investigated potential instances of in-school spread, she has found relatively modestly sized clusters, such as four or five children testing positive within a masked, 25-student class.
Conflict between teachers’ unions and districts has increased, and some teachers want a temporary return to remote learning. What are teachers most worried about and what are they asking for?
In interviews with teachers’ union leaders and frontline educators across the country — in both liberal and conservative states — staff shortages because of sickness, burnout and anxiety were the primary concern. There are too few substitutes, so classes are being combined, sometimes in gyms or cafeterias. In some cases, little formal learning is happening.
Many families want school buildings to remain open, and some are frustrated by union resistance. They have told me they need school buildings to function even in a bare-bones way, because they must go to work and cannot supervise their kids, or their children need meals, disability services and other resources only schools can provide. Parents also want their kids to socialize with peers.
But keeping schools open under these circumstances leaves educators feeling, “We’re being treated like a babysitting service,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade in Miami. I heard that sentiment often from teachers over the past several weeks. Some parents agree that in-person schooling during this surge is less than ideal, and are pushing for remote options.
Unions are also asking for a number of virus safety measures: medical-grade masks for teachers and sometimes students as well, universal access to virus tests and continued ventilation upgrades.
A few union leaders I spoke to mentioned requests that are more unusual during this phase of the pandemic, such as a continuation of outdoor lunches — even in the cold — so staff members do not have to spend time around unmasked students indoors.
Are these steps necessary for safe in-person learning?
According to Dr. Bode, in an ideal world, school staff and students would all be vaccinated; there would be universal masking and contact tracing, as well as isolation and testing of symptomatic people.
But in the real world, the millions of new rapid tests that the Biden administration and states have promised to schools have yet to fully show up. Contact tracing is difficult to do quickly, and many parents have resisted having their children vaccinated and tested for the virus. Across wide swaths of the country, masking in schools is optional.
Even under those circumstances, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and an expert on pandemics, wrote recently on Twitter that he believed schools could stay open. Educators wearing KN95-type masks are reasonably well protected when people around them are unmasked, he wrote, and portable air filters can improve air quality. “Given the value of school,” he said, “that’s enough to get kids back.”
Dr. Bode largely agreed. While lunchtime is higher risk than the rest of the school day, she said it could be done safely with students eating near the same few classmates each day — and with masked adults and portable air filters, even when the weather makes it impossible to go outside or to open windows.
Where is the federal stimulus funding that was supposed to help schools operate during the pandemic?
There have been three rounds of federal pandemic stimulus funding for public schools, totaling about $200 billion. The first two rounds, passed under President Trump in 2020, were largely used for the initial costs associated with the onset of the pandemic, such as devices for remote learning, software licenses, nutrition services while schools were closed, ventilation upgrades, masks and hand-sanitizing stations.
The biggest cash influx to K-12 schools arrived under President Biden last year, with $122 billion from the American Rescue Plan. School districts spent months sketching out how to use the money, and are just beginning to spend it, according to Dennis and Julie Roche, the husband and wife team who founded Burbio, a data company that has tracked how schools are responding to the pandemic.
The primary purpose of the bill was to help students recover academically and emotionally, so many of the dollars will be spent on summer and after-school programs, tutoring, mental health supports and access to technology. About 12 percent of the 2,400 district plans that Burbio has analyzed mention raises or bonuses for educators, which could help address staffing shortages — but a lot of those dollars have yet to be paid out.
About 20 percent of districts plan to spend funds on further Covid mitigation measures, Burbio reports, and 40 percent are planning HVAC upgrades.
Does my child need a heavier-duty mask? When can they unmask?
Two years into the pandemic, the masking of children remains a difficult and emotional issue for many educators and parents. After the holiday break, my daughter’s wonderful pre-K asked parents to track down N95, KN95 or KF94 masks for our kids. I spent over $100 shipping several different styles to our home, looking for one that worked for my small 4-year-old. She found a brand she likes well enough, but I did question whether all this was necessary, given the C.D.C.’s warning that such masks “have not been tested for broad use in children.” What’s more, I’ve noticed that even in Covid-cautious communities like mine, growing numbers of parents and even public health experts are questioning how long-term masking is affecting kids.
Dr. Bode said that with the current surge, “Now is not the time to discontinue masking.” That could be reconsidered when and where test positivity rates are low and vaccination rates are high, she added. As for KN95-type masks for young children, she said her primary concern was finding one small enough and well-fitted — without gaps around the face — that the child could wear for long periods of time. A surgical-type mask may be easier to tolerate and is more effective than a cloth mask.
Mask mandates ending. In one of the biggest rollbacks of statewide health protocols since the pandemic began, officials in New Jersey and Connecticut said they would end mask mandates for schools, while California, Delaware and Oregon also announced the easing of some mask orders.
Around the world. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said that unrest in Ottawa over Covid rules “has to stop.” In Hong Kong, officials announced the city’s tightest social-distancing rules yet to curb its largest outbreak so far.
Staying safe. Follow some basic guidance on when to test, which mask to pick and how to use at-home virus tests. Here is what to do if you test positive for the coronavirus, and if you lose your vaccination card.
“It’s really important for kids to feel comfortable in their masks,” she said.
If you have more questions for Dana or other education reporters, please write to us using this form. We’re planning to try to regularly answer questions in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
Public school students in Chicago, Boston, Oakland, Calif., and other districts walked out of class to protest what they said were insufficient Covid-19 protocols.
Las Vegas schools are offering full-time employees bonuses of up to $2,000 if they remain at work during the pandemic.
Some universities are loosening rules in a move from “containment to management,” an acknowledgment that the virus is here to stay.
College enrollment dropped again in fall 2021, despite the arrival of vaccines.
Ferris State University, in Michigan, placed a professor on leave after he called students “vectors of disease” in a bizarre welcome video.
The University of Michigan fired its president for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, the Board of Regents said.
Dartmouth College is adding international students to its need-blind admissions policy.
The Loudoun County school district in Virginia plans to remove “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a book about a young person’s struggle with gender identity, from library shelves.
The Michigan State Board of Education passed a resolution that supports the teaching of comprehensive history, meant to counter proposed state legislation intended to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory or the 1619 Project.
Clinicians are divided over new proposed guidelines for treating trans teens.
And the rest …
A former adviser to the Obama administration pleaded guilty to charges that he had orchestrated a scheme to steal more than $200,000 from a network of charter schools that he founded, prosecutors said.
The Supreme Court will hear an appeal from a high school football coach who lost his job after defying school administrators by kneeling and praying at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.
A cyberattack in Albuquerque, N.M., forced schools to cancel classes for two days last week.
And a great read: A school for at-risk teens has long faced accusations of using improper methods. Several lawsuits against the school describe physical, emotional and sexual abuse in the 1990s and 2000s that former students said has haunted them well into adulthood.
Mouthwatering chocolate, soft and chewy cookies, lollipops and fruity gummies: Marijuana edibles often look just like regular foods. For a young child, candies and chocolates are incredibly tempting. And as more states legalize weed, more kids are accidentally ingesting cannabis.
According to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, exposures to edibles for children 12 and under have jumped to more than 3,100 in 2020 from 187 in 2016.
Kids can react badly to cannabis edibles, especially adult-size portions.
If your child might have ingested cannabis, call Poison Control. And if they have more severe symptoms — like vomiting, seizing, trouble breathing or not waking up — go straight to the emergency room.
The easiest way to minimize children’s risk is to keep cannabis out of reach — and out of sight.
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