This risks widening the gap between rich and poor even further

United States

ONLINE CLASSES make Miemie Jefferson frustrated, and when she is frustrated she often screams and bites herself. The 15-year-old from Seattle has Angelman syndrome, a genetic condition that causes severe physical and learning disabilities. Before the pandemic she attended a mix of general and special education classes at a mainstream school, assisted by an aide who stayed by her side all day. Since March she has been stuck at home. Miemie is non-verbal and can not operate a computer; her mother, Anneli, says remote learning “makes no sense”. A few months ago her school said it was preparing to welcome her back to campus. She is still waiting.

Ten months after America’s classrooms closed, most of the country’s children are still learning from their living rooms. About half of them are enrolled in schools providing only remote learning, according to data collected by burbio, a tech firm that is tracking the reopening. Less than one-third have the option of attending school every day. Even where in-person schooling is available, many parents are choosing to keep their children away. Less than 40% of young children have been signed up for the two days a week of in-person schooling that Chicago’s school district is preparing to provide.

This compares shoddily with most rich countries. Almost all European ones have opened schools fully for at least some period since the first lockdowns, according to data collected by UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for education. In November schools across France stayed open during a nationwide rise in infections that was more severe than any spike America has yet recorded. Pupils in some parts of Europe have had to return to periods of remote learning, but usually only after governments have exhausted other means of controlling rising hospital admissions.

Whereas in Europe decisions about reopening schools have generally fallen to national or regional governments, responsibility in America has lain largely with officials in its roughly 14,000 school districts. A study of 10,000 districts published by Brown University found that local infection rates made little difference to whether they offered in-person or remote learning when the new academic year began in August. Local politics was more important. Districts in areas that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 were a lot less likely to offer in-person learning than places that voted for Donald Trump, even after controlling for factors such as the density of the population and the varying strictures of state governors.

This probably owes something to bungling in July, when Mr Trump insisted that schools open their buildings, come what may. “The decision about reopening became a decision about whether you trusted the president or not,” says Emily Oster, an economist who has been tracking infection rates in schools. Few believed Mr Trump had a sound grasp of the science; by contrast, he sounded preoccupied with getting parents back to work before the presidential election in November. His empty threat to deny federal funds to districts that failed to offer in-person learning only sharpened partisan divides.

Michael Hartney, one of the authors of the Brown University study, says precedents set at the end of the summer have helped dictate how reopening has gone since. Teachers’ unions have found it easy to argue that school buildings should stay shut, not least because America’s infection rates have only risen since those choices were made. “Hyper-decentralised” governance of American schools has long given an advantage to its unions, he thinks, because they find it easier to make wild demands of district leaders than they would if they had to engage in higher-profile debates with federal authorities.

It is now widely recognised that months of remote learning have harmed poor children more than wealthy peers. But America’s uneven return to school risks creating a situation in which these inequities grow even more severe. Suburban and rural districts are much likelier to offer in-person learning than big urban ones, which more commonly serve poor and minority families. A survey by the Pew Research Centre published in October found that 53% of children from low-income families were learning entirely remotely, compared with 40% for those with the wealthiest parents.

The fiscal stimulus signed off by Mr Trump on December 27th may help speed up reopenings. It included $54bn to help public schools cover costs including masks and extra cleaning, four times the amount coughed up in an earlier splurge. In November New York City, then one of the few big urban districts providing in-person learning, junked a pledge to unions that it would close schools should the proportion of tests coming back positive in the city rise above 3%. It sent older pupils back to remote learning but said elementary-aged children could stay in classrooms even though infection rates outside school gates were rising. This was informed by research showing that young children have played little role in spreading the virus and are the least able to learn remotely. Some of the big districts that have not yet welcomed back any children may adopt similar strategies to help schools reopen in the coming months.

America’s president-elect, Joe Biden, promises yet more cash. He will have little direct authority over school districts’ reopening plans. But he could do much to promote a more sober debate about the trade-offs involved in keeping children at home (a rolling survey conducted by the University of Southern California finds that Americans believe themselves to have a 17% chance of dying if they catch the virus, ten times the true case-fatality rate). Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think-tank, wants to see “national science-based guidance for school reopening” and more effort made to collect data about infections among students. According to Mr Hartney: “Teachers’ unions will have to be more responsible when they cannot point to someone in the White House who is saying: ‘You should inject yourself with bleach.’”

Meanwhile Anneli Jefferson worries that Miemie’s mood and mobility are deteriorating. She has always enjoyed dance classes, but her mother’s efforts to recreate them in the living room have not gone well. She is no longer getting exercise from walking up and down school corridors. Nor is she capable of chatting to friends on social media. Instead she is spending a lot of time watching movies. “Her world has become very small.”

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