This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.
Shortly after this newsletter was published on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York dropped two bombshells.
First, he revealed that only 26 percent of students in the school district, the nation’s largest, have attended any class in person this year so far — way below expectations. At the beginning of the year, about half of the 1.1 million children in the system chose a hybrid approach that combines online teaching with some in-class instruction. But according to the new data, only 238,000 students actually showed up.
Second, de Blasio announced parents now have only one more chance to choose the hybrid option for their children, with a deadline of Nov. 15 for the school year ending in June. That breaks an earlier promise that families could opt back in every three months.
New York City teachers, students and families have already struggled mightily this year, including working parents trying to cope with ever-shifting school schedules and the hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children who don’t have reliable access to online classes.
Now, families have to make a momentous decision with very little lead time — and even less visibility into how the pandemic will develop during the winter months and beyond.
The whipsawing changes are not directly due to public health concerns: Schools do not seem to be stoking community transmission of the coronavirus, and random testing in New York City schools has resulted in a remarkably low rate of 0.15 percent.
The problem, instead, is a human one: The city’s leaders, school administrators and other stakeholders continue to struggle with the challenging logistics of teaching children during a pandemic.
“The city’s messy effort to reopen schools has also been deeply discouraging for many families,” wrote our colleague Eliza Shapiro, who covers New York City schools.
Class under the sky
On Cape Cod, students sit crisscross applesauce under boat sails that block the sun. In Wisconsin, as the weather gets nippy, one class stokes a wood-burning clay stove. And in New York City, students learn on a roof the size of a city block.
“Even though I’m not taking my mask off, I’m getting fresh air,” said Samaiya Bailey, a senior at the Essex Street Academy, in Lower Manhattan. “I’m able to be more open and spacious, instead of being crammed up in that classroom.”
Amelia reported on four schools in four states that have moved class outdoors to try to protect against the coronavirus. Even though some students are still learning remotely, the pandemic has brought new life to an outdoor education movement, inspired in part by Scandinavian “forest schools,” where elementary school students layer up when temperatures drop.
During disease outbreaks a century ago, American students also learned outside. That kicked off its own outdoor school movement, which led to school gardens and physical education class in fresh air. Now, some parents and teachers hope outdoor classrooms will stay long after Covid-19 is no longer a threat.
“The kids are learning, and they don’t even know they’re learning,” said Dana Hotho, a special-education teacher in Arkansas who teaches in a nearby botanical garden twice a week. “They just think they’re having a good time.”
Cases drop in college towns
Penn State: In mid-September, 10.7 percent of students at the flagship campus tested positive, according to the campus tracker, while the surrounding Centre County had a 12.1 percent positivity rate around the same time. Those rates have since fallen by more than half: From Oct. 16 to 25, only 4.5 percent of tested students were positive, tracking with the county’s rate of 5 percent.
Kansas State: The number of active coronavirus cases around campus shot up more than 400 percent in early September, a few weeks after students returned for the fall semester. By late September, the school’s test positivity rate, according to its campus dashboard, was 5.41 percent. That dropped to 2.2 percent for tests in mid-October, the most recent figure available.
Still, things look grim over all. The counties surrounding the two Kansas schools have higher rates of the virus, suggesting that campus outbreaks have spread to surrounding communities.
A tracking update: A Times survey of more than 1,700 American colleges and universities has found more than 214,000 coronavirus cases tied to campuses, and at least 75 deaths since the pandemic began. The vast majority of those cases have come in the fall, though nearly all of the deaths occurred in the spring.
Another angle: Americans remain sharply divided along partisan lines over whether colleges should have brought students back to campus, according to the Pew Research Center.
Around the country
Penn State football fans partied hard last weekend.
In Connecticut, 15 students at Trinity College will finish the semester online, after they were removed from campus for violating pandemic safety codes.
An enrollment drop at the University of Oregon, which was already facing declining numbers, are projected to result in $15 million to $20 million in lost tuition revenue this year.
SUNY, New York’s state university system, says students must test negative before leaving campus for Thanksgiving break, to prevent community spread in their hometowns.
A good read: Yara Manasrah, an 18-year-old student at the University of Georgia with a medical condition, takes most of her classes online. Still, she’s finding time to make friends. “It was nice to say: ‘These are my homies,’” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In North Carolina, private schools have more case clusters than public schools.
Massachusetts schools will soon receive more than two million rapid tests from the federal government.
Many schools are getting rid of snow days during the pandemic, but not Mahwah Township in New Jersey. “We have decided that few childhood acts remain unchanged due to COVID-19 and we will maintain the hope of children by calling actual snow days due to inclement weather,” the district said in a statement. “Snow days are chances for on-site learners and virtual learners to just be kids by playing in the snow, baking cookies, reading books and watching a good movie.”
A good read: The news site The 74 looked into the racial divide in a return to school. “Families at schools where more students are white have been eager to send their children back for in person learning. At schools where more children are Black and Latino, families have been hesitant,” the correspondent Bekah McNeel wrote.
Keep an eye out for …
We learn so much from other education newsletters:
The Boston Globe has The Great Divide, which tackles racial and socioeconomic inequity in education around Boston and across New England.
Chalkbeat has a national edition, as well as individual letters for each of its nationwide bureaus. Here’s the landing page for all newsletters.
Benjy Renton, a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, has a data-journalism-driven approach to national higher ed news.