School is personal again, but the five-day school week is often not

Last month, at the height of the Omicron wave, a quarter of US schoolchildren missed more than a week of face-to-face classes, according to a nationwide survey of 148,400 parents by the New York Times and survey and data company Dynata.

The majority of students were home for at least three days, and almost one in ten was away for half the month or more. The disturbances extended across the whole country, no region was spared.

The survey revealed more widespread disruptions than other recent measurements suggest. It shows the extent to which unexpected class closures have upended children’s education and parents’ routines, even two years into the pandemic.

In the past, five days of face-to-face classes per week were practically guaranteed. Some parents are now wondering if they will get this certainty again.

“I would say I’m 75 percent confident that the school will be open,” said Noelle Rodriguez, a mom and hairstylist in Fresno, Calif., who moved her salon into her home, installed a sink and bought a hair dryer chair , when it became clear that the school would not open last year. “I can’t say 100 percent, that’s one of the reasons I continue to work from home.”

The reasons for returning home went beyond Covid infections and exposures. Schools have continued to face the aftermath of distance learning over the past year, including burnout and shortages among teachers and staff, and students struggling with academics, social skills and classroom behavior. In some cases, teachers staged sick leave or asked for “wellness” or “school climate” days.

It is much less common than last year for entire districts to close. Instead, schools are closing individual buildings or classrooms, or quarantining small groups of children or teachers. This has enabled more children to stay in school but has left little data on how many school days students are missing. The poll, conducted online February 4-16 by Dynata on behalf of The Times, asked parents how many days of the week their youngest child was at home in January. (The Times asked how many days were missed altogether; some parents may have counted Martin Luther King’s birthday or snow days, others may not.)

In New York City, about a third of students stayed home most days in January. Some districts, including Atlanta and Detroit, did not reopen as planned after the holidays to curb the spread of omicron. In Sandy, Utah, students study independently at home some Fridays to help with teachers’ “fatigue and burnout.” In Fairview, Oregon, a middle school was closed for three weeks because of student misconduct.

Practice in many school districts reflects a new level of comfort in keeping children at home, even on short notice, that was rare before pandemic-era distance learning.

Ms. Rodriguez’s decision in Fresno was prescient. Several classrooms at her children’s school were closed after positive cases and then Covid rolled through them in January Family. Her third-grade daughter was home for two weeks. Her husband is a sheet metal worker and cannot work from home.

“I can’t collect unemployment benefits, I don’t get sick pay, I’m self-employed, so I didn’t have any income at that time,” she said. “It’s a lot, but we make sure it works.”

As cases have fallen, many states and counties are dropping mask mandates and restrictions on large school gatherings for the first time. But only one in five American children ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated. Some districts have begun scheduling virtual days during times of seasonal Covid spread, said Dennis Roche, the president of Burbio, a data company that tracks closures in more than 5,000 school districts.

“It’s almost like building a house in an earthquake zone,” he said. “You want it to be a little flexible. They want to put some shock absorbers in the system.”

School-wide closures eased in February, Burbio said, and it’s likely January saw students stay home more than any other month this school year. As the year progresses, schools are also less likely to be closed due to public health precautions or teachers’ mental health concerns.

For schools trying to keep students in class, some other pressures have eased. Many states and school districts have hired additional substitute teachers by lowering requirements or increasing salaries. Changes in public health guidance around isolation and quarantine have allowed more students to remain in school.

Chuck Alberts, president of Michigan’s Lansing Schools Education Association, the teachers’ union there, said the district has done a lot to keep schools open. Schools doubled the size of some classrooms and asked teachers to fill additional classes during free periods and lunch breaks. The district has mandated masks and made free testing available to any child or staff with Covid symptoms.

“As a municipality, we understand that a school is much more than just a place to receive an education,” he said. “At least for breakfast and lunch we are the hot supplier and the right place for warmth.”

But even with those measures, the district urged students to spend the first week of January at home for distance learning, when infection rates were so high that some schools couldn’t staff all of their classrooms. Mr Alberts said some teachers were so exhausted from their extended schedules that they called in sick the week after taking on a heavy burden.

“There is no longer normal before March 13, 2020,” he said. “I think we’re really at a point where we need to redefine what education is going to be like in the future.”

Other counties say things are stabilizing. In Cleveland City, Tennessee, schools were closed for two days in January when Omicron became infected 95 adults on staff, said Russell Dyer, the director of the schools there. But he noted they were also closed for a day or two during the bad flu season prior to the arrival of Covid.

A growing body of research shows that closures have had a far-reaching impact on families with young children.

Students started the year with half a year of math and reading on average, and many have also struggled socially and emotionally, data shows. Some educators have said they need more free time or more time away from students to handle the increased workload. At the same time, others say students need more time in school to improve their lagging skills.

Closures, or just the threat of them, have also kept some parents from work. According to a Census Bureau poll in early February, five million people — 12 percent of adults who are neither working nor retired — said they were unemployed because they are caring for a child who is usually in school or childcare . There is no paid federal leave for persons in this position; it expired in December 2020.

At the start of the pandemic, parents were more likely to say that the spread of viruses, more than children’s academic and emotional well-being, should be a major factor in whether schools should remain open. More parents are now saying the opposite, according to a Pew Research Center poll. But there were divisions in these beliefs: Parents who are white, Republican, or wealthy were most likely to prioritize personal schooling.

Erin Bray, who works at an educational nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, is a mother of two young children whose district shut down two weeks of distance learning in January to curb the spread of Omicron.

Ms Bray said it felt like breathing space for the children and staff – her husband is a third grade teacher – and not too stressful for her family because the closure was brief and she works from home.

“The last two years have been so challenging for our educators and this stress added to an already stressful job seems to be wearing everyone down,” she said.

M. Cecilia Bocanegra, a Chicago-area psychotherapist and mother of three, has lost patience with school closures. Her district had no school for five days in January because of a teachers union row over Covid precautions. The closure began on the first day of a new job for her husband, a lawyer, requiring her to cancel her patients’ appointments or visit them virtually while their children were at home.

“When it comes to staff, I get that,” she said. “But if we wait until everyone feels safe? We were afraid that we would return to the last year, which was the date that the return was pushed out and pushed out. It’s a lot of anxiety and just not sustainable in the long run.”

Unexpected closures can be particularly distressing for children, according to researchers who have been surveying service workers in Philadelphia regularly since fall 2020. They found that after unplanned school breaks, children misbehaved more and felt sadder, and their parents were in lower spirits and had shorter tempers.

“Routine is really important for young children’s sense of stability in the world and is known to be important for the healthy development of children. So when the routine is disrupted, it creates additional stressors,” said Anna Gassman-Pines, a study author, who teaches political science, psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. “Any attempt to increase predictability would be helpful.”

Josh Katz contributed reporting. School is personal again, but the five-day school week is often not

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