A bipartisan group of governors have decided it is time to get students back into classrooms, despite union resistance and bureaucratic hesitancy.
Democratic governors in Oregon, California, New Mexico and North Carolina, and Republicans in Arizona, Iowa, West Virginia and New Hampshire, among other states, have all taken steps to prod, and sometimes force, school districts to open.
The result has been a major increase in the number of students who now have the option of attending school in-person, or will in the next month.
According to a school reopening tracker created by the American Enterprise Institute, 7 percent of the more than 8,000 districts being tracked were operating fully remotely on March 22, the lowest percentage since the tracker was started in November. Forty-one percent of districts were offering full-time in-person instruction, the highest percentage in that time. Those findings have been echoed by other surveys.
In interviews, several governors described the factors motivating their decision to push districts to reopen, including the substantial evidence that there is little virus transmission in schools if mitigation measures are followed, the decline in overall cases from their January peak, and, most of all, the urgency of getting students back in classrooms before the school year ends.
“Every day is an eternity for a young person,” said Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington, who declared a state of emergency related to child and adolescent mental health and banned fully virtual instruction starting in April. “We just could not wait any further.”
In the weeks since most of the governors acted, nationwide cases have started to rise again, which could complicate the effort to get children back in school. In areas where cases are increasing sharply, like Michigan, some schools have had to revert to remote learning temporarily because so many students were in quarantine.
But for the time being, at least, the moves by these governors have yielded significant results.
In Washington, before Mr. Inslee issued his proclamation, the state’s largest district, Seattle Public Schools, was locked in a standoff with its teachers’ union over a reopening plan. Days after Mr. Inslee announced he would require districts to bring students back at least part time, the two sides reached an agreement for all preschool and elementary school students and some older students with disabilities to return by April 5.
In Ohio, nearly half of all students were in districts that were fully remote at the beginning of 2021. By March 1, that number was down to 4 percent, and it has shrunk further in the weeks since.
“It’s worked exceedingly well,” Mike DeWine, the Republican governor of Ohio, said of his decision to offer vaccines to Ohio districts that pledged to reopen. “We’ve got these kids back in school.”