New York schools get green light for in-person learning—raising myriad questions

New York state schools have the green light to reopen for in-person learning in September with social distancing and health screenings, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday—a decision that immediately raised more questions than it answered.

“If any state can do this, we can do this,” said Cuomo during a conference call with reporters. 

The decision comes as school districts across the U.S. grapple with competing pressures to bring students back in September without exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus. Cuomo’s decision paves the way for New York City—the nation’s biggest school district with more than 1.1 million students—to return to the classroom, even as school systems in Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas plan to remain remote this fall. It’s on track to be the only one of the nation’s top 10 biggest school districts to reopen in-person learning this fall. 

Despite Cuomo’s green light for the state, nearly all of the details will be left up to New York’s 750 school districts, which have only three weeks to hone plans on exactly how students will return, and how schools will monitor the health and safety of pupils and teachers.

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So far, districts are proposing everything from a mix of in-person and remote instruction, such as the hybrid model proposed in New York City, to sending children home before lunch to avoid a risky indoor-dining environment, Cuomo said on a conference call with reporters. 

“I can’t fashion a plan that would work in every school district; they are just too different,” he said. 

Theoretically, individual school districts could still opt to delay the start of in-person learning or go completely remote if they choose, particularly if they face enough pressure from parents and teachers. 

“It’s up to them,” Cuomo said. “In-person, hybrid, outdoor education, remote education, blended, half day, quarter day, third day — that is all up to their discretion.”

The state, through the health department, has set only a few hard rules, including a maximum positivity threshold of 5% — meaning the proportion of testing coming back positive — which would automatically trigger a region’s school buildings to close again. New York City has set a more conservative positivity threshold of 3% for the five boroughs. Schools must conduct health screenings, which at a minimum means daily temperature checks, said Jim Malatras, the president of Empire State College and an adviser to Mr. Cuomo, at the governor’s briefing. 

Districts must also devise a system for testing symptomatic students and staff, he added. 

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COVID testing is a major concern among parents, from whom the governor said he’s received a “deluge” of worried phone calls. To address that, he gave districts until the end of next week to finalize and post plans about how testing will be carried out, when a child must be tested and where it will be done.

Next week, districts must also publicly post specific plans for tracing outbreaks and explain their remote learning option, he added. 

“We’ve learned from the experiences we’ve had during COVID that remote learning can be quite unequal, given the demographics and given the circumstances,” Cuomo said, adding that he wants districts to draw attention to these three areas of concern so parents aren’t forced to go “wading” through lengthy reopening plans. 

The governor also gave districts until Aug. 21 to conduct three town halls with parents — five for big school districts like New York City — and one with teachers. The next few weeks promise parents, teachers and administrators a whirlwind of information, and certainly some disagreement, over reopening right on the cusp of the school year. 

Parents and teachers are feeling particularly unsure in New York City, once the national epicenter of the pandemic and where many lost colleagues or loved ones during the peak of the crisis. 

“It’s a cloud that hangs over our school,” said Paul Kehoe, who teaches humanities and science at M.S. 250 West Side Collaborative Middle School on Manhattan’s West End Avenue. Students at the school have lost family members, and a fellow teacher was suspected to have died from COVID-19. 

Kehoe, 39, disagrees with New York City’s hybrid-learning plan. He would prefer to see schools continue an improved version of all-remote learning as the safest and least disruptive option for students. The logistics of students coming to school on a rotating schedule, potentially spending the other days at one of the city’s proposed learning centers, all the while taking a bus or public transportation to and from school, creates numerous opportunities for exposure and spread. 

“No matter how much they pretend to have some barriers around, it’s just artifice. It’s just placating people’s concerns,” he said. 

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents most public school teachers in the five boroughs, on Friday applauded the state’s effort to ensure teachers and parents were confident in reopening plans. 

Though, he said, “in New York City, that is still an open question.”

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New York City asked parents to decide whether they would opt for all-remote learning by Friday, even though many of the schools have yet to communicate specific details about the school year to parents. Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would offer more districtwide information on Monday and that school- and child-specific information would arrive “in the course of the next couple of weeks.”

Meanwhile, the state health department is still missing reopening plans from 127 school districts, and has already deemed at least 50 plans incomplete or insufficient. 

Without approved plans, however, Cuomo said: “School districts cannot open.”

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This chart shows what matters more as schools announce COVID-19 reopening plans

Pre-schoolers and instructors in summer session in Monterey Park, Calif.

Getty Images

One of the most enduring—and maddening—aspects of Betsy DeVos’s legacy as secretary of education will be the way she has politically charged complicated issues in education.

By reducing nuanced issues to a simple directive or judgment, she has attached her reputation—and President Trump’s reputation in turn—to those positions, making the issues as polarizing as the two of them. Examples abound, from charter schools to Title IX.

Now, though, we have an issue that seems more complicated, with higher stakes, than anything the education community has seen in decades. Local and state policymakers must decide whether, when, and how to open schools amid a dangerous and unpredictable pandemic. These decisions are challenging in many ways, from their countless logistical considerations to hard ethical questions about how to weigh public health risks against the costs of school closings. The considerations vary from one city (and school) to the next based on local infection rates, school resources, and community needs.

One would hope—and expect—the federal government would respond with deference to local leaders, generous resources to support school reopeningand distance learning, and clarity on medical research and best practices. Yet, the federal government’s response has fallen far short of this standard. The message from the Trump administration has been to open school doors, no matter what. Reporting on negotiations between the White House and Republican legislators suggests that almost half of funds for K-12 schools in the COVID-19 aid package could be unavailable to schools that do not reopen with in-person learning. CDC guidance on school reopening has become so politicized that it now lacks credibility.

This puts local decision-makers in the precarious position of making reopening decisions with insufficient resources and information, and problematic incentives. Moreover, now that school reopening has become politicized—like mask-wearing and hydroxychloroquine before it—we’re all in the precarious position of having local and state leaders who might, knowingly or not, prioritize politics over safety and reason in their decision-making.

An analysis of school reopening plans

I brought together data from a few sources to get a sense for whether the reopening decisions to date seem more related to public health or politics. I downloaded an EdWeek database of school district reopening plans, which, as of July 27, represented about 13 million students in 256 districts (excluding districts with plans coded as “Undecided,” and Puerto Rico, which does not participate in U.S. presidential elections).

Since school district boundaries are not coterminous with county boundaries in some states, I used data from the U.S. Department of Education to identify the districts’ primary county location. I then merged data from the MIT Election Data + Science Lab with county-level results from the 2016 presidential election and data from USAFacts showing the number of new COVID-19 cases by county from July 1 to July 25. The idea is to see what is more related to these district decisions (albeit not necessarily causally)—local health conditions or politics.

Figure 1, below, shows that reopening decisions are much more correlated with local political attitudes. Each dot in the scatterplot represents a school district. The light blue dots represent districts that, by EdWeek’s coding, had announced “Full in-person reopening available for all students” (the preferred approach of the Trump administration). The dark blue dots represent districts that have announced plans for “Remote learning only.” The x-axis shows the percentage of each county’s population that reports a new COVID-19 case during the month of July (through July 25), while the y-axis shows President Trump’s county-level vote share in the 2016 election.

If public health considerations were driving districts’ decisions, we might expect to see the light blue dots to the left and the dark blue dots to the right. This would mean that districts with relatively high COVID-19 rates per capita are the ones opting for distance learning.

In reality, there is no relationship—visually or statistically—between school districts’ reopening decisions and their county’s new COVID-19 cases per capita.

In contrast, there is a strong relationship—visually and statistically—between districts’ reopening decisions and the county-level support for Trump in the 2016 election. Districts located in counties that supported Trump are much more likely to have announced plans to open in person.

On average, districts that have announced plans to reopen in person are located in counties in which 55% voted for Trump in 2016, compared to 35% in districts that have announced plans for remote learning only. Unsurprisingly, the one remaining group in EdWeek’s data—“Hybrid/Partial”—falls right in the middle, at 44%.

These data aren’t perfect. For example, EdWeek’s database of district reopening plans is, by its own acknowledgement, incomplete, and school districts don’t map perfectly to counties. However, the patterns are so clear, and the regression results so consistent (e.g., controlling for different variables and restricting the timeframe of district announcements), that it seems implausible that politics aren’t a major factor in district decision-making.

Looking ahead

There has been some optimism that local leaders will set national politics aside as they make decisions about school plans for the fall. However, we need to be clear-eyed that national politics—and the strings attached to federal resources—can affect the decisions of local and state leaders. Politicization has become an immediate concern for the COVID-19 relief package, which now threatens to withhold funds from school districts in severely affected areas that need to build remote learning capacity. As Sarah Reber and Nora Gordon have argued, Congress needs to move quickly and generously, without playing games with school reopening politics.

Now is a time for local and state policymakers to focus on the best interests of their communities, apart from how that relates to matters of ideology and national politics. Of course, better leadership from the federal government would take us a long way in that direction.

Jon Valant is a senior fell at The Brookings Institition’s Brown Center on Education Policy. Follow him on Twitter @JonValant. This was originally published on The Brookings Institution’s Chalkboard blog.

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This sector could have a half million job openings and opportunities for older workers

Although the coronavirus continues to rattle global markets and industries, some analysts expect to see greater demand for advanced manufacturing talent in the U.S. as the pandemic diminishes. That could create opportunities for older men and women, including white-collar professionals struggling to find jobs.

Before COVID-19, there were 500,000 manufacturing jobs open in the U.S., according to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). “We’re going to have a need very quickly to ramp up on hiring in those facilities that may have been shut down during the crisis or that need to expand operations,” said NAM president and CEO Jay Timmons in a recent press conference.

“The fact that one can get a certificate in about nine months and totally re-career into a nearly guaranteed job is an incredible opportunity for an older worker.”

— Nora Duncan, Connecticut state director of AARP

As manufacturers frantically try to keep up again with demand for essentials and lifesaving PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for health care workers as cases rise across the country, their innovation and high-tech problem-solving could help dispel misconceptions that all manufacturing jobs are dirty and physically demanding, said Sara Tracey, project manager of workforce services for the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association in Akron, Ohio.

Manufacturing jobs and what they pay

Entry-level manufacturing jobs in industries such as aerospace, technology and defense include CNC operators, set-up technicians and programmers, as well as inspectors, higher-end assembly technicians and quality assurance.

The pay typically ranges between $35,000 and $65,000, including overtime and benefits, said Richard DuPont, director of community and campus relations for the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Conn. More experienced professionals can earn upward of $95,000.

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In Ohio, manufacturers have been training and moving some workers into higher positions so the companies can hire and train new candidates for vacated ones, Tracey noted. Resources such as the Making Ohio website let people explore careers in manufacturing, including robotics, automation and 3-D printing.

Industrial maintenance is an important career pathway these days, as well, Tracey said. This sector is expecting more retirements in the near future, which will create jobs from “traditional machine mechanics to troubleshooting state-of-the-art electronic or robotic processes,” Tracey noted.

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Connecticut, among other states, now offers training programs with community colleges, state manufacturers and other organizations.

From banking to precision tools

This kind of training helped Allison Clemens-Roberts, who is over 50, find work after losing her clerical job in the pensions department of a Connecticut bank in 2017. A severance package gave her time to look for work, but she couldn’t find even temporary employment. She blames age discrimination by white-collar employers.

“There’s no way to hide how old you are. They can ask when you graduated from school,” Clemens-Roberts said.

But while she was out of work, Clemens-Roberts received a postcard from AARP offering a 25% tuition scholarship on advanced manufacturing programs at Goodwin University, a career-focused school in East Hartford, Conn.

She wasn’t interested until her husband Frank saw a TV commercial touting the benefits of Goodwin’s manufacturing and other programs.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you think about changing careers?’” Clemens-Roberts recalled.

So, with several months left on her severance, she enrolled in a full-time, six-month CNC (Computer Numerical Control) Machining, Metrology and Manufacturing Technology certification program. It would prepare her for a job working with automated machine tools which requires mathematical skills, attention to detail and critical thinking.

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Scholarships cut Clemens-Roberts’ tuition bill from $7,000 to $3,200. After a two-month paid internship at TOMZ, a manufacturer of precision components for major medical devices in Berlin, Conn., she was hired in April 2019. Six months later, TOMZ reimbursed Clemens-Roberts $1,500 for her education tab.

Clemens-Roberts said her family is now in a better financial position than when she was working in a bank, living paycheck-to-paycheck. Considered an essential worker, she has kept her full-time job through the pandemic, except for three days in March.

“I never thought I would go to college and participate in a graduation — in cap and gown,” Clemens-Roberts said. “That was a big surprise. And [actor] Danny Glover was the speaker. A bucket-list experience.”

There’s “obviously age discrimination, among other things, at play” for job seekers over 50, said Nora Duncan, Connecticut state director of AARP. “The fact that one can get a certificate in about nine months and totally re-career into a nearly guaranteed job is an incredible opportunity for an older worker.”

While AARP helped Clemens-Roberts pay for the tuition initially, the internship helped her get hired as a machine operator.

Older and younger manufacturing workers helping each other

The search for skilled manufacturing labor across the country is creating opportunities for workers of all ages, said DuPont. And older and younger generations working together are assisting each other.

The older students help younger classmates with life skills, while younger students can help with technology,” said DuPont. “Together, they make excellent teams.”

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Just ask Fernando Vega, 62, who is now a quality inspector at Forrest Machine, in Berlin, Conn. It makes precision-machined parts and other components for the aerospace and commercial industries. In the 1990s, he was a quality inspector before recessions and outsourcing forced him to consider other careers.

He tried working for a nonprofit and though Vega found the work rewarding, it wasn’t financially sustainable.

So, Vega went back to school in spring 2018 to study advanced manufacturing at Goodwin.

“I was in a class of 18, and at first everyone kept to themselves. But when it came time to read blueprints, there was some panic and I said, ‘Don’t panic, I’ll show you.’ The [younger] students helped me with trigonometry, and then we started to work together.”

Vega has worked at his manufacturing job throughout the pandemic. At one point, he was putting in 50 hours a week, but that was reduced to 40 hours plus overtime.

Vega recalled promising his mother that he would go to college. “But that was a long time ago,” he said. His mother never got to see him graduate but Vega feels he’s fulfilled his promise — not only to her, but also to himself. “I love my job,” he said.

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‘It will be painful for colleges and also painful for students’: Plans to bring back students get derailed by COVID-19 surge

Like many higher education officials, Melissa Taverner, the provost at Lyon College, was hoping students could return to the school’s Batesville, Ark. campus this fall. 

After transitioning to remote classes in March, officials at the school, a liberal-arts college with less than 1,000 students, began coming up with testing and other protocols to bring students back to campus safely when classes resumed in the fall. 

Over the next few months, they watched cases rise around the country, across the state and in their town — putting the local health-care system at risk. They saw similar-sized colleges in the south announce plans to resume classes remotely and read about much larger schools quarantining athletes they brought back to campus who had become infected. 

As August loomed, “the question became one of ethics,” Taverner said. “Can we legitimately bring our students back and guarantee within reason that we could ensure their safety, and the safety of our faculty, and the safety of our staff, and the safety of the community in which we live?” 

The answer, they decided, is no.

Lyon announced Friday that it would resume classes remotely this fall. “The plans that we were putting in place,” during the spring and early summer “acknowledged that most likely this pandemic would not be finished when we got to August, but that it would be more in control,” Taverner said. “That was not the reality.” 

Lyon is among the roughly 14% of colleges — or more — planning for a remote semester this fall, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the late spring, about 68% of colleges that had announced their plans for the fall said they would offer in-person instruction, according to the Chronicle’s tracker at the time. Now, just 48% say they will be fully in person. 

Elite colleges like Harvard University and state public systems like Rutgers University have said they’ll offer classes almost completely online. Some schools that made announcements earlier in the year indicating they’d bring students back have changed their plans. 

After initially saying they would offer classes in-person in early July, a group of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Atlanta — Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark-Atlanta University — decided it wasn’t safe to bring students back to campus. A few weeks later, they announced that the fall semester would be remote. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, colleges and universities were trying to come up with pandemic-appropriate plans that fulfilled their mission of providing a higher education, including the trappings beyond academics, like frequent interaction with peers and professors, said Shweta Bansal, an associate professor of biology at Georgetown University. But with cases rising, that now seems difficult. 

“The situation is deteriorating, which is certainly cause to change plans,” said Bansal, who is also an infectious-disease researcher. 

Colleges assumed case numbers would go down, but they rose

At Whitman College, a liberal arts school with about 1,450 students in Walla Walla, Wash., that’s what happened. In April, officials had initially announced they were planning for a return to campus in the fall. They invested resources in figuring out how to do that safely “with the assumption that we would see the bending back of the curve and that we would see the case numbers go down,” said Josh Jensen, the school’s vice president for enrollment and communications and the chair of its coronavirus task force.  

But a few weeks ago they started to realize that “these numbers aren’t getting better they’re getting worse,” Jensen said. That meant they no longer felt they could bring students back to campus and protect them and the wider Walla Walla community, he said. On Friday, they announced instruction would be primarily remote. 

Colleges can be a particularly challenging environment in which to manage the virus because they’re socially connected and designed for interaction, Bansal said. One analysis of transcript data at Cornell University by sociologists there found that by the time an undergraduate or graduate student at the school has run through their schedule at least once they’ve had the potential to share a classroom with 529 students. 

A simulation created by a mathematics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an economics professor at Swarthmore College modeled the impact of colleges’ interventions on the spread of the virus. 

Assuming that a university pursues what the researchers describe as the “standard intervention” — daily randomized testing of 3% of the university population, quarantining and contact tracing infected individuals, requiring everyone to wear masks and moving classes of 30 people or more online — fewer than 66 people out of 22,500 get infected in 95% of simulations run by the pair. 

Both of these analyses are focused on the academic environment. “Even if you cut down all those classroom contacts, which of course are particularly risky, you’re still leaving a lot of the social interactions in place that provide transmission pathways,” Bansal said.

‘How do you control what happens outside the classroom?’

At Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, officials realized there was little they could do to ensure those social interactions would be safe. “We felt really pretty good about being able to social distance in the classroom and provide separation between students and separation between faculty and students,” said Eric Darr, the president of the school. “Our big concern was 80% of the time students and faculty will be outside of the classroom. How do you control what happens outside the classroom? There’s just no way to do that.”

Officials at Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, Texas, came to a similar conclusion. “I just don’t know very many people who have success managing the hourly activities and engagement of 18- to 22-year olds,” said Michael Sorrell, the college’s president. Sorrell has expressed concerns since May about bringing students back to college campuses. 

“We didn’t think we’d be able to do that, which is what you needed to do to be able to succeed with inviting students back to campus.” 

Even directives that seem simple, like universal mask-wearing, can have unforeseen complications. “For them to really do their job they need to be worn correctly, which most people don’t have the training for,” Bansal said. “And you need to have perfect adherence and you need to wear them all the time everywhere you go.”

She also worries that at least some universities planning to resume in-person classes don’t have testing protocols that are robust enough to actually prevent an outbreak on campus, instead of just monitor one. Because COVID-19 can be transmitted before infected individuals show symptoms and because tests can be false-negative, universities would need to test every single person on campus every three days to prevent an outbreak, she said. 

“Universities are preparing for some level of acceptable losses,” she said. “If they’re not aiming to prevent transmission and get ahead of the outbreak then there’s no other way around the idea that there will be an outbreak and that there will be severe outcomes in that population.” 

Financial concerns loom

Colleges may be feeling pressure to open because of financial concerns. Colleges’ business models — particularly smaller schools without a robust research arm attached  — were already squeezed before the pandemic. But sending students home in the spring, and in some cases, refunding the money they paid to live on campus put their finances in even greater jeopardy. 

An online fall is likely to exacerbate that dynamic, said Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education finance at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “It will be painful for colleges and also painful for students and employees,” he said. “Many colleges get a sizable part of their revenue from having students in-person.”  

Whitman is one of those schools. “Whitman, like many colleges, is tuition dependent for revenue,” Jensen said. The choice to go remote and whether it pushes some students not to enroll this fall “will impact the college’s finances, no doubt about it.” At this point, it’s unclear by how much, Jensen said. 

“How fortunate we feel that we had the ability to say to our students we’re going to go remote and we’re going to manage and weather the financial challenges that come with that and Whitman will be financially strong,” he said. “I don’t know that every college is able to say that quite as confidently.”

At Lyon the decision, “does have pretty serious financial implications,” Taverner said. “We know that the financial hit that every college is going to take is not trivial but then you have to weigh that,” against first of all the safety of the campus community and the reputational and long-term financial costs of an outbreak, she said. 

As Sorrell put it: “If I’m going to be wrong I’d rather be wrong and have the ability and go find extra money then to be wrong and cause my staff and students to be sick and maybe die.”  

Bringing students back to school does come with risks of virus transmission, Bansal said. 

“We can say without a doubt that there are going to be outbreaks on university campuses if there are students present in person,” Bansal said. And once students return, the damage has already been done, she said. 

“Bringing students to campus and then returning them home in the event of an outbreak is essentially a recipe for disseminating the virus in communities around the country,” she said. 

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Sen. Tom Cotton says reports he called slavery a ‘necessary evil’ are ‘the definition of fake news’ — here’s his original quote

After many people on Twitter vilified Tom Cotton for reportedly calling slavery a “necessary evil” in a recent interview, the Republican senator clarified his remarks in a social media post of his own.

“This is the definition of fake news,” the Arkansas Republican wrote in a Twitter

post on Sunday. “I said that *the Founders viewed slavery as a necessary evil* and described how they put the evil institution on the path to extinction, a point frequently made by Lincoln.”

Cotton was referring to an interview he gave to the Arkansas Democratic-Gazette, in which he criticized the New York Times’ proposed school curriculum under its 1619 Project that would highlight American slavery, rather than American independence, in U.S. history lessons.

“Curriculum is a matter for local decisions, and if local left-wing school boards want to fill their children’s heads with anti-American rot, that’s their regrettable choice. But they ought not to benefit from federal tax dollars to teach America’s children to hate America,” he told the paper.

So Cotton introduced legislation last week to ban using federal tax dollars to teach this in the country’s classrooms. His legislation calls the historical reinterpretation “a distortion of American history,” and the senator called the 1619 Project “left-wing propaganda” and “revisionist history at its worst” in his interview with the Arkansas Democratic-Gazette.

“We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country,” he told the Arkansas Democratic-Gazette. “As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

“As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

— Sen. Tom Cotton

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who created the 1619 Project, tweeted in response to his interview that: “If chattel slavery—heritable, generational, permanent, race-based slavery where it was legal to rape, torture, and sell human beings for profit—were a ‘necessary evil’ as @TomCottonAR says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end.”

The “necessary evil” quote was seized upon by other critics on Twitter, and the interview went viral over the weekend, and led Tom Cotton’s name to trend on Monday.

Cotton responded to Hannah-Jones’s tweet by calling the 1619 Project “debunked” and writing that, “Describing the *views of the Founders* and how they put the evil institution on a path to extinction, a point frequently made by Lincoln, is not endorsing or justifying slavery.” He added, “No surprise that the 1619 Project can’t get facts right.”

Cotton also drew criticism last month for a New York Times op-ed entitled “Send In the Troops,” where he called for “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers” and stop an “orgy of violence” to de-escalate the protests across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Times staffers revolted over the paper’s decision to publish Cotton’s column, with dozens of reporters, columnists, editors and producers tweeting: “Running this puts black @nytimes staff in danger.”The Times later said that it made a mistake in publishing the column, and opinion-page editor James Bennet resigned.

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