Whether or not classes start depends on party line. Republican governors are pushing for normality – and putting schools under pressure.
Motivation for the new school year: Rap video by Callie Evans in Albany Photo: Overstreet Media Services via ap
The school year has begun in some U.S. states, but what form of instruction is best during a pandemic is the subject of lively debate across the country. That’s the case in Georgia, where many schools began classes in early August. For students and teachers in Cherokee County, a county north of Atlanta, the new school year began Aug. 3. The first problems were not long in coming.
"Our plan for reopening our schools was reviewed and commented on by two independent committees. One committee was made up of teachers and staff from our schools, and the second was made up of parents and partners such as Family and Youth Services and local hospitals," says Barbara Jacoby, the school district’s media relations officer.
The result of those conversations was two instructional offerings – one online instruction and one conventional schooling. Jacoby reports that there was a clear preference in Cherokee County. Of the just over 42,000 students in the county, 77 percent would have chosen to return to school. Only 23 percent chose online instruction.
The clear result is likely due largely to political reasons. Cherokee County, like the entire state of Georgia, is firmly in Republican hands. Donald Trump won the county in 2016 with more than 71 percent of the vote. If the U.S. president and the Republicans have their way, all schools in the U.S. should reopen their doors as soon as possible. The Democrats, on the other hand, are advocating a strategy for school opening based on scientific findings, so they are not committing themselves definitively.
In Trump constituencies, schools are more likely to open
School starts: Germany has already largely completed its Corona-year school start. On or shortly after Sept. 1, the school year now starts in many countries around the world. However, many governments are hesitant to return to normal – no one wants to repeat the mistakes of Israel or Australia. There, children were put back together in schools too early, and a second Corona wave was the result.
School does not start: If schools remain closed, classes are canceled for millions of students. Because there is no stable Internet connection, because families have no or not enough computers or smartphones. Unicef reported last week that one third of all schoolchildren worldwide were excluded from education during the lockdown: more than 463 million children and young people.
The taz dossier: The taz brings you reports from our correspondents in the USA, Brazil, Uganda, the Netherlands, China and other countries on the global start of school in 2020. You can find all the texts bundled together here.
Especially in regions and states with Republican leadership, schools must expect considerable problems and legal consequences should they decide against reopening. A study by the Brookings Institute also confirms that politics does indeed play a key role in the decision on the form of instruction. According to the study, there is a clear static relationship between the decision to open schools and support for Trump in the last presidential election. The U.S. school districts that have voted to return students to classrooms so far are largely in counties where at least 55 percent of voters had voted for Trump.
To be sure, individual school districts have a great deal of freedom in deciding the form of instruction. But the governments of the 50 U.S. states, along with the U.S. administration in Washington, have the final say.
In Florida, Georgia’s southern neighbor, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis faced defeat in court this week. DeSantis had issued a decree in July requiring all schools in his state to offer conventional classes five days a week, despite the ongoing corona crisis. The governor threatened to withdraw funding from those schools that refused. The Florida Education Association, which represents 137,000 members, took legal action against this and has now been vindicated. Florida’s government, however, has announced its intention to appeal the ruling.
Like many Republicans, DeSantis argues that the risk of corona infection and serious illness is much lower in children than in adults. In fact, it is extremely rare for children and adolescents to develop serious complications when infected. "Nothing in life is without risk," the governor commented.
But recent research has also shown that children and adolescents may play a far more significant role in the transmission and spread of coronavirus than previously thought. Those among them who were infected with the virus had higher concentrations of the virus in their airways than adults with covid 19 symptoms in the intensive care unit, according to a Massachusetts General Hospital study.
Without mouth guards and crowded
Even in the first few weeks after school started, critics’ fears appear to have been confirmed. In Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia, schools have had to scrap their plans again because of Covid-19 outbreaks. Except for Louisiana, all of these states have in common that they are governed by Republican governors.
A recent incident in Georgia made national headlines. Photos on social media showed students at a Paulding County high school standing in a school hallway without mouth guards and crowded together. The reason for the crowd was the traditional first day of school photo.
And not everything went according to plan in Cherokee County, either. As recently as the first week, the school district registered more than a dozen positive test results. The number of people infected has continued to rise since then. Nearly 1,200 students and teachers had to be sent into a 14-day quarantine.
Brian Kemp, governor of Georgia
"Other than a few viral photos, the first week went pretty well"
School district Superintendent Brian Hightower said in a letter to students’ families that there will almost certainly be more positive test results in the future. "We know we are under the microscope. The national media is covering school openings across the country," Hightower wrote. "However, you can be assured that our decisions are not based on what people in New York or Kansas think. Our sole focus is the common good of our community and our students."
Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, said he was pleased with the start of the new school year despite the rising infection numbers. "Other than a few viral photos, the first week went pretty well," he said.
Trump’s position: economy won’t take off without schools
Governors like Kemp are getting backing for their positions from the highest levels. U.S. President Donald Trump has made clear his support for the immediate reopening of the more than 130,000 public schools in the country. "We cannot keep 50 million American children from going to school indefinitely and accept damage to their mental, physical, emotional and academic development," Trump said in mid-August.
To add weight to his cause, Trump has announced plans to revoke federal grants to schools that oppose his course. Still, in Georgia, many school districts – especially in Atlanta and surrounding areas – have decided against returning to the old way of teaching for now.
Democrats strongly reject Trump’s plans for a quick opening. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the president’s proposal "the greatest risk to the spread of the coronavirus." She said, "The president and his administration are gambling with our children’s health. We all want our kids to go back to school, but we have to do it in a safe way."
Alice Stewart, who advised Republican Senator Ted Cruz on his 2016 presidential campaign, told the taz that Trump is less concerned with children’s education when it comes to school openings and more concerned with economic issues.
"To have a chance in the upcoming election, Trump must succeed in reducing the health and economic consequences of the Corona crisis," Stewart said. "Hence his concern about opening schools as quickly as possible. Because only when students are back in schools can parents get back to work and the nation’s economy can get back on track. Still, I’m a little surprised that it’s become a core issue in the coronade debate, because I think the benefits of teaching children in schools are obvious."
Unlike many other states that have managed to at least contain the spread of coronavirus through strict lockdown regulations, the rate of infection in the U.S. continues unabated, with more than 40,000 new cases of infection per day at last count. As of Monday, the number of confirmed infections was 5.997 million. 183,000 infected people in the U.S. have died.