Analysis shows most U.S. urban school districts moved to remote learning at Thanksgiving

By: - December 9, 2020 5:30 am
Children participating in a Sunday rally at the office of the Metro Nashville Schools Board hold up placards spelling out 'January All Schools Open.' The rally was organized by Let Nashville Parents Choose, a group advocating to return all schools to in-person learning. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Children participating in a Dec. 6 rally at the office of the Metro Nashville Schools Board hold up placards spelling out ‘January All Schools Open.’ The rally was organized by Let Nashville Parents Choose, a group advocating to return all schools to in-person learning. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Nashville is one of the vast majority of urban school districts that switched to remote learning around Thanksgiving, or were already teaching students remotely, according to research by the Tennessee Lookout.

Metro Nashville Public Schools is a member of the Council of the Great City Schools, a collaborative of the country’s largest school districts. Of those 74 members, 51 are teaching students remotely as of Tuesday. Many of those 51 districts made the switch in anticipation of a spike in COVID-19 cases following the Thanksgiving holiday break.

In that sense, MNPS is in line with the vast majority of city school districts navigating public education during the pandemic.

But, political pressure on the district and Director Adrienne Battle seems poised to pick up. On Sunday, the noisiest group of advocates pushing for a return to school – Let Nashville Parents Choose – staged a rally in front of the district’s Bransford Avenue headquarters. Nashville PROPEL, a collaborative of parents, held a protest on Tuesday to criticize the district for the persistent lack of technology for some students, the truancy policy marking some students absent for not logging into virtual school and a slip in academic standards.

Adrienne Battle, director of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS website)
Adrienne Battle, director of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS website)

Battle said the district was forced to switch to remote learning as the community spread of the virus in Davidson County spiked in November. Public health experts anticipated higher positive case numbers on the heels of Thanksgiving. And, Battle said the district was facing a logistical challenge in terms of substitute teachers. As the MNPS contact tracing policy required staffers to isolate following possible contact with the virus, some schools didn’t have enough substitutes to cover the classrooms.

Heather Powell is one of the parent organizers of Parents for a Plan. Unlike the Let Parents Choose group, she said Parents for a Plan is more nuanced, and seeks to be a part of finding solutions to make in-person learning possible.

“We are a group of solution-minded parents who desire to have our kids learn in person when it’s safe to do so,” Powell said. “Our goal is to shift the mentality in MNPS to a place where we’re prioritizing in-person, with virtual learning as a backup.”

Powell, who runs a healthcare nonprofit organization and is married to state Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, said the group believes parents have been missing from the conversation. She said the group is focused on outreach, especially to school board members and elected officials, seeking to collaborate to identify what steps can be taken to return to allow for in-person learning for families who need or prefer that option.

Powell also said the district should do a better job identifying and explaining the public health metrics used to decide whether remote learning is necessary for all students.

And at Tuesday, MNPS released results from surveys conducted in September and December showing 55% of parents prefer to return to in-person schooling for spring semester.

Battle: The reality is we need teachers to teach

At a school board meeting last month, Battle explained the district’s updated metrics and the decision-making process behind the switch to remote learning at least through the holiday break.

Battle said the district’s new metrics showed the spread of the virus was happening too frequently in the Nashville community to make in-person learning safe. She also detailed logistical problems confronting the district such as lack of substitutes.

Even if classroom spread is limited or unlikely, the reality is that we need teachers to teach, and the numbers of isolations and quarantines are taking a toll on our ability to staff classrooms.

– Adrienne Battle, Director, Metro Nashville Public Schools

Under the district’s contact tracing protocol, teachers and other staffers must quarantine if they test positive or are identified to have come in close contact with someone who did. 

Hundreds of staff and thousands of our students have had to quarantine as a result of being a close contact of someone who tested positive for the virus, while we have already logged 450 positive cases –263 staff and 187 students – just between the dates of October 11 and November 22,” Battle said. “As a district, we partner with the Metro Public Health Department for our school nurse program, which assists in contact tracing for cases of COVID-19. Adding to the normal challenges is the time it takes for test results to come back, sometimes 4-5 days or more, which requires staff who may not have COVID to remain out until those results come back, as well as reducing our ability to effectively contact trace and quarantine students or staff as necessary.

“Even if classroom spread is limited or unlikely, the reality is that we need teachers to teach, and the numbers of isolations and quarantines are taking a toll on our ability to staff classrooms.”

Robert Fisher, the top education adviser to Nashville Mayor John Cooper, said the city’s current pandemic-related public health restrictions are aimed at making a January return to school possible for elementary students.

“Dr. Battle, like superintendents of districts around the country, had very few options in the face of the current spike in COVID-19 cases. She and her team are working hard to prepare for a safe return to in-person education in January. Our current capacity restrictions, mask mandate, and the ‘Rule of 8’ are designed to help make a January return possible for MNPS elementary students.”

Urban school districts show vary in approach

The Tennessee Lookout researched how each of the 74 districts that form the Council for Great City Schools are handling in-person learning heading into the holiday season. There are 51 districts using just remote learning and 23 using a hybrid that gives parents the choice.

Districts are utilizing creative solutions even in instances where they switch to just virtual school. 

The Sacramento City Unified School District launched learning hubs that allowed students to attend their virtual school, utilizing social distancing, with proctors to help with technology issues. The learning hubs allowed students to receive meals and interact with their classmates, while still attending the same virtual school as the other students at their schools where they are enrolled. Similarly, MNPS has offered some childcare to needy students ages 5 through 12 in a partnership with the YMCA of Middle Tennessee.

“Distance learning can feel isolating, and is particularly hard on students who have special needs, are still mastering English, who are academically struggling, or do not have a stable home environment,” said SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar. “Learning hubs provide a supportive place for students to learn together. Having the comradery of other students and encouragement from staff will provide much-needed support for vulnerable students. We are thankful for the community support and partnership with these exceptional organizations who have stepped up to help us bring our students back together after so long.” 

The San Antonio Independent School District continued in a hybrid model allowing for both in-person and remote learning despite the Thanksgiving holiday.

As of Nov. 30, about 30 percent of the SAISD students were learning in person, according to a press release on Dec. 2. In addition to learning loss, districts are worried about instances of abuse, the complications facing homeless students and emotional problems increasing due to lack of in-person learning.

Multiple studies have shown that schools are generally safe, in large part because children don’t experience severe symptoms and don’t pass the virus on to others the way adults do. Masks and social distancing protocols used by MNPS when some of its elementary students were in the classroom have also mitigated the spread.

“It was important for us to be gradual in bringing our students back to the physical classroom as we face unknown obstacles related to COVID-19,” the district explained in the press release. “Now, research has shown that schools have not shown to be a root cause of spread. With the safety measures we have in place, research validating that schools are safe, and access to testing for our students, we are proceeding with our plans to offer both in-person and online learning.”

In many cases, districts are limited in their flexibility to allow for in-person or remote learning. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis required districts to offer in-person learning. In other states, the governor has blocked in-person learning citing the spike in cases.

The Guilford County Schools district said the public health data showing children are less likely to spread the virus was crucial to its decision to begin phasing in some in-person learning last month.

“This was an extraordinarily difficult decision to make, but one the majority of our board feels is in the best interest of the children we serve,” Guilford County Schools board chair Deena Hayes said. “The longer schools remain closed to students, the more we risk diminishing the learning and life outcomes for an entire generation of students. With studies around the world indicating that young children and schools are not dramatically increasing community spread, it’s time we move forward as a school district.”

Multiple studies have shown that schools are generally safe, in large part because children don’t experience severe symptoms and don’t pass the virus on to others the way adults do.

In explaining its decision to switch to remote learning, the Denver Public Schools district used similar logic as MNPS.

“The cases in our schools reflect what we see in the Denver community,” DPS said in a press release. “In September, we were seeing about 13 cases per week when we first opened up (early childhood education) centers. We are now seeing over 300 cases per week. This deeply challenges our ability to operate our schools. And we’ve already had to close many schools because we lack the staff to run them, due to required quarantines and the shortage of available substitutes.

The Detroit Public Schools District said it was forced to switch to remote learning not because of outbreaks within its schools, but because of the spike in cases within the community.

“The decision to suspend in person learning is not a reflection of employees or students not fulfilling their COVID safety commitments,” Detroit Public Schools District said in a Q and A explaining its decision to parents. “In fact, the opposite is true. For two months, our employees prevented the spread of COVID. Despite excessive examples of outbreaks in other districts and schools throughout the state and city, our district, which opened nearly 100 buildings for two months, experienced only three outbreaks with no major health issues experienced by our employees or students.”

Heather Powell (Photo: Facebook)
Heather Powell (Photo: Facebook)

Powell, the parent advocate, said MNPS similarly deserves credit for keeping children and staffers safe, and taking quick action in instances where there were positive cases. She said Parents for a Plan fear that the obstacles making in-person learning difficult could be potentially addressed, but the community doesn’t know how to help. Whether its substitute staffing or other logistical problems, Powell said Parents for a Plan want to be part of the solution. Powell emphasized that the group wants to support teachers who want to teach in person, and that the remote learning choice is a good option for some families.

One of our suggestions has been to create an advisory council for a group made up of parents, school aged children, pediatricians, public health experts to be beneficial to Dr. Battle and central office leadership to help drive decisions,” Powell said.

To see a spreadsheet showing how the Council for Great City Schools members are educating children, click here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.