School child and mother

Lear Preston, 4, who attends Scott Joplin Elementary School, participates in her virtual classes last week as her mother, Brittany Preston, assists at their home in Chicago’s South Side. — AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar, File

Public schools nationwide including in Philadelphia are struggling with the question of when to return to in-person schooling.

There is strong new evidence that in-person schooling can resume safely, especially at lower grade levels. There is also clear evidence that the longer in-person schooling is delayed the more it hurts students from low-income families.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that in-person schooling can resume safely with masks, social distancing and other strategies, and vaccination of teachers, while important, is not a prerequisite for reopening.

The nation’s top public health agency released its long-awaited guidelines for getting students back to classrooms in the middle of a pandemic that has killed nearly 480,000 people in the U.S.

Officials recommended measures include hand washing, disinfection of school facilities, diagnostic testing and contact tracing to find new infections and separate infected people from others in a school.

Congress should pass President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 package quickly to get $130 billion in aid to schools to help them meet the CDC’s standards.

“We have sacrificed so much in the last year,” Biden said in a statement. “But science tells us that if we support our children, educators and communities with the resources they need, we can get kids back to school safely in more parts of the country sooner.”

There’s wide agreement that learning in the classroom is more effective and that students can face isolation and learning setbacks at home. But teachers unions in some areas including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers say schools have failed to make buildings safe enough to return.

The CDC guidelines and the problems of ventilation systems in some schools suggest that officials must reopen schools on a case-by-case basis. Schools with poor ventilation systems that do not meet CDC standards should remain closed and continue remote learning. However, schools that meet public health standards should be reopened.

CDC officials emphasized that transmission among students is now considered relatively rare.

The CDC says high community transmissions does not necessarily mean schools cannot be open — especially those at the elementary level. If school mitigation measures are strictly followed, the risk of spread in the schools should still be low, the guidance suggests.

The guidelines suggests that when things get risky, elementary schools can go hybrid, providing in-person instruction at least on some days, but that middle and high schools might go virtual.

The CDC continues to recommend that children be spaced 6 feet apart in school settings.

The fact is that remote learning is having a devastating impact on students. In school buildings, students mostly must remain physically present once they arrive. But when students learn at home, they have opportunities to disengage just about hourly.

Remote learning is having a particularly negative impact on low-income students.

Studies show math class participation decreased disproportionately for students from low-income families since the beginning of the lockdowns.

At the end of March when lockdowns began in the U.S., the number of students from the lowest earning families who participated in online math classes per week plunged by 62%, while the decrease was less pronounced — down 21% — among students from the highest-earning households, according to a paper by the Harvard-based Opportunity Insights group that analyzed data from Zearn, an education nonprofit that partners with schools to provide math programs.

“If you look at the past four years of Zearn data, high and low-income kids were participating in online math at similar rates,” said Shalinee Sharma, co-founder and CEO of Zearn. “Until March 16 of this year, that is, when schools closed and learning became remote. After that, a divergence between high- and low-income children happened that is shocking.”

A Los Angeles Times survey of 45 Southern California school districts found profound differences in distance learning among children attending school districts in high-poverty communities and those in more affluent ones.

These inequities threaten to exacerbate wide and persistent disparities in public education that shortchange students of color and those from low-income families, resulting in potentially lasting harm to a generation of children, Heather C. Hill, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies teacher quality, teacher professional learning, and instructional improvement, said in an article in Education Week in December.

“The longer this goes on, the longer the pendulum swings to where this could be a generation that’s really left behind,” said Beth Tarasawa, who studies educational equity issues at the not-for-profit educational research group NWEA.

Schools must reopen as safely and quickly as possible.

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