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December 2021
  • ‘Our Parents Have Done Enough’: Cardona Urges Schools to Stay Open, Biden Touts Safety Measures as Omicron Cases Spread

    By Linda Jacobson | December 21, 2021

    With the Omicron variant now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. and cases spiking, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Tuesday urged school leaders not to retreat from in-person learning.

    ”I don’t think we should be considering remote options,” Cardona said Tuesday in an interview with The 74. “Our students deserve more, not less, and our parents have done enough to help balance school closures the first year of the pandemic.”


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    The secretary’s comments, however, come amid a sharp increase in schools already shifting to remote learning, either because of COVID-19 or staff shortages. According to Burbio, which tracks schools’ response to the pandemic, there are 646 school closures this week, up from 356 last week. Following the holiday break, 421 closures are expected, but that’s still less than a fifth of the number of closures in August, when the Delta variant postponed the return of many students to in-person learning. 

    Cardona’s comments amplified those made by the president in an afternoon news conference Tuesday.

    “Today, we don’t have to shut down schools because of a case of COVID-19,” Biden said. He urged parents to vaccinate their children and said the best way to protect those under 5, not yet eligible for vaccines, is to ensure their family members and caregivers are fully vaccinated and have had a booster. “The science is clear and overwhelming,” he said. “We know how to keep our kids safe.”

    The president announced several steps to increase COVID testing availability and expand capacity at hospitals. The administration will deliver 500,000 at-home tests to those who want them, starting in January, open more pop-up vaccination clinics, and make emergency response teams available to hospitals.

    On Friday — the last day before the holiday break for many schools — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released two studies showing that test-to-stay procedures can prevent lost instructional days due to quarantine. Cardona said he didn’t have a hand in pushing for the announcement before the break, but that, “our teams talk regularly.”

    Related

    As Schools Brace for Winter Omicron Wave, CDC Endorses Test-to-Stay to Keep Students in School

    “I was glad they were able to communicate it early enough,” he said. “As we’re thinking about 2022, we can use test-to-stay, as we’re thinking about how to utilize the [American Rescue Plan] funds, we can use test-to-stay to limit quarantine and keep our children in school.”

    The secretary added that there’s room for improvement in providing up-to-date numbers on school closures. The National Center for Education Statistics produces data on the percentages of students attending school in-person or remotely, but the results are released monthly, compared to Burbio’s weekly update, and in the past, have frequently been months behind. The latest data, released last week, reflects in-person and remote learning as of Dec. 3.

    “We’re going to continue to refine those systems, especially if there’s an increase in spread,” he said.

    According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has tracked school closings and openings since the beginning of the pandemic, only eight states have provided schools with detailed guidance this school year on when they should consider closing. 

    Cardona said it’s important to not only know what percentage of students are in school, but “what’s causing potential, short-term remote learning options or what they need in order to keep their schools open.”

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  • Watch: Dr. Ashish Jha Says Cities That Close Their Schools Before Bars ‘Don’t Care About Kids and They Don’t Care About COVID”

    By The 74 | December 21, 2021

    Amid a tsunami of new COVID cases tied to the Omicron variant, and the first headlines pointing to K-12 schools extending winter breaks and pivoting to remote learning to cope with the surge, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, appeared on MSNBC Monday and urged policymakers to treat school closures as only a last resort. 

    “What I’m hearing from school districts is already questions about going remote. I think it’s irresponsible at this point to do that,” he said. 


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    “We have all the tools to keep schools open and safe: Vaccinations, testing, improvements in ventilation, tens of billions of dollars have gone to schools … If I hear of a single school district that goes remote but keeps bars open what that says to me is: They don’t care about kids — and they don’t care about COVID. Because bars spread COVID. Schools generally don’t — not if you put in place mitigation efforts.”

    “I’m worried that city leaders are going to give up on kids and not do the right thing.” See Dr. Jha’s full comments:

    See some of our recent coverage about COVID, Omicron and schools (sign up here to receive our daily updates): 

    —Tracking School Closures: As Omicron threat looms, school closures continue ticking upward (Read more

    —Push to Vaccinate: A COVID vaccine advocacy group in Boston by youth of color, for youth of color (Read more

    —Mandatory Boosters: Some states start requiring school staff booster shots as Omicron fears fuel nationwide vaccination spike (Read more

    —Test-to-Stay: As schools brace for winter wave, CDC endorses test-to-stay to keep students in school (Read more

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  • As Schools Brace for Winter Omicron Wave, CDC Endorses Test-to-Stay to Keep Students in School

    By Linda Jacobson | December 17, 2021

    Test-to-stay is a “another valuable tool” that can keep students from missing school and learning due to quarantine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday

    Under the protocol — which many states and districts have had in place for months — unvaccinated students who are exposed to COVID-19 can remain in school if all students wear masks, don’t display any symptoms and test twice a week. 


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    Data suggests “that a school-based [test-to-stay] strategy in a large and diverse county did not increase school transmission risk and might greatly reduce loss of in-person school days,” according to an evaluation of a program in Los Angeles County, one of two studies released with the CDC’s statement. “Thus, schools might consider [test-to-stay] as an option for keeping quarantined students in school to continue in-person learning.”

    With schools breaking for the holidays and rising concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant, observers said the announcement — now part of the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance for schools — comes just in time. John Bailey, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who publishes a daily newsletter on COVID-related research, called it “welcomed news” that helps schools prepare for the potential Omicron wave in January. But the agency also urged all eligible students to be vaccinated and get a booster shot, and said schools shouldn’t abandon other safety procedures, including social distancing, improving ventilation and handwashing. 

    “It’s encouraging that test-to-stay strategies are proving effective both in limiting transmission of the virus and in ensuring that students can remain learning in school, so that entire classrooms or schools do not have to shut down when a case of COVID-19 is discovered in the school community,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

    It’s unclear, however, how many students those shutdowns have affected. Bailey faulted the Department of Education for not issuing weekly reports on how many students are in quarantine and whether they’re receiving instruction.

    “We should not be relying on third parties for that data,” he said. “An agency that is using civil rights authorities to enforce mask mandates should be curious about the civil rights of kids who are not being served in the midst of quarantines.”

    The CDC’s two studies show that test-to-stay is significantly minimizing disruptions in learning.

    Thirty-nine of Los Angeles County’s 78 school districts implemented test-to-stay. In those that didn’t follow the model, 4,322 students tested positive between Sept. 20 and the end of October, compared to 812 students in the districts that implemented the program.

    In Lake County, Illinois, 90 schools implemented test-to-stay between early August and Oct. 29. Just 16 students out of a total 65,384 tested positive. The authors wrote that assuming students would have missed eight school days during a 10-day quarantine, the program “preserved up to 8,152 in-person learning days” for students that were exposed.

    Leah Perkinson, a manager at the Rockefeller Foundation, which has worked with districts to implement testing, called this “one of the happiest days for me throughout this whole entire pandemic” and said the announcement will likely prompt more districts to adopt the strategy. “Some people are only willing to move forward when the CDC releases guidance.”

    The data, she added, could also inspire other settings, such as child care centers and camps, to see if they can implement test-to-stay.

    Related

    ‘Caught Flat-Footed’: As Biden, CDC Urge Widespread COVID Testing in Schools, Districts Around the Country Struggle to Make It Happen

    One challenge, however, is that some rapid COVID tests are not picking up Omicron, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease. 

    The two studies also noted complications that limit districts’ ability to implement the model, such as staffing shortages, the need for “robust contact identification and tracing” and a lack of support from parents. 

    “Some schools reported a shortage of testing supplies, requiring [test-to-stay] participants to access off-site testing, which might have presented a barrier in low-resource school settings,” according to the second evaluation on Lake County, Illinois. “State and local public health and education agencies should strive to ensure that schools in low-resource areas have equitable access to staffing and testing supplies to implement [test-to-stay].”

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  • AFT Launches Literacy Campaign, Pledging 1M Free Books for Families As Efforts Spread to Ban Titles from School Libraries

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | December 16, 2021

    At a moment when attempts to ban books from school libraries have reached unprecedented levels and educators are being threatened for their reading assignments, the American Federation of Teachers is launching a campaign to place 1 million diverse titles in students’ hands.

    AFT President Randi Weingarten said the union’s current effort — to bolster the science of reading, strengthen the school-family connection and give kids “free books to read, love and keep” — pre-dates the backlash, but stands in contrast to it.


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    “We have [long] been trying to increase the titles that are available for children,” Weingarten told The 74. Still, “this [campaign] does counter … all those who are trying to either burn books, or to censor books,” she added. 

    The nation’s second-largest teachers union has nurtured a years-long partnership, Weingarten said, with First Book, a marketplace that provides affordable children’s books to educators of high-needs students. The “Reading Opens the World” campaign’s 1 million books will be sourced from their site and distributed at events beginning this holiday season and running through 2022.

    “In the aftermath of this [pandemic,]” Weingarten said, “we thought we would step in and do something muscular and fun.”

    The $2 million, multi-year campaign kicked off Tuesday in the cafeteria of Malcolm X Elementary School in Washington, D.C., a majority-Black school where a hand-drawn banner reading “My Black is Beautiful” hung above the lectern. After the event, which concluded with read-aloud groups, students were sent home with books by Black authors or that featured Black main characters, including Ada Twist, Scientist and Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X


    Students and teachers at Malcolm X Elementary School. (AFT via Twitter)

    The AFT’s ambitious effort drops as controversies over what students learn — and read — roil to fever pitch. In late November, the American Library Association said that schools had seen more attempts to ban books from library shelves than at any previous point in recent decades.

    “What we’re observing, really in the last year, is a real effort to remove books dealing with the LGBTQ person’s experience, or the experiences of persons who are Black, Indigenous or persons of color,” ALA Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone told The 74. 

    Many of those challenges have come from parents and community members who have received materials from conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education and No Left Turn in Education, Caldwell-Stone said. Social media frequently accelerates complaints, she added, noting that the ALA often sees parents from disparate locations object to the same titles in the days after a video or post goes viral online.

    In mid-November, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed education officials to look into “criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography” — as legislators also passed legislation tamping down how teachers can approach conversations related to race and gender in the classroom. Amid the fervor, state GOP Rep. Matt Krause reached out directly to superintendents asking whether books on an 850-title list could be found on their shelves.

    None of the works that the AFT specified it will give to students are on that list, but many do address race and racial identity.

    Related

    Exclusive: Texas Education Officials Launch First Probe into School District for ‘Pornographic’ Books Following Gov. Abbott’s Directive

    “The titles that we’re distributing today are ensuring that kids have diversity in the books that they’re reading,” Weingarten said. 

    Rep. Krause did not respond to requests for comment on the union’s new initiative.

    Numerous studies document persistent racial and gender gaps in representation within the youth literature genre. In 2018, half of children’s books depicted white main characters, while Black, Asian, Hispanic and Indigenous people led 10 percent, 7 percent, 5 percent and 1 percent of titles, respectively, according to numbers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

    Related

    Study: AI Uncovers Skin-Tone Gap in Most-Beloved Children’s Books

    Throughout the rest of December, 20 local AFT affiliates from Puerto Rico to Houston to Indiana will hold literacy events similar to Tuesday’s kick-off in the nation’s capital. In the new year, book-laden buses will distribute volumes to students in harder-to-reach areas.

    Books will be reflective of those students’ linguistic and racial background, AFT communications director Leslie Getzinger wrote in an email to The 74.

    In addition to distributing books, the 1.7 million-member union also intends to equip teachers and parents with tips for boosting literacy, including providing instructors with information on the science of reading. The approach, long backed by research, emphasizes phonics and decoding words over text recognition through exposure and context. While more and more teacher training programs have adopted the science of reading, there is still dissension at the district and classroom level over how best to teach reading and confront a national epidemic of illiteracy.

    Related

    A New Kind of Curriculum Night: Armed With Protest Signs and Data, Diverse Group of Minneapolis Parents Demands Better Reading Instruction for Their Kids

    Collaboration between schools and families will also be a lynchpin of the new efforts, the AFT said in a press release.

    The union hopes that its campaign will help students catch up on learning they may have missed during the pandemic. The latest research on academic achievement finds that, overall, students are three months behind in reading, and that students at majority-Black schools may be as many as 12 months behind their peers at majority-white schools.


    Washington Teachers Union President Jacqueline Pogue-Lyons speaks during the “Reading Opens the World” kick-off event. (AFT via Twitter)

    But in addition to making up for academic losses, some officials involved in the literacy effort know that the possibilities extend far beyond the classroom. In the AFT’s release, Weingarten refers to reading as “key to life, to joy—to our very existence,”

    From the Malcolm X Elementary School cafeteria, D.C. union President Jacqueline Pogue-Lyons read the young students a quote from their building’s namesake:

    “People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”

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  • Watch: COVID, Student Enrollment and Charter Schools — How the Pandemic Has Changed What Parents Expect From Their Education System

    By The 74 | December 15, 2021

    Throughout the pandemic, thousands of parents have pulled their kids out of traditional schools and sought alternative ways of educating them. Many of them turned to public charter schools, which reported dramatic enrollment increases from the end of the 2020 school year to the end of the 2021 school year. So what’s next for charters — and the traditional public schools that have witnessed significant enrollment declines? 

    These are some of the questions that will kick off the Dec. 15 webinar “Voting With Their Feet: Responding to Increased Demand for Innovative Schools,” presented by The 74 and the Progressive Policy Institute and set to take place Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET. The event is free and open to the public; refresh this page at 2 p.m. to stream here or simply click here to register and watch.

    Panelists will include such leaders and experts as Dave Sokola, Delaware State Senator; Jessica Sutter, D.C. State Board of Education; A.J. Crabil, Director of Governance for the Council of the Great City Schools; and Debbie Veney, Senior VP, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The panel will also feature two parents: Matt Mohler of Tallahassee, Florida, and Katrina Merkerson of Birmingham, Alabama. 

    For more information on the event, and to sign up to receive a livestream link, please visit our RSVP page.

    Some recent school choice coverage from The 74:

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  • New Research: Students in Majority-Black Schools Had Been 9 Months Behind Their White Peers. Now, the Gap Is a Full 12 Months

    By Beth Hawkins | December 14, 2021

    Students in majority-Black schools are now a full 12 months behind those in mostly white schools, widening the achievement gap by a third, according to a new analysis by McKinsey & Co. Overall, students are four months behind in math and three in reading compared with years past, but those totals hide wide disparities.

    At the same time, the range of students’ academic needs teachers must address within a single classroom has widened, with the share of children at or above grade level in math falling by 6 percentage points and the number two or more grade levels behind increasing by 9 points. As a result, the number of students far below grade level in a hypothetical math class of 30 fourth graders has risen from eight to 11. 


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    The researchers based their conclusions on Curriculum Associates’s i-Ready assessments administered this fall in person to 3 million students in grades 1 to 6 in all 50 states. They compared the results with exam scores from a comparable set of schools in 2017, 2018 and 2019. In addition, they used data from Burbio and from McKinsey’s own parent surveys to show that while there is less disruption to learning than last spring, a variety of factors are limiting students’ time in class just when they need it the most. 

    Overall, students have made up about a month of unfinished learning compared with last spring, notes the report, “COVID-19 and Education: An Emerging K-Shaped Recovery.” But that rebound, too, is inequitable. 

    In schools where enrollment is 75 percent or more Black, students are 5.5 months behind in math and nearly as much in reading. In majority Latino schools, they are 4.5 months behind in math, and in white schools, 2.5 months. Low-income and urban schools are experiencing similar disparities.

    Parents’ perceptions of their children’s well-being have rebounded somewhat since a June 2021 spike, but concerns remain. Compared with pre-pandemic surveys, the number of families with fears about academic achievement and student attendance and engagement is up 5 percent, with an increase of 7 percent in those reporting mental health concerns.

    Parent reports of their own children’s absenteeism are up 2.7 times over pre-pandemic levels, which the researchers say is likely a dramatic underestimate. Up to one third of students may be chronically absent this year, defined as 15 or more days not in school.

    “Nearly half of Cleveland’s students are on track to be chronically absent this school year,” the report notes. “Low-income students, who often lack access to resources to make up for lost instruction in the classroom and who are more likely to experience ongoing attendance barriers, are 1.6 times more likely to be missing multiple days of school than their high-income peers.”

    Related

    With Up to 9 Grade Levels Per Class, Can Schools Handle the Fallout From COVID’s K-Shaped Recession?

    According to Burbio, 9 percent of public-school students have been affected by a school closure this academic year, with 54 percent of U.S. students receiving some form of virtual instruction during the disruption. In its canvass of parents, McKinsey found that of students who chose to attend fully in-person learning this fall, only 83 percent attended 10 full days during the two weeks the survey was in the field.

    Confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases account for just 12 percent of closure days, researchers found, with 50 percent of closures consisting primarily of single-day breaks school districts have taken to support student and staff mental health and another 13 percent caused by staff shortages. Parents of Black and Latino students were most likely to report that school closures were the cause of their children’s interrupted in-person learning.

    Finally, researchers found gaps by income level in the likelihood a student has received academic or social-emotional pandemic recovery support and a disconnect between the services parents say they want for their children and those included in school districts’ plans for spending federal stimulus funds. 

    Districts are budgeting about a fifth of their third-round funding for summer school, while only 17 percent of parents are interested in this option. By contrast, 29 percent of parents want tutoring, but just 7 percent of academic recovery funds are directed to this option. 

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  • WATCH — NYC’s New Schools Chancellor David Banks Talks Classroom Safety, Charter Schools and His Guiding ‘North Star’ of Career Success For Every Student

    By The 74 | December 10, 2021

    The morning after New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams named him the city’s next schools chancellor, David Banks made several media appearances Friday where he talked about his vision and priorities for America’s largest school district. 


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    Appearing on MSNBC, he spoke specifically about school safety during COVID and the need to keep remote learning options on the table, about his openness to scaling successful education strategies from non-traditional schools, and about the “north star” that will guide his efforts: Ensuring that every New York City student is set up for career success in the new economy. 

    Read more about his appointment from The 74’s Jo Napolitano, and watch his full MSNBC appearance: 

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  • 4 Things to Know About Alberto Carvalho, Los Angeles Unified’s New Superintendent

    By Marianna McMurdock | December 9, 2021

    Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade’s long-time, charismatic and controversial schools chief, was selected Thursday by the Los Angeles Unified school board as its next superintendent.

    An advocate of school choice, nontraditional schools and known champion of undocumented student rights, Carvalho, 57, has run Miami’s schools for more than a decade. 


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    Carvalho’s sometimes unusual reform tactics have been credited for Miami-Dade’s rising high school graduation rate, now about 89 percent — about 30 percent higher than rates the year prior to his tenure. 

    His aggressive approach to school reform may be welcome in Los Angeles, a system struggling with declining enrollments, student mental health and overall learning loss.  

    Here are four things to know about the man set to head up the nation’s second largest district: 

    1 Carvalho has spent his entire career in the Miami-Dade school system, starting as a high school science teacher in the 1980s.

    Originally on track to become a doctor, he accepted a teaching job in his early 20s and “the bug infected me,” he told the 74.

    In his 13 year tenure as superintendent, he’s pushed for the expansion of charter and magnet schools throughout Miami and encouraged families to use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools. 

    The “privatization” of the district, and its hefty payouts to expand school security, have garnered national scrutiny for years over concerns that they’ve siphoned funds from existing, traditional schools.

    Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez (L) and Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho visit a K-8 school on August 24, 2018. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

    “We are now working in an educational environment that is driven by choice. I believe that is a good thing. We need to actually be engaged in that choice movement. So if you do not ride that wave, you will succumb to it. I choose not to,” he once said of his stance.

    Related

    Miami Turnaround: How One Ambitious Schools Chief Rescued America’s Fourth-Largest District

    The academic success of his districts’ nontraditional schools is a reminder of how, as he summed up in a 2015 conversation with The 74, “one size fits none.”

    From 2017 to 2019, no schools in his district were marked as failing by Florida’s Department of Education. Carvalho called the rankings, a first for the district, “his proudest moment.” 

    2 He’s not a stranger to public confrontations, this year taking on Florida Gov. DeSantis over mask mandates.

    This summer, while Florida COVID-19 hospitalizations rose, Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold school board members’ and administrators’ salaries who defied his executive order banning mask mandates. 

    Carvalho balked. “At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck, a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees,” he said in a statement to CBS Miami

    It wasn’t the first time he’d publicly challenged state or federal leaders in efforts to protect students in Miami-Dade. In 2012, he threatened to resign if Daniela Pelaez, a North Miami valedictorian, was deported per a judge’s order. 

    “I took a position then, I stood with the students,” he told The 74. 

    Pelaez was ultimately not deported, and President Obama’s executive order protecting undocumented DREAMers from deportation was enacted just a few months later.

    Alberto Carvalho, second from left, celebrates after Miami-Dade won the 2012 Broad Prize for Urban Education on October 23, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)

    3 For Carvalho, student immigrant rights are personal. He grew up in Portugal and came to NYC as an undocumented immigrant in his teens.

    “I remember landing in New York City, JFK International Airport, and the rest is history,” Carvalho told The 74 in 2018. 

    Carvalho left his home in Portugal as a teen, just after becoming the first in his family to finish high school, in pursuit of higher education and financial freedom. 

    He arrived without knowing English as an undocumented immigrant, at times experiencing homelessness, working as a busboy and construction worker in NYC and South Florida. 

    In 2017, as President Trump’s administration firmly stood against undocumented immigration, Carvalho banned ICE from Miami-Dade’s “sanctuary schools” — a stark contrast to the county’s policy to detain undocumented immigrants. 

    Many of the district’s students emigrated as children from Haiti, Brazil, Guatemala, Cuba and Mexico. 

    Over my dead body will any federal entity enter our schools to take immigration actions against our kids,” he declared on television at the time. 

    Related

    Q&A: Why Miami’s Superintendent, Once an Undocumented Immigrant, Is Banning ICE From His Schools

    4 In 2018, he was slated to run NYC schools and turned the offer down — on live TV.

    After weeks of courtship by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called him “a world-class educator with an unmatched track record of success,” Carvalho stunned the nation after he rejected the offer during a televised Miami school board meeting. 

    In a familiar flair for the dramatic, he took an extended pause from the live broadcast, returning to tearfully declare that he’d stay with Miami-Dade. 

    Related

    The Carvalho Show Played Much Better in the Miami Superintendent’s Hometown Than in New York City, Where Residents Panned the Man Who Wouldn’t Be Chancellor

    I am breaking an agreement between adults to honor an agreement and a pact I have with the children of Miami,” he announced during the emergency board meeting, admitting he’d received a supportive wave of texts and voicemails from Florida families the night before the announcement

    Alberto Carvalho is hugged after publicly rejecting a job offer to become head of the New York City schools on March 1, 2018. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

    The decision came as a shock to NYC media and politicians, given the lengthy search process and previous indications he’d accept the coveted role to lead schools in the nation’s largest district. 

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  • Youth Ages 16 & 17 Now Eligible for Pfizer Booster Dose, FDA Says

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | December 9, 2021

    Young people ages 16 and 17 may now receive a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine six months after their second shot, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday.

    The news comes as the number of average daily COVID cases in the U.S. has surged 27 percent in the past two weeks, and as fears for spread of the Omicron variant have motivated a spike in vaccinations to a level not seen since late May. 


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    “With both the Delta and Omicron variants continuing to spread, vaccination remains the best protection against COVID-19,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock in a press release.

    The Omicron strain, listed as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization in late November, currently makes up a miniscule fraction of U.S. infections, but features a combination of mutations that worries scientists. It is known to have infected more than 40 people in the U.S., the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the Associated Press Wednesday.

    The first look at how vaccines hold up against the Omicron variant bodes well for the efficacy of Pfizer-BioNTech’s booster doses, experts say. 

    Lab data published Tuesday analyzing how effectively blood from vaccinated South Africans neutralized the new strain found that the virus did evade the immune defenses more craftily than previous versions of COVID. However, blood from individuals who had a previous infection and then received two vaccine doses did a good job staving off Omicron. It’s the best proxy so far for the immunity of those who have received three doses, scientists say, because South Africa has not yet authorized booster shots.

    “​​This study gives me great hope that our boosters will help protect against Omicron,” Katelyn Jetelina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health, wote in a newsletter explaining the new lab results.

    In authorizing third doses for 16- and 17-year olds, the FDA expanded its already existing emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to include older teens. Before shots can be officially administered to the newly eligible group, they need to receive the green light from the CDC, an authorization that is expected to come swiftly. The federal agency cleared boosters for all adults 18 and older in early November.

    Related

    COVID-19 Vaccines Roll Out for Young Children in NYC, Early-Bird Families All Smiles

    “Since we first authorized the vaccine, new evidence indicates that vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 is waning after the second dose of the vaccine for all adults and for those in the 16- and 17-year-old age group,” said Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “A single booster dose of the vaccine for those vaccinated at least six months prior will help provide continued protection against COVID-19 in this and older age groups.” 

    Meanwhile, as many Americans are still wrapping their minds around first, second and third doses, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said late Wednesday that the Omicron variant could mean fourth shots will be necessary in under 12 months.

    Related

    New Mexico Requires School Staff Booster Shots as Omicron Fears Fuel Nationwide Vaccination Spike

    New Mexico appears to be the first state to require that certain workers receive booster shots, including a vaccinate-or-test rule for K-12 staff. So far, about 9 percent of school employees statewide have submitted documentation of having received a third dose.

    Ensuring that staff and eligible students up their immunity as Omicron threats loom may be of particular importance given that temporary school closures have continued through the fall. Roughly 10 percent of the nation’s schools have experienced a disruption this school year alone. Some closures have been due to outbreaks, but others have been caused by teacher burnout and staffing shortages.

    Related

    As Threat of Omicron Variant Looms, School Closures Continue Ticking Upward

    As of Dec. 1, some 4.3 million children ages 5 to 11, representing 15 percent of the age group, had received a vaccine dose. The same was true for 3 in 5 adolescents ages 12 to 17, and over half had completed the full two-dose series, according to data published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

    Across all ages, more than 200 million people in the U.S are now fully vaccinated, about 60 percent of the population.

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  • Over 1 Million HS Grads Skipped College in 2020. Only a Tiny Fraction Re-Enrolled in 2021

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | December 8, 2021

    The first summer of the pandemic brought disappointing news to school counselor Marianne Matt. 

    Many of the seniors who she had supported through the spring college admission process at Capital High in Madison, Wisconsin — where about three-quarters of students are Black or Hispanic, and 4 in 5 qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — opted to abandon their post-secondary plans for fall. Even students who had won scholarships, she learned, decided not to enroll.


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    “Survival became the key,” Matt told The 74, explaining that, instead of college, many students picked up jobs to help their families make ends meet. “They became … the breadwinning part of the family.”

    Courtesy of Marianne Matt

    When the fall of 2021 rolled around, very few of those students were ready to return to their studies. One was working as a security guard, others were in fast food, another disclosed to the Wisconsin counselor that his mental health had taken a downturn during quarantine and that he couldn’t consider moving away from his family for college. 

    The pandemic, Matt said, “threw a wrench” into many students’ higher education plans.

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    Similar trends have played out for countless students across the country, new data reveal: More than a year after a surge of 2020 high school graduates chose to scrap or postpone their college plans, only a tiny fraction have now re-enrolled to pursue higher education.

    Just 2 percent of students who opted to take time off after completing high school in 2020 matriculated a year later in 2021, meaning the vast majority did not take short-term “gap years,” but rather have put college plans on an extended pause — or nixed them altogether. 

    Nearly 1 million 2020 grads in the dataset, which comes from the National Student Clearinghouse, did not immediately enroll in college the following fall. Because the Clearinghouse tracks roughly half of the nation’s high school seniors, the true population-wide number may be closer to 2 million.

    Those are worrisome statistics for experts who say the further that high school graduates delay post-secondary education, the more difficult their transition back to school becomes.

    “In normal times, we know that the longer students stay out of school, the harder it is for them to come back and restart,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse’s research center.

    The nation’s first high school class to graduate amid the pandemic saw a considerable dip in college-going, with only 39 percent immediately enrolling in higher education compared to 43 and 42 percent of the 2018 and 2019 classes, respectively.

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    Because of the increased pool of students who did not go straight to college, observers had hoped to see a bump in what they call “gap year enrollment,” or the share of students who matriculate a year later. But the 2 percent return rate is slightly lower than previous years.

    “There was a great expectation that this was a temporary blip due to the pandemic,” Shapiro told The 74. “Yet, here we are a year later … and hardly any of those students who stayed out last year have come back.”

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    There were steeper drop-offs in the share of graduates taking time off rather than enrolling in college in high-poverty schools attended mostly by students of color compared to predominantly white and affluent schools — and the numbers did not self-correct a year later. 

    Those disparities are yet another example, said Mauriell Amechi, a policy analyst with New America, of how COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on those who were already most vulnerable.

    “The COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to exacerbate some long-standing inequities facing historically underserved and marginalized populations in the American education system,” Amechi told The 74. 

    Courtesy of Mauriell Amechi’s personal website

    If decreased shares of students of color are able to access college amid the pandemic, he said, that’s a racial equity issue with consequences that will reverberate for decades.

    “Students that delay enrollment are less likely to pursue a college education,” he said. “We can’t allow this issue to go unaddressed because it would only contribute to growing disparities in the American workforce.”

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    Back in Madison, there’s some optimistic news from Capital High, albeit anecdotal. Recently, Matt has been hearing from 2020 graduates who are now ready to return to their studies. Multiple students have reached out asking for transcripts and letters of recommendation. 

    “Any student who had been college bound, I don’t think that they gave up on the dream completely,” she said.

    Matt — who was named 2021 Wisconsin School Counselor of the Year — distributes her contact information to graduating seniors, knowing that many don’t have parents who are familiar with the college process. She works with about 200 students at a time, comfortably within the 250-student maximum recommended by the American School Counselors Association, meaning she has the bandwidth to provide some extra help, even post-graduation. 

    Nationwide, however, high school counselors work with an average of 311 students, and only 1 in 5 high schoolers attend a school sufficiently staffed with counselors. In such cases, many graduates seeking to finally enroll in college after multiple years off may have to navigate the path on their own.

    Even for Matt’s students, she worries the extended time away from academics could make for a rough re-entry process.

    “​​If you’re not practicing math everyday you start losing those skills,” she explained.

    Given that, colleges and universities should make plans to help students re-adjust to school and studying, she said.

    It’s an idea that Shapiro, at the Clearinghouse, echoes.

    “If these students are to come back next year or two years further down the road,” he said, “they’re going to need more attention, more help, to make that transition.”

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  • Judge Denies Bid to Decide Minnesota School Desegregation Case Without Trial, Sends 6-Year-Old Lawsuit to Appeals Court

    By Beth Hawkins | December 8, 2021

    A high-profile school desegregation case may finally be going to trial after a Minneapolis judge refused to declare the simple existence of racially imbalanced schools a violation of the Minnesota Constitution’s education clause. In denying the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, Hennepin County District Court Judge Susan M. Robiner sent the case, Alejandro Cruz-Guzman vs. State of Minnesota, to the state Court of Appeals.

    Brought in 2015 on behalf of a group of parents in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, the suit charges that officials failed to provide children with an adequate education because of practices that enabled schools to become racially and socioeconomically unbalanced. Among those policies are the nation’s first interdistrict open-enrollment law, which thousands of families have used to move their children to suburban schools, and the first charter school law. 


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    “Plaintiffs’ argument, at least for purposes of this motion, is a syllogism,” Robiner wrote in a 25-page order that criticized the contention at the heart of the request for summary judgment. “Plaintiffs do not address the issue of causation in their initial memorandum…. They argue that since segregation is the education clause violation, they have established injury and ‘no further inquiry’ regarding causation is necessary.”

    The plaintiffs’ attorneys had argued that they did not need to prove the state caused or enabled segregation or that a school’s racial imbalance in of itself robbed students of an adequate education. Past integration cases have hinged on whether segregation is the result of government action or inaction, or something that arose on its own. 

    Robiner also noted that legal precedents involving the education clause are scant and an appeal of her ruling virtually inevitable. If the appeals court agrees with Robiner’s reasoning, the six-year-old case will proceed toward a lengthy fact-finding process. Right now, trial is scheduled to begin in October.

    If the lawsuit were successful, Minnesota charter schools would for the first time be required to change their enrollment practices to attempt to draw families of different races and economic statuses. The state’s charter law requires enrollment to be done via blind lottery, to ensure the independent public schools can’t discriminate. 

    Because of this, three high-performing Twin Cities charter schools — two of which enroll predominantly Black students — joined the case as defendant-intervenors in 2016, arguing that it is not segregation when parents choose culturally affirming schools. 

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    Robiner’s order, issued Dec. 6, marks the second time the case has been referred to higher courts. In 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected the state’s assertion that a court did not have authority to decide the case and sent it back to her courtroom. 

    There, the judge ordered both sides into closed-door mediation that began in 2019. Last winter, attorneys for the plaintiffs and the state — the chief defendant — told Robiner they were on the verge of a settlement but would need the state Legislature to pass a series of laws to facilitate it. The charter school defendants, who at some point were excluded from the mediation for reasons never explained publicly, have opposed the proposed settlement. 

    Proponents of the settlement failed to secure more than an informational hearing held late in the legislative session, when new bills could no longer be introduced. Critics noted that the proposal was similar to the terms used to settle a desegregation suit brought by the same plaintiffs’ attorneys in the late 1990s.

    Under the terms of that agreement, a number of students from low-income neighborhoods in Minneapolis were bused to nearby suburbs. Researchers later concluded that, on the whole, the students who participated did not experience increased academic gains.  

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