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Bad grades for school quarantines

U.S. schools struggle to teach students at home amid a COVID-19 wave

A student in Lake Oswego, Ore., participates in online school in her bedroom. Associated Press/Photo by Sara Cline

Bad grades for school quarantines

During the first full week of the school year, Whitney DeHerrera’s second-grade daughter stayed at home, quarantined after a COVID-19 exposure in class. DeHerrera thought the official policy at her daughter’s elementary in Lawrence, Kan., was to quarantine only close contacts of a sick student. But she later learned in an email from the school nurse that if any classes from pre-K to second grade had a confirmed positive COVID-19 case, the school was quarantining the entire class.

“The teacher sent home a packet of schoolwork that my daughter maybe finished in 20 minutes, and that was all she got,” DeHerrera said.

Last year, millions of American students attended school via Zoom, Google Classroom, or similar online platforms. In a push to return to normalcy, some states and school districts announced restrictions this spring on remote education. But with a new school year beginning amid a wave of the COVID-19 delta variant, schools are struggling to teach students whom they’ve sent home under quarantine policies.

In its weekly email update, Burbio reported Sunday on nearly 1,700 in-person school closures spread across 38 states, with 55 percent of those moving school online and 39 percent closing temporarily. Those numbers don’t include quarantined students at schools that are still open: As of late August, The Hill reported at least 90,000 students had quarantined at some point this school year, particularly in southern U.S. states.

The unpredictable school closures come at an especially crucial time for students. According to a July 2021 report on third to eighth grade students from the NWEA Center for School and Student Progress, student achievement levels in reading fell 3 to 6 percentage points from spring 2019 to spring 2021, depending on the grade level. In math, student achievement fell 8 to 12 percentage points.

In Oklahoma, Diana Meek’s kindergartner is quarantining for nearly three weeks after his little brother tested positive for COVID-19 in late August. Meek said her son’s public school in the Edmond, Okla., informed her that he would have to quarantine another 10 days after his brother’s initial 10-day quarantine. (He could return to school three days sooner if he showed a negative COVID-19 test.)

Meek said it wasn’t until she emailed her son’s teacher about his assignments that she was told she could come to the school to pick up a folder of work for two of the three weeks her son will be out. “I wish I didn’t have to ... reach out and initiate that myself,” she said.

According to an August report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, only 19 out of 100 large and urban districts the group surveyed gave specific information on how they planned to handle education for quarantined students. Only 13 mentioned using an online education platform.

Several states have restricted virtual learning, which complicates the schools’ options. In Kansas, where DeHerrera lives, schools risk losing funding for students enrolled in traditional classes who receive more than 40 hours of virtual instruction. In Virginia, one school district closed for a week after using six of its 10 legally allotted days of virtual learning by the second week of September.

While many schools continue to weigh the effectiveness of masks and social distancing to reduce quarantines, some are looking to new options. Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced it would require in-person students who are at least 12 years old to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 19. Student-athletes of the same age must be vaccinated by the end of October. (As of Monday, 67 percent of eligible LA County residents were fully vaccinated, and on Tuesday the LA Times reported 1,259 active COVID-19 cases among district students and staffers.) Though not the first district to institute a student vaccine mandate, LA Unified is so far the largest to do so.

One in 70 students in the district—6,500 total—were quarantined during the first week of school this year. “We want kids to be healthy, we want teachers to be healthy, but we think there are safe alternatives to mass quarantines that should be examined,” said Jenny Hontz, a spokeswoman for the parent advocacy group Speak UP.

According to Hontz, quarantined LA students early in the school year were given worksheets, but no instruction or contact with teachers. “We think that if kids are in quarantine, they absolutely have a right to access their education while they’re sent home,” she said. Speak UP hasn’t polled parents or taken a position on the new vaccine mandate.

Hontz said that LA Unified has since modified its policy, requiring teachers to simulcast their lessons for quarantined students and teach over Zoom if the entire class is quarantined. The LA Unified website says quarantined students will continue their education at home with the option of participating online. The district also said in late August that students and staffers exposed to a positive COVID-19 case would not have to quarantine if they were vaccinated, asymptomatic, and got tested five days after the exposure.

In Kansas, DeHerrera said her daughter can be anxious, and going back-and-forth from classroom to home quarantine could make her return to in-person schooling more difficult. “At this rate, it’s going to be quite often, and more and more she’s getting more anxious to go to school because there’s no consistency,” she said.

Lauren Dunn

Lauren is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and an intern with WORLD Digital.


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