The Schools Aren’t Really Open

School buses in Los Angeles.


mike blake/Reuters

President Biden has made a point of promising to reopen schools, and well he should. The lost year of learning will hold back a generation of American children. But the schools still aren’t completely open, as the emerging evidence shows.

“It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school,” Mr. Biden said in December, and “if states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow, then my team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”

The data company Burbio tracks reopenings for some 1,200 American school districts, and it reports that on Election Day 2020 36.8% of students participated exclusively in virtual instruction. Some districts shut down as Covid-19 cases increased during the winter. But more than 57% of students had the option of in-person learning at least one day per week by Mr. Biden’s inauguration. Only 3.3% of American students attended schools with exclusively virtual offerings.

The problem is that, more than 100 days later, most students still haven’t returned to anything resembling a normal school schedule. Nearly 30% of all students are still doing a mix of in-person and virtual instruction, with all the learning limitations that we now know go with such a schedule.

In Los Angeles, middle- and high-schoolers spend only two to three days a week in a physical school building. Teachers often stream lessons virtually even while students are in classrooms. Students usually get less than an hour a day with an in-person teacher, according to the nonprofit Innovate Public Schools. Most elementary schools offer classroom instruction to students for only a few hours each day.

Likewise in New York City, “the teachers are still missing from 75% of the classrooms and 75% of the children attending these so-called ‘open schools’ are subjected to ‘remote learning’ within the classroom also dubbed as ‘zoom in a room,’” according to a lawsuit filed by parents last month. In Seattle, K-5 students are back at school four days a week but only for 2 hours and 45 minutes each day.

The situation is little better in many suburban districts. At Oregon’s Reynolds School District, most schools let children return to the classroom two days each week for only three hours or less. Hours of instruction vary by school, grade level and class, complicating schedules for parents, especially those with more than one child.

Mr. Biden has raised alarms about women leaving the workforce. But how are mothers supposed to return to work if their children are attending school only a few hours each day or less? Higher-earning professionals with more work flexibility can hire babysitters for children who aren’t in school. Most low-income mothers cannot.

A San Francisco Federal Reserve paper in February found that the labor-force recovery last year was slower among mothers than women without children, especially in states with limited in-person school. “In California, one of the highest school disruption states, the ratio of mothers’ to non-parent women’s [labor-force participation] rate fell 7 percentage points,” the study noted. In Florida, where most schools were required to open five days a week last fall, the same ratio increased one percentage point.

These columns have documented how teachers unions have used their political clout, especially in Democratic states, to resist returning to full-time instruction. Mr. Biden could help students, working parents and the country if he’d speak truth to that union power. As a Democrat he’s especially well positioned to do it. Instead he is defining reopening, and thus education, down. It’s a tragedy, and America will suffer the consequences for decades.

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