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Just A Third of Students in U.S.' Largest School District Have Returned to Classrooms

Just A Third of Students in U.S.' Largest School District
Have Returned to Classrooms 1

New York City allowed students to return to in-person learning last fall, but the Department of Education expects only one-third of its 960,000 K-12 students in classrooms by the end of April.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday that middle and high school students will be able to return to classrooms starting April 26. Previously, the city said elementary students would be the first to return, followed later by older grades.

The Department of Education said nearly half of those opting back into the classroom are elementary grade students. Roughly 10,000 middle school and 13,000 high school students could be heading back at the end of the month.

This means about 51,000 more students will be returning to in-person learning, bringing the total number of students in classrooms to about 365,000 out of 960,000 non-charter public school students.

De Blasio said he was not surprised that the majority of families choose to stick with remote schooling.

“My view is, a lot of parents were really focused on the scheduling question,” the mayor said. “They had gotten into a schedule that worked for them with remote. The kids had gotten used to and like the teachers they had. And they didn’t want to disrupt that. I think that’s where most parents were at.”

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De Blasio added that while some parents may still choose online learning next fall, he expects that “the vast majority of parents are going to want their kids in school five days a week.”

As of April 5, at least 12 states require in-person instruction to be available in all or some grades either full or part-time, according to Education Week. Many states do not have a state-wide mandate on K-12 in-person learning, leaving the decisions entirely to local education and public health leaders.

California, the most populated state in the U.S. with 1,200 school districts, has the lowest percentage of students in in-person learning, according to Burbio, a company that monitors around 1,200 school districts, including the largest 200 in the country.

Plexiglass dividers are set up on tables in a first grade classroom at Bryant Elementary School on April 09, 2021 in San Francisco, California. The San Francisco Unified School District is preparing to gradually return students back to classrooms next week.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

An analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that just 3 million of California’s 6.2 million K-12 students now have the option to learn in a classroom, and most are younger children. Even in schools offering an in-person return, some kids will receive only a few hours a week of classroom instruction.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has pushed to reopen schools by setting aside vaccines for educators and dangling financial incentives, but he’s made it clear he will not order classrooms to open.

Teachers unions have outsized political power in the Democratic-led state, and Newsom is expected to face a recall election partly over his handling of the pandemic. Last week, the Democratic governor said California plans to lift nearly all pandemic restrictions by June 15.

“There will be no barrier to having our kids back in in-person instruction,” he said. “That is our expectation.”

But most students will be on summer vacation by then.

Advocates of reopening argue that online learning exacerbates the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their white and Asian peers. Many private schools and some smaller California school districts have been open for months.

But the students at risk of falling behind are not necessarily the ones clamoring to return.

In Los Angeles, where about 80% of the 600,000 K-12 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and one in five is an English learner, Superintendent Austin Beutner said a survey indicated that parents in communities hardest hit by the pandemic were more reluctant to send their children to school.

“Our challenge is convincing families that schools are safe,” Beutner said recently.

Nearly three-quarters of families surveyed in San Diego said they preferred a mix of in-person and remote learning, rather than online. Parents of white students expressed the most enthusiasm for in-person instruction, and those of Asian students the least.

In the Elk Grove Unified School District, the state’s fifth-largest, schools expanded in-person teaching to four days a week from two because of relaxed social distancing requirements and fewer students opting to return — only 39% of elementary school students and 24% of secondary students so far, said Scott Scidmohr, lead director with the Elk Grove Educators Association.

Unlike San Diego, LA and other larger districts, San Francisco has no timetable for middle and high school students to return this academic year. The city, which has had some of the lowest infection and death rates in the country, took the remarkable step in February of suing its own school district to reopen classrooms.

While districts in other states have had to hire classroom monitors to oversee children as educators teach from home, the prospect of “Zoom in a Room” sent many of San Francisco’s already frustrated parents over the edge. Officials said almost 300 staffers have permission to work remotely.

“I’m sending my kid because she misses her friends. If not, I wouldn’t even bother because this is a joke,” said Robin Herman, whose daughter’s fourth-grade teacher will be dialing in.

One of the challenges in planning, educators say, is that California keeps changing the rules.

Until recently, schools were told to space students 6 feet (2 meters) apart, then it changed to 3 feet (1 meter), allowing more students to squeeze into a classroom but requiring new negotiations with teachers unions. Educators wonder what might change with Newsom’s June 15 reopening push.

Santa Ana Unified, a district with about 45,000 students in Orange County, has decided to finish the school year online.

Parents like Lucinda Solórzano, a mother of three students in the district, are pleading for classrooms to reopen. She says parents weren’t given a choice, despite falling infection rates and increasing vaccinations.

“They don’t know what it is to have a child who’s given up,” Solórzano said.

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