At the end of March, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy said that he expects every school district in his state to operate full time in person in the fall. Compared to some hesitant politicians, this was a bold proclamation. But an additional comment by him was the real thunderbolt: Come the fall, he said, unless “the world goes sideways,” schools will not be allowed to offer virtual learning, even for parents who want it as an option.
France, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, and a number of other countries have at different times during the pandemic required children to attend schools in person if they were open. But in the U.S., offering the option of remote school, even in districts that are open full time, has largely been the norm, so compelling attendance in the fall is a renegade move for an American politician, let alone a Democratic governor. And it may prove to be a contentious policy shift, since many school boards and officials around the country have already said that remote learning will be an option in their districts in the coming school year.
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said last month that he expects there will be a fully remote option. Officials in Detroit and districts in other parts of Michigan have said they plan to offer remote learning in the fall. As will districts in Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, California, Virginia, and Georgia, among others. A Tampa Bay district will end synchronous remote classes but allow for courses that “are not live and are not delivered by teachers from a student’s regular school.”
Though the potential harm to students taking part in remote learning has been well documented this school year, the costs that remote-learning programs inflict on students who are in the classroom haven’t received as much attention. The programs are expensive and operationally demanding for teachers, administrators, and other school staff. For the sake of logistics and equity with those at home, they often impose an electronic, screen-based mode of instruction on in-person students. And on a macro level, experts suggest that continuing to offer remote programs premised on the unfounded need for safety perpetuates a false narrative about undue risk in schools.
In almost all circumstances, the plan to continue to offer remote learning in the fall is based on the notion that it’s needed for safety. “As far as 2021–22, at least some part of that school year is likely still going to be pandemic-response related, on the assumption that children won’t have access to the vaccine, or at least many won’t,” said Brian Woods, the superintendent of the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio. The Washington Post reported similar comments by Grant Rivera, the superintendent of schools in Marietta, Georgia. Rivera said he expects some families to want to keep their kids remote until they’re vaccinated, so he wants to give them the option of virtual school. In the same article, Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said that more studies are needed. “We still have lots of questions,” she said. When asked whether remote learning might continue in the fall, a spokesperson for Durham, North Carolina, schools said, “We have no illusions that COVID will be eradicated by the time the start of the school year comes up.” And Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said it was a “leap” for parents to expect in-person instruction, because “we don’t know what we don’t know.”
But is it really a leap?
Study after study have shown that schools tend to have lower case rates than the surrounding community, and there is low risk in schools even when there is an elevated community case rate. A large and comprehensive study in Massachusetts concluded that students and staff were at no greater risk at three feet apart than six feet. This study reinforces what has been documented in schools throughout Europe. Moreover, it’s long been known that children are at extremely low risk of developing serious illness from COVID. Taken together, these data indicate that a full-density classroom, even with limited mitigation measures, is not unduly dangerous now, so the notion that remote learning will be needed for safety reasons this fall — after every adult (and even some teenagers) have had the opportunity to be vaccinated — seems to be unsupported by the science.
While the COVID vaccines in the U.S. have been shown to be extremely effective at preventing infection, and even more so at preventing serious illness, there has been some concern that they may not work sufficiently against new variants, putting staffers at risk. Yet numerous experts and studies, including one by NIAID, Anthony Fauci’s agency, suggest that is not the case. Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University and author of Principles of Virology, the leading textbook on the subject, recently concluded, after addressing the mechanisms at work, “I am not worried at all that this virus is going to out-evolve vaccines.”
Some parents and others have wondered, don’t kids need to be vaccinated to be safe? To put the mortality risk in perspective, the CDC estimates that around 600 children died of influenza in the 2017–2018 season. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, 358 pediatric flu deaths were reported. Through the beginning of April there have been 251 children who died of COVID-19. It’s also worth noting that among children ages 5 to 14, 89 have died of COVID-19; in 2018, there were more than six times as many deaths by suicide — 596 deaths — in the smaller cohort of children between the ages of 10 and 14.
Another fear is that the new variants will be more dangerous, a specific concern for kids, since most of them will not be vaccinated for some time. Monica Gandhi, associate division chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF, said the data suggest otherwise. In the U.K., around 90 percent of cases were B117, she said. Yet hospitalizations per case (a marker of disease severity) did not increase. A study from the U.K., and data from Israel as well as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and other states, confirm those findings. The B117 variant appears to be more contagious, but it is not more deadly or more likely to cause serious illness, Gandhi said.
Mortality isn’t the only concern, of course. What about “Long COVID”? It’s not unusual for viruses, especially if they cause severe illness, to lead to lingering effects. There’s no evidence that harmful sequelae, the term for aftereffects of an illness, are unusually high for COVID versus any number of other viruses. It’s because the denominator, the number of people who got COVID, is so large, that there’s more awareness of incidence of sequelae. Moreover, since children are more likely to be asymptomatic to begin with, they are, of course, less likely to have lingering symptoms. Teacher safety is an important consideration as well, naturally, but by the summer, all in-classroom teachers will have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated.
Elissa Schechter-Perkins, an infectious-diseases specialist at Boston University Medical School and co-author of the influential study that led the CDC to change its distancing guidance to three feet, said, “Continuing to offer a remote option, in the name of ‘safety,’ will serve to undermine the truth that receiving an education inside a school building is not dangerous.”
While the safety benefit of continuing to offer remote learning in the fall is based on a groundless premise, the costs are real. Software programs for curricula, IT professionals, staff training, and hardware for students are all expensive. I was told by an administrator in one small New York State district that these costs ran around a half-million dollars for the school year. It was a tiny percent of his district’s overall budget but still a sum that could be spent on “additional aides, science lab equipment, recess materials, art supplies, AP classes, you name it.”
Alex Marrero, the interim superintendent for the New Rochelle school district, told me that technology costs for remote learning in his district ran up to $2.2 million. “That’s money that could hire a lot of teachers,” he said.
If a district creates a dedicated virtual option, the largest expenditure is personnel, as additional teachers are needed to work solely with remote students. Any money earmarked for remote programs, whether for staff or materials or services, is money that is not allocated toward programs in the building.
Beyond the indirect harm to students because of diminished resources, there is also the direct harm of so-called synchronous learning, in which teachers are forced to divide their attention between in-person and remote students, with neither enjoying a teacher’s full focus. It also compels students to remain on laptops or devices all day in the building, because lessons have to be conducted simultaneously for remote students. This has been the case in my New York State district, which has been in a hybrid model nearly all of this school year. Full-time in-person classes began this week here, and many in-person students in middle and high school continue to be tethered to their Chromebooks throughout the day to accommodate the relatively few peers who remain remote. A wealth of research shows that learning from a screen all day is generally inferior to a learning experience that centers on those old-fashioned tactile technologies of pencils, paper, and books, and in-person communication with a teacher; each of those elements are eliminated or dramatically reduced when all the lesson plans in the room are taught through an electronic device.
A subset of parents and their children this school year have said that, even setting aside the question of safety, remote learning has offered distinct advantages for them and their children, and they prefer it. Some children of color have said remote learning has allowed them to avoid racism that they’d normally encounter in schools. Others have said that learning from home has enabled them to better focus on their academics and avoid the discomforts and distractions of the social environment in school.
But Jay Worona, the deputy executive director and general counsel of the New York State School Boards Association, told me, “If there’s no public-health crisis, there would be no obligation by any district to offer remote learning and stretch resources away from the in-person experience.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t valid reasons, beyond a public-health emergency, for continuing remote programs in some fashion. But considering the expense, the fact that subjective benefits do not always equate to objectively better outcomes, and the potential societal ramifications when a significant number of children are physically isolated from their peers, whether and how to continue remote programs will need to be part of larger, complex conversations at the district, state, and even national level.
As it stands, whether districts offer remote options next fall may come down to governors. Those issuing decrees, like Governor Murphy, to ban remote learning entirely will settle the issue for local administrators. Most governors, including Governor Cuomo, however, have not said anything definitive on the matter. When asked for comment, Cuomo’s office did not respond.