Debate over in-person learning concerns parents, politicians, educators

Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking to the press this week about keeping schools open.

With the surge of the milder Omicron variant affecting the country this week, many large school districts across the nation remained closed after the holiday break. Schools either canceled classes or switched to remote learning, a move frustrating parents, students and politicians alike.

According to the Burbio school tracker database, more than 2,100 schools will be closed this week. School administrators in large districts including Atlanta, Cleveland, Newark and Syracuse canceled classes completely or moved online. Schools in Chicago were forced to cancel classes when the Chicago Teachers Union voted to return to virtual learning, and the school district locked the teachers out of online classrooms. Chicago schools CEO Pedro Martinez and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot criticized the union decision.

“What we have learned from this pandemic is that schools are the safest place for students to be,” Mayor Lightfoot said in a statement.

In early 2021, a Gallup poll showed nearly 80 percent of K-12 parents supported in-person learning, with working parents showing even higher support at 82 percent. 

Several issues are at play in the debate over classroom learning: parents and educators saw firsthand the learning losses experienced during the 2020 school closures; working parents are frustrated with the scramble to find child care when classrooms suddenly close; and politicians, pediatricians and families all see the effects of interrupted routines on children’s mental health. 

Politicians are paying attention.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said this week, “Our expectation is for schools to be open full time for students for in-person learning.” 

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis held a press conference on Monday pledging to keep students in classrooms. “Our schools will be open in the state of Florida. If you look at the data that’s been amassed throughout the pandemic, it’s found that you have worse outcomes by closing schools,” DeSantis said. “And so it’d be so damaging. Kids need to be in school.” 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams held a press conference outside an elementary school on Monday: “We want to be extremely clear: The safest place for our children is in a school building, and we are going to keep our schools open.”

Back in April, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published an editorial encouraging four points of “school re-envisioning” to keep children in classrooms. The points included better partnerships between schools and healthcare, and strategies to avoid disruptions in classroom time:

“Every district needs a plan and commitment to reopen every school, for every child, as soon as possible. Anything less is a failing grade.”