Nine months into the pandemic, the US still has not figured out how to get all of its kids safely back into classrooms, and now we are starting to see the cost of the cumulative individual and policy decisions that have made opening schools so hard.

It is exactly what was feared. The pandemic is affecting children of color more than White kids and test scores are down disproportionately in schools with high rates of poverty, according to a new report from the nonprofit NWEA. The group analyzed more than 4.4 million test scores for kids in grades three through eight across 46 states. Read more from CNN’s Harmeet Kaur.

It’s probably worse than the data suggests. The NWEA researchers caution that the data may not be capturing the full universe of students. They observed a larger fraction of attrition in the testing from 2019 to 2020 among minority students, those with lower achievement last year and those in schools with more students in economic hardship.

“A sizable population of the most vulnerable students were not assessed in fall 2020, and their achievement is not reflected in the data as a result,” the report says.

Open/close whiplash. The recent decision by New York City to close schools amid the Covid spike and then to open some right back up is indicative of the whiplash American schoolchildren — and their parents — are facing. And even when you see a headline like “Schools to reopen” it’s important to remember the fine print.

In New York, for instance, it is some kids in lower grades — pre-K through fifth grade — who will phase into in-person learning starting December 7. Middle and high schools won’t be opening before January, if then. So while it is good news is that 330,000 kids will start transitioning back to the classroom, the bad news is that’s less than a third of the more than 1 million kids in New York City public schools.

And what even that took was a full retreat from the 3% positivity threshold for New York Covid infections.

A data deficit

Schools, districts and states are not systematically testing kids, Emily Oster, a Brown economics professor who started her own website to share data about Covid infections in schools, told CNN last week.

The data she’s gathered, which she cautioned is woefully incomplete, ended up being cited by the CDC as evidence that the virus does not spread the same way in schools. In fact, because so many kids are asymptomatic, it’s not clear how or whether the virus is spreading in schools.

Schools are left to decide for themselves what to do. Like New York City, Kentucky and West Virginia temporarily closed all schools, though both plan to move back toward reopening this month.

The El Paso model. One of the major US Covid hot spots of recent weeks has been El Paso, Texas, where schools aren’t exactly open but not entirely closed. They have a color-coded reentry plan based on the percentage of people in Texas hospitals with Covid.

The current Covid hospitalization rate in the El Paso area is more than 36%. It’s been in the “red zone” for 45 straight days — that means 20% or more of the people hospitalized in El Paso have Covid. The rate is on a downward trend — it was more than 50% a few weeks ago, said Daniel Martinez, the interim associate superintendent for public relations for the Ysleta Independent School District.

The district is allowing some in-person instruction, though it has been utilized only by fewer than 2,000 students, according to Martinez. And the instruction is not exactly regular Before Times-style kids in the classroom, but rather looks more like internet hubs staffed by substitutes who facilitate online learning.

Still, it is education out of the home for those who want or need it. Interestingly, there are students still playing high school football, somehow, although Martinez said a strict testing policy is in place.

The Florida model. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has made keeping schools open his calling card, and he announced Monday that he’d continue that pressure into next year.

Among the state’s largest school districts is Broward County, and officials there publish a detailed graphic of self-reported Covid cases by staff and students. The cases have been about equally split between staff and students since schools there reopened in October. More than half of the cases have occurred in the last 30 days. Every outbreak of more than a dozen people has occurred at a high school.

More than half of the students — 55% — in Florida’s largest school district chose to attend virtually rather than in person, according to data maintained by the Miami-Dade school district, which serves nearly 300,000 students.

The district has taken an aggressive approach to tracing students and staff members who may have been infected and has identified more than 1,300 since October. Two schools were closed for a 24-hour period.

In states where many or most schools are open, there have been increases in Covid associated with schools. Read here about Utah’s high schools.

Not all closures are from Covid. Baltimore’s school district was the victim of a ransomware attack that shut down online learning for three days.

Kids are also getting sick

Nearly 154,000 children were diagnosed with coronavirus infections in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, the highest count yet, the American Academy of Pediatrics said Tuesday.

That brings the number of US child infections to a cumulative total of more than 1.3 million cases.

“As documented in prior weekly reports, it appears that severe illness due to Covid-19 is rare among children. However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects,” the academy said in a statement.

The count is not complete, because not all states report data in the same way. These numbers come from 49 states, New York City, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam.

But doctors still think it’s time to send the kids back. Dr. Tanya Altman, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, writes for CNN that the solution to schools, for now, is to mask up and focus on reopening them:

“Some may argue that closing bars, malls, theaters and other public-facing businesses will decimate our economy and ultimately, hurt students as parents struggle to survive. But in these environments, people are in close quarters and, in relaxed social settings, likely to break rules.

We’re aware of far more transmission linked to indoor gatherings such as wedding receptions, bars, restaurants, malls and other non-school-related gatherings. It’s not during school that Covid-19 is being transmitted. It’s on the days kids aren’t in school that they tend to gather without masks.

The United States must establish universal recommendations such as masking, distancing and testing, restricting events and exposures, and bringing case numbers down without sacrificing our children’s education, mental health and future. Perhaps if everyone followed school guidelines, we could flatten the curve.”

Lost generation. Miguel Cervantes del Toro is the principal at Callaway Elementary School in Baltimore and he writes that he is “worried about losing an entire generation of students to this pandemic.”

In a piece of advice to President-elect Joe Biden, del Toro says the next education secretary must work to get federal money to help schools: “We need the next education secretary to act with urgency to ensure that we do not lose any more ground with students. We need resources to help schools safely reopen again and we need funding for mental health support to address the trauma the pandemic has caused.”

School districts across the country are navigating out how to reopen safely amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic, and the results of a new study could make those decisions more difficult. (Photo: Shutterstock)
School districts across the country are navigating out how to reopen safely amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic, and the results of a new study could make those decisions more difficult. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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