Republican governors ordering schools to reopen

By Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Republican governors are increasingly ordering schools to bring young children back into classrooms, their demands bolstered by declining coronavirus cases and calls from federal health experts and President Joe Biden to reopen schools.

On Friday, the Massachusetts school board gave the state’s education commissioner the power to force school districts to bring students back, a dramatic step that allows the commissioner to override local school boards. Earlier this week, Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona ordered all elementary schools, and many middle and high schools, to offer in-classroom instruction by March 15. A law signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa went into effect last month that also requires schools to offer full-time classroom instruction.

As Biden has embarked on an aggressive effort to encourage in-person learning, governors have shown they’re increasingly willing to make unilateral decisions about reopening schools nearly a year after many schools first shut down.

“There is no substitute for in-person learning, especially for younger students, students with disabilities, and English learners,” Jeffrey C. Riley, the Massachusetts education commissioner, said in a letter to the state board this week, adding that about 300,000 students in the state were attending schools that provided only remote instruction.

Massachusetts, Arizona and Iowa joined at least four other states with Republican governors, including Texas and Florida, where state officials have demanded that schools offer in-classroom instruction for at least some grades.

In many cases, orders that schools reopen have come over the objections of teachers unions, some of whom have argued that their members must be vaccinated before risking exposure in school buildings. Biden said this week that all teachers should receive at least one shot of a vaccine by the end of the month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that elementary schools open if they follow precautions, and its guidance says that even where transmission is high, elementary schools can reopen safely by implementing strict safety measures. Among schoolchildren of all ages, though, only about 4% live in counties where transmission is low enough for schools to safely reopen without additional restrictions.

A poll last month from Pew Research found that about 59% of adults believe schools should wait to reopen until teachers have had a chance to get vaccinated. The percentage was even higher among nonwhite adults, and 80% of Black adults said schools should wait until teachers can get vaccinated, the highest of any racial group. People who made less money and Democrats were also more likely to say that schools should wait.

In Massachusetts, elementary school students will likely return to classrooms full-time next month, said Riley, the education commissioner.

He vowed to continue working closely with medical experts when making decisions about reopening. In a “limited set of circumstances,” he said, schools could get waivers allowing them to reopen more slowly, and parents would be able to choose to keep their children home and learning remotely throughout the end of this school year.

But Riley said at the meeting of the state board, whose members are appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, that next year parents will need a medical exemption to keep their children out of classrooms, The Boston Globe reported.

“At this point, with the robust mitigation strategies we have in place and all the data and evidence we have in hand,” he said, “it is time to begin the process of returning even more students to classrooms.”

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