Some teachers and students got sick. Principals had to improvise constantly. But it worked — mostly.
At one of her regular televised Covid briefings in early December, Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island addressed the residents of her state to deliver a round of bad news. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this,” Raimondo said. “It’s getting scary in Rhode Island.” In the previous week, a daily average of 123.5 out of every 100,000 people in the state tested positive, which suggested, by that measure, that Rhode Island was the most Covid-infected region per capita in the country, which was to say the world. Stern and matter-of-fact, Raimondo urged viewers to do their part by not socializing; encouraged residents to take advantage of the state’s plentiful testing facilities; gave a thank-you to school leaders and teachers for all their hard work; and then paused for what seemed like the first time in 30 minutes, as if she considered all she had said so far to be preamble and she was only now getting to the heart of her message.
“Every day that a child is out of school,” she said, “is a problem for that child.” She shook her head slowly as she spoke. As bad as the numbers were in Rhode Island, she was about to bear down on a conviction she had held since the spring: Schools must remain open for in-person learning.
Raimondo, who has two children in private school, has said that she sees school openings as a matter of equity. Governors in many red states insisted on school openings back in the fall — Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, threatened to cut off funding in all but the hardest-hit regions if they offered only remote instruction — but perhaps no other Democratic governor has matched Raimondo’s dedication to the cause and her effectiveness in execution. When Rhode Island’s school-opening plan had fully rolled out by late September, only one public-school district, Pawtucket, was primarily remote.
Despite Raimondo’s best efforts to keep all schools in the state open, at the time of that Dec. 10 Covid briefing, the governor was seeing what she perceived as failure creeping in. In early November, all 62 public-school districts were open; but in the previous two weeks seven of those districts announced that they were moving to remote learning, as anxiety ran high and the schools were plagued by staffing issues. Many teachers had been exposed to someone with the virus and were in quarantine, while others were simply absent for other reasons. The closures were all the more troubling to Raimondo because the state had conducted asymptomatic, on-site testing of students and staff members at eight school sites across four districts with high rates of Covid in the community, including two in Providence, and found the positive rates to be reassuringly low: 0.76 percent on average. Even in Central Falls, among the hardest-hit regions in the hardest-hit state at the time, where 23 percent of Covid tests had recently come back positive, testing at a local elementary school found only a 1 percent positive rate. The districts that had recently closed had local control, so Raimondo could not force them open; but she could publicly tell them what she thought, and standing at the lectern that afternoon, she did.
“To those of you who are throwing in the towel on our kids and going virtual,” she said, “I think it’s a shame. I really do. You’re letting the children down, and I don’t see any reason for it.” Raimondo cited widespread reports about the mental health of students who were remote learners — the apparent increases in suicidal ideation, the upticks in visits to pediatric emergency rooms, the widespread feelings of isolation. Then her face went from pained to pointed. “To the superintendents out there who’ve just decided to go virtual — I want you to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you can try a little harder,” she said. “Because I think the kids deserve better.”
Raimondo’s stance — fiercely protective of students, unyielding, even harsh toward administrators — did not always achieve the uniform results she wanted statewide: schools that were open, no matter the anxieties or stresses that imposed on staff members. But it did consistently drive the approach of the Providence schools, which were put under state control pre-Covid, in 2019, when a review of the district conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Education reported that “the great majority of students were not even close to learning at grade level.”
In September, Providence, which now serves about 22,600 students, was the rare large, urban district in a blue state that not only opened its schools to in-person learning but also offered instruction five days a week to every elementary student, plus hybrid instruction to middle and high-school students whose parents chose to send them. (A separate virtual academy was set up for students whose parents preferred to keep them home.) Sixty-eight percent of the district’s students are Latino and 15 percent are Black, both populations that have suffered, across the country, especially high rates of Covid infections and mortality; it is in an exceptionally dense metropolitan area, with extensive multigenerational housing; and its school infrastructure is in such grim condition that the Johns Hopkins review reported that the worst of the buildings “reduced seasoned members of the review team to tears.” Even with those concerns, since September the majority of the city’s young people have experienced what has been the exception in this strange time: They could regularly see their teachers and classmates, either every day or at least two days a week.
The last week of January, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tried to make their position on schools as clear as possible: The preponderance of evidence suggested that schools could be safe for reopening, provided mitigation measures were in place. As early as June, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged schools to open, citing the long-term risks — academic and emotional — to students if schools stay closed.
And yet, with widespread recent spikes in Covid and the arrival of new, more transmissible variants, and differences in opinion on just how safely districts can mitigate that risk, debates still rage around how and when to open. Wrenching, increasingly bitter fights are happening in cities where teachers are resisting a return to school until the buildings are made safer or school populations have been vaccinated. In San Francisco, teachers’ unions have set the bar at vaccines and biweekly tests; in Fairfax, Va., teachers started receiving vaccines, only for some to say that they would not agree to return to classrooms until all teachers had received both doses. As of the first week of February, the Chicago Teachers Union had balked at returning to school. Districts such as Durham, N.C., Richmond, Va., and, to Raimondo’s disappointment, Pawtucket, R.I., have announced plans to remain closed for the remainder of the school year.
At the same time, the country’s commitment to in-person schooling in the time of Covid is finally gaining momentum with the rollout of vaccines and a promise from President Biden to open most schools in the first 100 days of his administration. Previously closed districts like Atlanta and Buffalo are now opening their schools for in-person learning. For those schools newly opening — and those still weighing whether or not to open — Providence provides a powerful example, a case study in how, with support from state leadership, even a deeply challenged region can keep the schools open, with significant enrollment. Without on-site testing, without vaccines, teachers in Providence showed up for work, and 70 percent of Providence families chose to return their children to school by October. (The state now offers asymptomatic, on-site testing at every school.)
For school districts opening for the first time, Rhode Island’s experience also offers an example of what to expect — and to try to mitigate against — under very difficult circumstances: severely stressed educators, possibly chaotic classrooms, unpredictability for students, high rates of quarantine and absenteeism, lost services for students with special needs. It wasn’t easy; it wasn’t pretty; and at times, it did not even feel like school. Administrators in Rhode Island acknowledge many of the challenges of the past months while maintaining that the effort was justified. The Johns Hopkins report suggested that even before the pandemic, too many students in Providence were in educational crisis; the state’s leaders knew that its students would only fall further behind if they didn’t open the schools that fall. “In no way do I want to give the impression that it’s going perfectly here,” Raimondo said in November. “Because it’s not. And I’m not going to pretend that it is. But I still think it was the right thing to do.”
The C.D.C. based its new recommendations for school openings on a series of persuasive studies published in December that made the case for the safety of schools, provided that masking, social distancing, hand-washing, adequate ventilation and contact tracing were in place. Covid rates in counties where in-person education was available, the C.D.C. reported on Jan. 13, were similar to those in communities where children were learning entirely remotely, results derived from data on nearly three million young people in dozens of communities nationwide. In North Carolina, only 32 cases of in-school transmission were identified in a group of more than 90,000 students and teachers (and none from student to teacher). And in Mississippi, researchers found that school attendance was not associated with positive Covid test results but that socializing outside school and not wearing masks was.
By mid-December, another set of statistics was rolling in from schools around the country that chose to go entirely remote, most of which confirmed the devastating toll of that choice on students. In Fairfax County, Va., for example, one of the country’s largest school districts, where learning has been largely remote since March, the number of middle- and high-school students with failing grades in two or more classes nearly doubled (rising to 11 percent from 6 percent).
Although gold-standard research on students’ mental health during the pandemic is still in short supply, surveys from Europe and China have found elevated levels of depressive symptoms and other kinds of emotional distress, mirroring widespread reports from teachers and social workers around the country. Together, these three sets of data — some confirming the effectiveness of careful safety precautions in schools, some pointing toward the devastating inadequacy of remote education — capture the magnitude of the losses suffered as school boards, teachers, families and administrators wrestled with how much risk they could tolerate or how well they thought they could mitigate it.
Raimondo had none of that C.D.C. research at hand when she made her decision on school openings in June; to the contrary, the safer political move would have been to leave the call, as many governors did, to local districts, given the obvious risk of coming down on the wrong side of a decision with potential serious health implications. The state brought in a Boston-based education consulting group to help manage the logistics of school openings; those consultants strongly advised Rhode Island’s board of education that the best way to manage openings was not to have them — to offer mostly remote instruction, the choice that many large urban districts eventually announced.
Many public-health experts still believed, around the time that Raimondo was deciding, that children were likely to be worrisome vectors of the virus at school, with implications for community spread. Reports in Israel pointed toward spread in schools (though later investigation revealed that safety protocols were not being followed); Ashish Jha, now dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, predicted that in areas of high rates of Covid prevalence, if infected students went to school, “they’d spread it to their teachers and staff,” with large outbreaks in schools inevitable. At the time, encouraging research in Sweden and China suggested the possibility of safety in schools, but it was hard to know whether those studies would be relevant to large American districts like Providence or Boston, with their aging infrastructure, their relatively crowded schools, their narrow stairwells and often-inoperable windows. It seemed intuitive, to many parents and teachers, that schools would be significant sites of transmission, as they have always been known to be for influenza.
“I got every piece of data I could — honestly knowing it was inconclusive,” Raimondo said in mid-November, when we met (each of us masked) in her office in the Rhode Island State House. The office, high-ceilinged and quiet from carpeting, was all but devoid of staff members, with most of her team working from home. A former rugby player, Raimondo, 49, has a mostly-business briskness, an energy that offset the odd dead air of the near-empty space.
“This is how I analyzed it, right, wrong or indifferent,” she said. “If you look at the risk that children who go virtual will be left behind — get behind academically, suffer from severe mental-health issues, suffer from food insecurity, suffer from abuse and neglect — it’s 100 percent. One-hundred percent certainty.” As an undergraduate at Harvard, Raimondo studied economics, earning a top academic honor in the department; she thinks in terms of probability, risk and downside. One way of looking at it: Raimondo would have had to be certain that schools were unsafe in order to justify rushing headlong into the known risks of closing them. She didn’t have a vast body of research on the safety of schools; but she had absolute confidence in how catastrophic it would be for children to lose the safety net that schools provide. “We saw that in March — we saw immunizations fall through the floor,” she said. “Weight gains up, kids falling behind, emotional hardship. So that’s 100 percent certainty at the time I’m making decisions, which I like. So, yeah, I came out aggressively.”
Raimondo is the child of working-class parents and often talks about the opportunities her own early education gave her. (In January, she was announced as Biden’s nominee for secretary of commerce.) She made it clear, in almost every public appearance she made, that opening the schools was one of her chief priorities as governor. Starting in July, she had the state’s education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, join her at her Covid briefings. Also in attendance: Nicole Alexander-Scott, the health commissioner, who had spoken at those briefings since March. At most of the appearances, those three women — all of them mothers of children under 15, two of them women of color — reiterated their commitment to open the schools and their belief that they could open them with adequate safety precautions. “The people leading my response are all mothers,” Raimondo said. “I know that’s affected me.” Working mothers, she said, often urged her to stay strong on schools.
The confidence they projected, and the information they provided, offered strong counterprogramming to any campaign teachers’ unions might have wanted to wage in favor of school closings; in Massachusetts, by contrast, Gov. Charlie Baker waited until August to release a map detailing which districts were considered safe — at which point unions had already had a strong influence on decision-making and many districts had made up their mind to close, The Boston Globe reported.
Raimondo worked closely with the two state teachers’ unions, members of which attended weekly meetings on school-opening plans. “It was very productive,” Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, says. “We all felt our voices were heard.” That was not true of the Providence Teachers Union, which was not invited to those meetings and mounted protests. “We didn’t want to shut down the schools,” says Jeremy Sencer, vice president of the union. “We wanted to know that it was safe, and we felt completely disrespected that they didn’t bring us in to the process.” The Providence union, however, was lacking the support many others received from their school boards, as the Providence school board had lost most of its authority when the state took over. “The Providence Teachers Union was not one to walk away from students,” says Susan F. Lusi, who was superintendent there from 2011 to 2015. “That said, when you’re in a state takeover and at the negotiating table, I would imagine there’s additional pressure to demonstrate good faith.”
Raimondo kept moving forward with logistics, setting up systems that would make getting Covid tests as easy as possible for educators and students — a dedicated hotline they could call to find out where to go; 15 test sites dedicated exclusively to them, located in accessible places like Stop & Shops. To reassure parents, for most of the summer she held weekly Facebook Live discussions on the topic of school safety, including one that Anthony Fauci joined in late August. In the same building that housed the education department, she set up a command center staffed by members of the National Guard, who operated a hotline responding to queries from educators needing either reassurance or clarification on certain protocols (like how to set up an isolation room).
The state started working on ventilation in June, consulting with experts who assured the health department that, at least as long as it was warm enough, a box fan and an open window would suffice for many classrooms in older schools that did not have modern ventilation systems. Eventually, the state used its collective purchasing power to order thousands of filtration systems that had suddenly become scarce. When one school district, Warwick, chose to remain shut in September, citing, among other issues, inadequate ventilation, Raimondo held a Facebook Live chat with an air-quality expert, hoping to make the contrary case. At a news conference in September, she told Warwick parents that if they wanted to pursue legal remedies to keep schools open, she would be happy to help them sue the district. The Warwick schools opened on Oct. 14.
It was still dark on the morning of Sept. 14 when Sindy Giard arrived for the first day of school at Anthony Carnevale Elementary School, a long, low brick building on the western edge of Providence. Giard, who had been principal at the school for about a year, wanted to be there to help the staff set up the cones for social distancing at the school’s entrance, a bright spot on the block, with large colorful crayons that functioned as pillars. Giard is so high energy that she often works out twice a day, but that morning, she felt something closer to jitters, if not outright fear. Rhode Island had delayed the start of school two weeks and used that time to provide extra training on safety protocols, but even so, she had concerns. “It’s like, ‘Who knows?’” she says. “Of course you’re nervous about what’s going to happen.”
At the time the school opened, the rate of Covid tests coming back positive in Rhode Island was low — 1.5 percent — as was true of most of New England at the time; nonetheless, the school was among the first urban public schools in that region to open for students five days a week. Nationwide, only 15 percent of the largest urban districts were offering any in-person instruction at all.
Giard, in a mask and face shield, spent the morning outside the school, greeting families, often in Spanish, assuring them of the school’s safety measures — the scheduled bathroom breaks, so students assigned to different pods wouldn’t mix, the piles of extra P.P.E. The last of the late stragglers were arriving just before 10 when Giard’s vice principal rushed up and whispered in her ear that a colleague who worked in the school office wasn’t feeling well and would have to be tested for Covid. Giard inhaled sharply: She had worked closely with that colleague in the days leading up to the start of school, even shared lunch breaks with her in the principal’s office. “Right away, you think it’s Covid,” she says. It wasn’t even lunch yet on the first day of school and already they might be facing something of a crisis. “There was a feeling of panic,” admits Infante-Green, who happened to be there that day to celebrate the school’s opening.
Giard got the news that night: The colleague tested positive. Everyone who worked in the office, including Giard and the vice principal, would have to quarantine. At that time, the C.D.C. recommended that anyone who had been in close contact with someone who tested positive — within six feet for 15 minutes or more — isolate at home for two weeks from the time of contact. The person who would ordinarily be outside the school to reassure parents when they showed up the next day would herself be at home, anxiously awaiting her own test results, taking her own temperature numerous times a day. “You plan, you plan, you plan,” Giard says. “But we didn’t expect the leadership team to be out for two weeks.”
Giard spent most of that evening on the phone with the superintendent of Providence schools, Harrison Peters, and Susan Chin, who oversees Providence elementary schools. Could they get substitute administrators who would feel comfortable coming in under those circumstances? What would serve as the front office while the janitors were doing a deep clean on the actual front office? Could they get some sort of letter out to teachers and families? It was the first test case for the school district — was it more important to avoid risking an error that might exacerbate the situation or to show that the schools could manage even a turn of events like this one? Ultimately, they decided they could make it work: They would reroute incoming calls to the library, making that an improvised front office; they brought in a retired school administrator and found substitute secretarial staff members that would step in.
Before the start of the next school day, Peters sent out an email to all families informing them of the plans and also scheduled a 7:30 a.m. question-and-answer session via Zoom for teachers. Susan Chin joined the call. It was obvious to her, even judging from the small faces on Zoom, that teachers were distressed. She wondered how many of those faces she would see in person later that morning, when the school day started. “I was a little nervous about whether the teachers would show up,” she says. “I wondered that. It’s the first time. People are anxious. It’s the human factor. But they did show up.”
Giard and the assistant principal would be back at school after two weeks of quarantine, having both tested negative. But on that second day of school, Chin could not imagine how the rest of the semester would unfold: “How were we going to continue?”
In the weeks to come, administrators and teachers in Providence were able to continue, but only by radically letting go of familiar ideas of what a school looks and feels like. As was true in open districts around the country, small children were being entrusted to adults whose faces they would never see in full; many teachers felt a strange, counterintuitive pang of guilt, or later, anxiety, every time they got physically close to a young person or so much as tied a shoe. In the elementary schools, students and teachers were assigned to pods of 30 or fewer people, to reduce the risk of spread throughout the school; teachers in pods rarely left their classrooms and felt out of touch with their colleagues, the people with whom they would normally bond over the intensity, and sometimes the absurdity, of it all.
Rather than introduce someone new into the school environment, the district assigned, at the larger schools, substitutes who showed up every day; but the number of absent teachers proved problematic districtwide. Teachers had started the year eating lunch in break rooms, which meant that if one of them tested positive, several others then had to quarantine, amplifying the staff shortages. On Oct. 21, a memo went out to all schools: No more eating in the break rooms. Teachers found empty classrooms or resorted to eating lunch in their cars. “Many of us called it ‘car cafe,’” Sencer says.
In early October, Cherie Sanger, a teacher who works individually with children with disabilities, showed up to work at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, just a few blocks from Brown University, to find that of 41 school staff members, only 23 arrived at school that day. The school’s staff-shortage problem — Sanger called it “the fiasco” — continued to be severe throughout the month. Depending on who had been exposed, the students in the absent teachers’ classrooms, too, were sometimes in quarantine, with the teacher conducting the class remotely; but sometimes those students were still present, requiring the staff members and teachers who managed to make it to school to scramble, covering bus duty or classes for which they felt unprepared. Sanger estimated that on at least 30 days, she was unable to provide services to her students with special needs because she was covering other classrooms.
The school’s principal, too, was in quarantine several times over the course of the year, so often, in fact, that the teachers took over the work of figuring out classroom coverage rather than trying to get yet another substitute administrator up to speed. “It was very stressful, very disjointed,” says Sanger, who complained to the union and believed the school should have considered closing, if only for a week. But despite her frustrations, she kept coming in. As a teacher who stood outside the building taking temperatures every day, she felt the families relied on her for reassurance as Covid numbers were rising in the community. “They needed somebody to be there consistently,” she says. “They say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Sanger is here, so it’s OK for me to come, too.’”
When teachers approached her with their frustrations, Susan Chin says, she tried to acknowledge their feelings without wavering on her conviction that the school had put the necessary safety precautions in place and could stay open, even if it was hard emotionally and practically on the teachers. “We’re talking about two perspectives,” she says. “I don’t deny there’s stress, worry, anxiety from the adult perspective. But this is about the kids — their perspective, their education, their experience, their semblance of a routine. Whether it’s 20 classrooms that are open or 50, why would we deny those kids whose classrooms are functioning a consistent experience? These kids get recess. We’re feeding some of these kids. Giving them some semblance of normal in a not-normal pandemic? That’s huge.”
Administrators and teachers alike came to recognize that, no matter how much they trained, they might have to generate new systems on the fly. Timothy Milisauskas, the principal of Esek Hopkins Middle School in a working-class neighborhood in Providence, was in his office in mid-October talking to an administrator in training when he received a call from the school nurse: A student had fallen ill. Then a few minutes later, another call, same bad news, different student. A few minutes later, a third call, a third student. The three were in separate pods. Was this an unhappy coincidence? Or was he about to get another 15 calls just like the first three?
A C.D.C. report posted online in mid-December found that students who tested positive were more likely to report having attended social functions outside the home or activities with other children outside of school in the weeks leading up to the test; attending school, however, was not associated with positive test cases. The Rhode Island Department of Health would eventually determine that where they saw higher numbers of students testing positive in one school, it was usually traced to a common exposure outside of school. In Rhode Island, only outdoor low-contact sports were allowed and masks were required.
‘Whether it’s 20 classrooms that are open or 50, why would we deny those kids whose classrooms are functioning a consistent experience?’
But at that point in the fall, Milisauskas did not have the assurances of that research. He knew only that the bell was about to ring, which meant that these three possibly exposed teachers were all about to head into new classrooms, where they could expose more students. Milisauskas, who is FEMA-trained, immediately resorted to a technique that he calls his ABCs protocol: Assess, breathe, control. He made a beeline for the bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his face. “You got this,” he told himself.
He headed back to the main office and made an announcement: The school was now officially in a “lockdown with instruction,” he said, an official term for “nobody leaves the classroom until they hear otherwise.” Then he called his union chief, ran the plan by him and walked the hallways, checking in with teachers, making sure they understood the reasons for the shift and did not overestimate or underestimate the situation. Instead of teaching to the classrooms in front of them, the teachers would stay put and Zoom with their students elsewhere in the building. The students would ignore the teachers in front of them, and electronically show up for class with teachers right there in the building, but not in front of them. As odd as the situation was, the district adopted the method, which it called “podding in place,” and applied it in other similar circumstances. Milisauskas had teachers pod in place for another two weeks. “The adults were nervous,” he says. “I can’t have people educating effectively when they are scared.”
Only one of the three students ultimately tested positive, but following that scare, Milisauskas added another layer of safety checks. Previously, the school took temperatures and the bus drivers asked students questions about their health before they boarded; now Milisauskas also had the students come to the cafeteria upon arrival, where the school nurse and some of the most Covid-cautious teachers, who knew the students well, also went through those questions, more thoroughly, while also assessing the students for signs of illness. Of the handful of teachers who tested positive at the school since September, none were traced back to in-school transmission. And fewer than five students in quarantine ultimately tested positive, Milisauskas says — though even those students also had other close contacts who were positive at the time, making it just as likely that they had caught the virus outside of school.
As the school year wore on, experiences requiring on-the-spot problem-solving became more and more common, as teachers and administrators were forced to scramble to adjust to more and more positive cases that called for the quarantining of teachers. The state Department of Health fell so far behind on contact tracing that it enlisted school nurses to help with that work, with many of them making calls until late at night. Rather than waiting for contact tracers or overworked nurses to help determine who would and would not stay home, schools solved the problem by flipping classrooms to remote learning on some occasions when someone in the classroom was known to be positive; depending on how many students were found to need quarantining, the class would either resume in-person or stay remote.
Many days at many schools went on with little interruption; but at times, at schools with extensive quarantining, what students were experiencing did not exactly fit anyone’s idea of what in-person learning should be; what they were being offered would better be described as “not-at-home learning.” At Nathanael Greene Middle School, also in Providence, when there were not enough teachers, the principal, Roy Sermons, sometimes moved two pods whose teachers were out to a large gym so that a third teacher, sometimes one who was part of the district’s entirely virtual program, could be called in to oversee all the students. In a single space, 30 kids would be Zooming with one teacher, 30 with another, while the on-site teacher tried to keep an eye on 60 restless middle schoolers as she was also conducting class via Zoom with her own students elsewhere. The union filed suit requesting that the school be closed for safety reasons. The judge rejected the suit.
In December, an executive order from the governor allowed for educators in retirement to fill in as substitutes for more than 90 days without losing pension benefits. Even apart from the issue of staffing, the erratic nature of moving in and out of remote learning was, in many classrooms, taking a toll on any semblance of routine. Caroline LeStrange, a schoolteacher at Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary School at Broad Street, tested positive for Covid on Dec. 2, which meant that all her students were out of school for two weeks. A gym teacher at the school who rotated in to five different classrooms was a close contact of someone who tested positive, and the school quarantined all five classrooms pending the results of a Covid test, including LeStrange’s, adding another several days to the amount of school her first graders missed. Several children in her class had siblings who were exposed to other students or teachers who tested positive, which meant that those children missed yet more days in school. The students — many of them the children of immigrants, many of them qualifying for free lunch — struggled with the quick changes in scheduling when they arose. She could access her students’ computers, watching parents trying and failing to log their students on to the required application, eventually tiring of LeStrange’s repeated efforts to coach them through the process in a language they did not understand. On some days when she tried to run a Zoom class, only three students showed up. Those students who were able to get online, with the help of the day care they attended, wrote her notes: “I miss you! I love you!”
Superintendents and their staffs were trying to reconcile, for teachers and administrators, competing fact patterns that were emerging. On the one hand, cases across the state were starting to rise and were only expected to get worse after Thanksgiving; administrators were exhausted by the stress of scrambling for coverage and making quick decisions about whether or not to flip a classroom to remote, sometimes the night before families expected to send their students to school. On the other hand, with every passing week the district was seeing more reassuring evidence that student and teacher transmission was low — and that, although teachers were stressed, they were rising to the occasion and managing to keep the doors open.
On Nov. 18, with statewide positive test rates at about 6 percent, Raimondo announced that for a finite period — she hoped no more than two weeks — high schools could drop to 25 percent capacity starting Nov. 30. A few weeks later, Olayinka Alege, an administrator who oversees Providence middle and high schools, received a text from an anxious high-school principal at a school with roughly 1,000 students. “Almost 50 cases, now in the janitorial staff,” it read; the number referred to the total of students and staff members who had tested positive since the start of school. When the two men spoke, the principal explained how heavily the burden of keeping the school open weighed on him, how responsible he felt: Was having the students keep coming even the right thing to do? They talked briefly, but even then, the principal asked Alege to call back later that night, just so they could go over the facts one more time: The high school was safer than ever, now that it had dropped down to 25 percent capacity; they knew that the cases traced back to schools were low; they knew that schools provided structure that protected children from taking health risks. Alege says he understood that the teacher, like others, occasionally needed that reassurance so he could “put his head on the pillow at night knowing he is doing the right thing for kids.” The principal’s school, like every other in Providence, stayed open until Dec. 20, when the district temporarily switched to remote learning just a few days before the start of winter break.
At the end of the first semester, the outcomes for Providence students who attended school in person were far from ideal: 22 percent of all in-person learners had at least one incomplete in a class. But the number was even worse for virtual learners, 37 percent of whom had at least one incomplete. School openings also proved important for public health, statewide: Regular immunization rates plummeted last spring but largely rebounded by October, a function, quite likely, of the requirement that students be vaccinated before returning to class. The same was true of lead screenings, which are required for kindergarten attendance.
Rafael Burgos, a construction worker in Providence, and his girlfriend, Maria Santa, started the school year keeping Burgos’s son, 6-year-old Rafael Jr., home with Santa rather than risk exposure to Covid at school. Santa’s first language is Spanish, though she speaks a little English. Rafael Jr.’s first language is English, though he speaks a little Spanish. They made little progress, as they tried to work through whatever was happening in his remote classroom. “The math, the English — I could see he wasn’t catching it,” says Burgos, who tried to help when he was home from work, only to learn just how hard it was to break down even simple concepts for a small child. Everyone was trying his or her hardest, and everyone was miserable. In October, with relief, he enrolled his son in school, even though Covid rates were then higher than they were in September. “Now he comes home, I say, ‘What did you learn in school?’” Burgos says. “He tells me something different every day.”
The Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan education research group, published a report in August that found extreme positions on schools held on both sides of the political divide. Eight percent of schools in communities where prevalence was low enough to make school openings safe, according to the C.D.C. guidelines at the time, chose remote learning only, an occurrence that happened primarily in progressive, coastal regions with strong teachers’ unions. And 7 percent of schools whose community numbers were then considered too high to make school openings safe chose to open, primarily in Texas, Florida and Georgia.
With the accumulation of data, in research and lived experience, regions around the country that started at different extremes on schools in September have since found at least some common ground: As of November, 90 percent of students in this country who attend schools were required to wear masks, according to a study by the University of Southern California, with the percentage of parents who oppose the policy dropping significantly over time. But as Covid case numbers remain high — and threaten to rise more with the spread of new, more contagious variants — the approaches to an issue as universal as how students should learn in the time of Covid still diverge widely. Some major school districts still show no signs of opening; in Florida, by contrast, DeSantis considered ordering students back to school this semester, but instead opted to impress upon parents the urgency of having their children return.
Even after the schools in Broward County, Fla., opened in early October, only 27 percent of students chose to attend school in person, Robert W. Runcie, the district superintendent, recently said on a panel convened by the Rockefeller Foundation. The results for remote learners were proving so worrisome — of all grades issued, 11 percent were failing grades, up from 4 percent a year earlier — that Runcie, following guidance from the governor’s office, sent letters to all the parents of children who were learning remotely and not making adequate academic progress, urging them to return their children to in-person learning. And those who didn’t, Runcie said, were asked to come in and “sign a document indicating they understand the educational and life risks that are associated with making that decision.”
In Missouri, DeSantis’s fellow Republican governor, Mike Parson, hoped to make schools function more smoothly by introducing what is known as a modified quarantine: Districts in that state could choose to forgo quarantines from school for students who came in contact with someone who tested positive, provided both parties were wearing masks. On Dec. 30, the governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, also a Republican, announced the same policy. Rachel Orscheln, a pediatric infectious-disease doctor at Washington University in St. Louis, believes the data justifies the policy in some communities, provided schools continue to monitor Covid cases and, she said, “quickly respond if they see some kind of breakdown.” Monica Gandhi, a director of the infectious- disease department at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, also endorses the policy. If transmission in schools is low, it’s not quarantining that is keeping teachers and students safe, Gandhi argues, it is mask wearing, good ventilation and social distancing.
The costs of quarantining are high, as shown by the experiences in Rhode Island and elsewhere. The C.D.C. is currently conducting a study to try to answer the question of whether quarantining, when all parties had been wearing masks, measurably reduces transmission rates. Jason Newland, a pediatric infectious-disease doctor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has been conducting research on Missouri schools, in conjunction with the C.D.C., that includes schools with those modified quarantine policies. “So far, the preliminary data suggests that transmission remains low,” he says.
Low transmission is not the same as no transmission. When asked how many Covid cases contact tracing had tied to in-school transmission, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Health described it as “only limited amounts.” It would be folly to argue that in-person schooling is safer than a state of total lockdown with high compliance. But in Rhode Island, where limited restrictions are in place, the state found, if anything, that students attending school had slightly lower positive test cases than those not doing in-person learning. Schools thrive on regimen; their students benefit, when it comes to mask wearing and social distancing, from the nonnegotiable nature of policy.
Should a more transmissible variant take hold in the United States, administrators and government leaders will once again have to take in the competing demands of their communities, to read the tolerance for risk, to try to calculate the cost of school closings — and determine whether creative, aggressive mitigation strategies can make it possible to provide in-person education. In London, the schools have closed, following months of relatively lax safety precautions (children up to age 11 wore no masks, and middle schoolers wore them only in common areas). In Spain, by contrast, where schools now have strict safety precautions in place, the schools remain open, even in Valencia, where the daily incidence of positive tests has hit 188 per 100,000.
At Anthony Carnevale Elementary School, in the months following the rocky start of the year, the staff mostly adjusted to the reality that with the high prevalence of Covid in Rhode Island, infections would be turning up at school. Even so, teachers were rattled when Giard, the principal, called an emergency 4 p.m. staff meeting via Zoom on Jan. 28. Having noticed that she felt a touch congested, she had asked the school nurse to give her a rapid test, which came back positive. “I said, ‘We’re going to be OK, we’ll do it together as a team,’” she reported a few days later. “I said: ‘I know we got this — Covid is not going to win this battle, and we’ve got control of this situation. We’ve done it before, and we can do it now.’”
Dustyn Sanger, husband to Cherie and a special-education teacher who serves the school’s large population of students with autism, was concerned, on behalf of Giard, to hear the news; but he did not believe the announcement had triggered the kind of fear it might have earlier in the year. “There’s no explosion of cases,” he said. “From my perspective, I think it seems to be safer than all the propaganda I’ve heard.” The teachers would cover for one another, when necessary; they would follow the protocols. There were times when he, too, wished that the district had closed the school, if only because there was so much fear; but by now, he felt they could face most situations as they arose. “We know what to do,” he said. And they would keep doing it.