Classrooms across Washington DC are filling up with children again — except there are no teachers. Under the unusual arrangement, pupils are supervised by non-teaching and non-unionised staff and taught with iPads at their desks.
Few agree on who is to blame. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union for teaching staff, says the Washington city government is responsible, insisting that staff would return as long as it remained on a voluntary basis. State officials criticise Donald Trump’s administration for failing to halt the pandemic.
“DC is a mess,” said Ms Weingarten. “But it doesn’t have to be like that — it is very frustrating.”
The impasse is symptomatic of a wider reluctance across the US to reopen schools, just as European countries seem to have overcome it. This autumn, schools reopened in most of Europe. Many governments initially did so primarily to help parents return to work and boost their economies. They also worried about lagging education attainment, especially for the younger students. But since then, they have been buoyed by a growing body of evidence suggesting children are less likely to spread the disease and that school reopenings have had little impact on outbreaks.
Restarting schools in Norway and Denmark, which took the jump earlier than most countries, did not appear to result in a new Covid-19 surge. Since then, the rest of Europe has followed suit. In the UK, France, Germany, Spain and across most of the continent, the reopening has not had any noticeable impact on the pandemic.
Children in class in Mairena del Aljarafe near Seville in Spain © Cristina Quicler/AFP/Getty
In England, for instance, outbreaks occurred in just four in every 100 primary schools after they opened, although in 22 out of every 100 secondary schools, according to data from health authorities. Other scientific data from other parts of the world show that the younger the children, the less likely they are to spread the virus.
Out of 94 countries that reopened their schools in the autumn, 88 have avoided further national closures thanks to reinforced health measures such as the compulsory wearing of masks on school premises and social distancing in classrooms, according to Insights for Education, a global education think-tank.
Israel has been a noticeable exception: cases more than doubled in the 50 days after schools reopened in late May, with many cases being linked to children aged 10 to 19. Scientists struggle to explain why, but some have blamed searing temperatures that prompted students and teachers to abandon their masks.
In the US, some Republican-run states, including North Dakota, reopened their schools after the summer break, often under pressure from the Trump administration. Four months on, local officials are surprised at how they were able to preserve classrooms from the pandemic, even as infections spread fast into the community.
“We did not have mass absences due to students getting infected and having to stay off school,” said Terry Brenner, superintendent for public schools in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
He estimates that 15 per cent of students have been infected or come into contact with another infected student. But under the guidance of the local health department, most of the pupils who were exposed but did not develop symptoms were able to continue attending lessons, wearing a mask and avoiding activities such as playing an instrument or doing physical exercise.
Mr Brenner’s district was recently forced to shut its school system again for 17 days only because so many staff were catching the disease outside school.
Only 0.02 per cent of students and 0.04 per cent of staff have tested positive in schools that have reopened in the US, according to Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University who has been gathering data.
Infection rates have been lower than those in the wider community, with spikes following those in the general population — suggesting schools are not the cause. So-called super-spreading events, a cluster of five or more cases in one school, have been recorded in less than 5 per cent of schools, a similar proportion to what has been seen in the UK.
Missed school means lower life skills and lower life chances. And that is most concentrated among those who can least afford to miss it.
Yet resistance to reopening schools is still strong in many parts of the US. In New York City, schools closed again on November 16 less than two months after reopening them, a decision that was reversed after mayor Bill de Blasio loosened the criteria for shutting them down. In California, 51 out of 58 counties are now in the “purple” zone, meaning they cannot reopen if they were not open already.
Ms Oster said the highly politicised atmosphere in the US was not helping: “A lot of schools in more liberal areas were thinking about reopening, but just as they were about to do so, the president [Donald Trump] told them they had to. And so a lot of those people turned around and said ‘F-you’.”
As their European counterparts did a few months ago, US unions insist it remains unsafe for teachers to work. Ms Weingarten said: “If you tackle community spread and take the right safeguards, kids — especially younger kids — will not transmit the virus in schools.”
Meanwhile children’s education is suffering. According to the US-based educational research organisation NWEA, students aged between 8 and 13 scored an average of 5 to 10 percentage points lower on maths tests this year than those who took the test last year. Early data appeared to suggest the disparities were even worse for students from minority backgrounds and those who attended schools with high rates of poverty.
More teachers in the US are expected to follow their European colleagues in the next months, as vaccines are rolled out. But the damage may already have been done. “Missed school means lower life skills and lower life chances,” said Simon Burgess, an education researcher at Bristol university in England. “And that is most concentrated among those who can least afford to miss it.”