In a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing Tuesday morning, health experts and legislators agreed sending children back to school should be a top goal for the country as states enter varying phases of reopening. However, with a number of states seeing a resurgence of cases, reopening in many places is still uncertain despite schools nationwide planning for some degree of in-person fall instruction.
"I’m not satisfied with what’s going on, because we’re going in the wrong direction," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said of the surge in cases, which he suggested could reach 100,000 per day. "Clearly we are not in total control right now."
Some Democratic lawmakers agreed, saying recent efforts to reopen states while maintaining health and safety guidelines have backfired. "Our strategies haven't worked," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) said.
Some places reverse or remain silent as pressure builds
Fauci suggested an "all-or-nothing" mentality, where people either stayed in lockdown or ventured outside without following any precautions, are factors behind the spike in cases.
In Texas, Arizona, California and Florida, governors are rolling back some reopening decisions as cases spike. The states are home to nearly 50% of all new cases, according to Fauci.
Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, told Education Dive he is worried about a similar trend when schools reopen.
"Unfortunately, some of the states jumped ahead to open businesses — guidelines be damned — only to see now there is a substantial increase all of a sudden in infections," Domenech said. "Our concern is that the same thing could happen to schools."
He also pointed out budget shortfalls and lack of federal funding are making it difficult for schools nationwide to reopen with the necessary precautions in place.
In California, where the decision to reopen is left up to individual school districts, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner said in an announcement Monday no decision has been made about in-person instruction. The district joined five others in May, warning California Gov. Gavin Newsom in a letter that budget cuts could result in delayed opening.
Superintendents, Domenech said, are caught between "a rock and a hard place," with building pressure from state leaders, parents and teachers — who, in many cases, hold opposing views as to how and when brick-and-mortar schools should restart.
According to a poll from Caissa, a public strategy firm for public schools, 61% of parents are likely or very likely to consider changing schools in the fall if their safety expectations go unmet. Meanwhile, teacher unions have said they would consider striking or simply not returning to work if schools reopen.
Others push forward
But in other places, states are pushing forward with reopening decisions regardless. "The question today is not whether to go back to school, but how to do it safely," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), who chairs the HELP committee, said in Tuesday's hearing. “In my view, the greater risk is not going back to school.”
In Connecticut, the governor and state superintendent announced plans Monday requiring districts to plan for full-time (rather than hybrid) in-person instruction beginning in fall, contingent on virus transmission.
"Everybody has a strong point of view about education and how we can do this safely," Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont acknowledged in a press conference last Friday.
Virginia and Maryland are also among states entering later phases of reopening, which could include schools. And although those states are adhering to health and safety guidelines, Domenech said, they are still facing pressure from parents and teachers.
"Here in Northern Virginia, for example, one of the school districts, Loudoun County, is under a lot pressure from parents to reopen," Domenech said. "Right next to it is Fairfax County, where they’re adopting a hybrid model, and even there the teachers are saying, 'We’re not going to participate.'"
Loudoun's school board this week approved a hybrid model plan for fall, as well.
States pushing forward now could reverse down the road
For the most part, states have advised districts to plan for flexibility in the fall — whether that means in-person, hybrid or remote learning.
But where schools are being pushed to reopen now, especially if they don't reopen according to guidelines, health officials warn a second wave could shutter buildings once again.
Domenech said he "would not be surprised" if states seeing a spike start canceling school reopening dates until cases decline or funding increases.
Twelve states so far are seeing that surge, and 130 counties are considered hotspots, Robert Redfield, director U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told lawmakers during the hearing. Fauci warned those states could soon impact the curve in all others.
"Is the situation going to get so severe in terms of these increases in cases that we’re going to find ourselves back in March?" Domenech said. "The clock is ticking, time is running out."