A bipartisan group of governors decided to flex its muscle and get students back into classrooms, despite union resistance and bureaucratic hesitancy.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine offered school districts early access to vaccines for their staff if they committed to opening classrooms by March 1.
In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency related to child and adolescent mental health and banned fully virtual instruction starting in April.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that most elementary schools would be required to offer full-time in-person instruction by April 5, and most middle schools by April 28.
The three are part of a significant and bipartisan group of governors who have decided it is time to flex some muscle and get students back into classrooms, despite union resistance and bureaucratic hesitancy.
The push has come from both ends of the political spectrum. Democratic governors in Oregon, California, New Mexico and North Carolina, and Republicans in Arizona, Iowa, West Virginia and New Hampshire, among other states, have all taken steps to prod, and sometimes force, districts to open.
The result has been a major increase in the number of students who now have the option of attending school in-person, or will in the next month.
According to a school reopening tracker created by the American Enterprise Institute, 7 percent of the more than 8,000 districts being tracked were operating fully remotely on March 22, the lowest percentage since the tracker was started in November. Forty-one percent of districts were offering full-time in-person instruction, the highest percentage in that time. Those findings have been echoed by other surveys.
In interviews, several governors described the factors motivating their decision to push districts to reopen, including the substantial evidence that there is little virus transmission in schools if mitigation measures are followed, the decline in overall cases from their January peak, and, most of all, the urgency of getting students back in classrooms before the school year ends.
“Every day is an eternity for a young person,” Mr. Inslee, a Democrat, said. “We just could not wait any further.”
In the weeks since most of the governors acted, nationwide cases have started to rise again, which could complicate the effort to get children back in school. Many school staff members have already been offered vaccines, which has reduced the resistance from teachers’ unions to reopening and, provided staff vaccination rates are high, will limit the opportunities for the virus to spread in schools.
But for the time being, at least, the moves by these governors have yielded significant results.
In Ohio, nearly half of all students were in districts that were fully remote at the beginning of 2021. By March 1, that number was down to 4 percent, and it has shrunk further in the weeks since.
In Washington, before Mr. Inslee issued his proclamation, the state’s largest district, Seattle Public Schools, was locked in a standoff with its teachers’ union over a reopening plan. Days after Mr. Inslee announced he would require districts to bring students back at least part time, the two sides reached an agreement for all preschool and elementary school students and some older students with disabilities to return by April 5.
And in Massachusetts, Mr. Baker’s move has spurred a sea change, with dozens of districts bringing students back to school for the first time since the pandemic began, and hundreds shifting from part-time to full-time schedules.
“It’s worked exceedingly well,” Mr. DeWine, a Republican, said of his decision to offer vaccines to Ohio districts that pledged to reopen. “We’ve got these kids back in school.”
While many states decided to prioritize school employees during vaccine distribution, Mr. DeWine made it an explicit quid pro quo.
In late December, when several of Ohio’s urban districts were still entirely remote, Mr. DeWine announced he would make school employees eligible to be vaccinated after health care workers and residents 75 and older, but only if their districts committed to opening schools by March 1. All but one district accepted the deal.
The state did not lay out specific consequences if districts did not meet the deadline. But when Mr. DeWine learned that Cleveland’s school district was not planning to reopen until April, the governor said he told its chief executive, Eric Gordon, that he would not provide the vaccines if the district did not speed things up.
Mr. DeWine said Mr. Gordon assured him that the reports were wrong and that he was doing everything he could to reopen as soon as possible. The governor agreed to give the district the vaccines, and Cleveland schools ultimately opened in phases between March 12 and March 22, with most students on a part-time schedule.
For much of this school year, Washington has had among the fewest students learning in person of any state, in part because it had imposed stringent requirements for schools to reopen. In mid-December, when Mr. Inslee loosened the requirements, 15 percent of Washington’s 1.2 million public school students were getting some in-person instruction.
The new, less restrictive guidelines led some more districts to open, but others, like Seattle, stayed mostly closed.
At the same time, Mr. Inslee said, he was hearing disturbing reports about increases in depression and anxiety that experts believed were tied to students not being in classrooms. He decided he needed to intervene.
“Obviously, we like community and local control, but it wasn’t cutting the mustard here ultimately,” he said.
A spokesman for Mr. Inslee said this past week that it appeared all districts in the state would comply with the proclamation, which requires all elementary school students to have access to in-person schooling by April 5, and all middle and high school students by April 19.
Mr. DeWine’s deal and Mr. Inslee’s proclamation only required that districts offer students part-time in-person instruction. Both said they wanted to set a goal that seemed achievable.
But in Massachusetts, Mr. Baker, a Republican, has pushed further, requiring that elementary and middle schools offer five-day-a-week in-person instruction by late April. After April 5 for elementary schools, and April 28 for middle schools, remote or part-time instruction will no longer count toward fulfilling a district’s required instructional hours. The state has not said whether it will require high schools to bring students back full time this school year.
When Mr. Baker announced the plan, in late February, about a fifth of the state’s districts were remote, but they represented nearly half of the state’s roughly 900,000 students. And most of the districts that had opened were offering students only part-time schedules.
Mr. Baker said he was driven by concerns about students falling behind academically and suffering emotionally, as well as the “overwhelming” evidence that in-person schooling was safe when mitigation measures like masks were used. The state had also recently rolled out a program that offered weekly pooled coronavirus testing for public school students and staff members.
Importantly, Mr. Baker was not deterred by the relatively cautious guidelines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued earlier in February, which advised keeping at least six feet between students learning in areas with high levels of community transmission — suggesting that most schools should only open part-time.
“Their guidance is designed to deal with 50 states,” Mr. Baker said of the C.D.C., explaining why he decided, on the advice of local experts, to stick with a lower requirement of only three feet of distance between students.
While most districts in Massachusetts will be required to have elementary school students back full time on Monday, the state has extended waivers to districts that had been fully or largely remote all year, to give them time to transition to a full-time schedule.
Boston, for instance, finished bringing back students in all grades on a part-time schedule on March 29 and will have until April 26 to offer full-time in-person instruction to students in prekindergarten through eighth grade.
Mr. Baker said many parents and physicians were very concerned about the effects on children from a year of profound isolation.
“We have a chance to try to right some of this over the last part of the year,” he said, adding, “I just think we shouldn’t miss this opportunity.”