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More students receive in-person instruction in Florida's Miami-Dade County than anywhere else in the U.S.

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CDC: Teachers ‘Central’ to School Virus Spread ]

The country's fifth-largest school district has been returning students – more than 160,000 of them – into elementary, middle and high schools for full-day, in-person classes since October.

While parents have the option to keep their children learning remotely, 48% of them opted otherwise, even as COVID-19 positivity rates crested into the double digits last fall.

"We began our preparation for a reopening almost as soon as we shut down the schools back in March of 2020," Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade County superintendent, says. "We felt from the very beginning that some parents had varying levels of apprehension, certain parents had some degree of workforce flexibility, some parents were declaring underlying health conditions, as were members of our workforce. Considering all those factors, we felt that we needed to give parents choices."

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Now, with new, long-awaited school reopening guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention neatly categorizing school districts into coronavirus risk zones with accompanying recommendations, Carvalho finds himself overseeing a high-risk school system where middle and high schools are supposed to be virtual-only. And he's far from alone.

A U.S. News analysis of the 20 biggest school districts in the country – all of which fall into the CDCs highest risk category – shows that the majority of systems are pushing the new guidance to the max, either offering instruction that's exactly in line with the upper bounds set by the government's top public health officials or exceeding what they deem safe.

Only two out of the 20 districts are operating virtually without a hard date to reopen for in-person learning, while 10 are fully open, K-12, five days a week – far and away beyond what the CDC says is safe.

The analysis challenges the prevailing political narrative that schools are not moving fast enough to reopen for in-person learning – at least in the majority of the country's biggest school districts. Many of those districts have been the target of searing criticism from Republicans (though not exclusively) seeking to capitalize on an early failure for President Joe Biden, who promised to reopen the majority of schools for in-person learning in the first 100 days of his administration.

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CDC Issues Guidance for School Reopenings ]

"As the months have rolled by and the data have poured in, it's become clear that schools can open safely," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said earlier this month. "An administration that puts facts and science first would be conducting a full-court press to open schools."

Congressional Republicans, taking a page out of the Trump administration's playbook, introduced a slew of amendments to the budget reconciliation bill – the vehicle for the president's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package – trying to condition any new federal aid to schools that have reopened for in-person learning. And Rep. Tom Emmer, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has already given marching orders to nail Democrats for failing to reopen schools, in part to make nice with suburban women who bolted from the GOP during the 2020 presidential election.

Just last week, the conservative and influential American Action Network put up billboards and unleashed a flurry of digital ads and robocalls highlighting how much money Democrats took from teachers unions in campaign contributions. The efforts targeted vulnerable Democrats in about a dozen congressional districts.

"Kids are falling behind, yet liberals in Congress seem not to care," Dan Conston, president of the American Action Network, said. "Even though the science shows it's safe for children to return to school, teachers unions continue to keep students locked out of their classrooms."

Yet the U.S. News analysis shows that as these calls mount for schools to reopen more broadly for in-person learning, the majority of the biggest school districts in the country are already offering instruction in line with the CDC's upper limits, or are or have imminent plans to go beyond what the center deems safe.

The new CDC guidance, released earlier this month, clarifies when it's safe for schools to reopen for in-person learning and how they can do so safely based on their community's rates of COVID-19 transmission – the first such guidance issued since schools shuttered for more than 50 million children almost a year ago last March.

The guidance says that all schools, regardless of which transmission zone they fall into, must require the use of masks and practice physical distancing of 6 feet. They should also mandate frequent hand-washing and cleaning of facilities, as well as establish contact tracing and testing of asymptomatic staff and students.

[ MAP: The Spread of Coronavirus ]

For school districts that fall into the CDC's highest risk category – as approximately 90% of the country's school districts do – the guidance states that elementary schools can be in hybrid learning or with reduced attendance as long as school leaders enforce masks, physical distancing and other recommendations. But middle and high schools, the guidance states, should be all virtual "unless they can strictly implement all mitigation strategies, and have few cases."

The CDC doesn't provide any detailed guidance for schools already open in high-risk zones, other than advising middle and high schools to transition to virtual learning.

"I want to be clear," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said when publicly introducing the guidance earlier this month. "With the release of this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed road map for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community."

Conversely, she added, the same is true – just because a school is open in a high-risk category doesn't mean it must close, but school leaders should be implementing all of the risk mitigation strategies included in the guidance.

"States and localities have been trying to cobble together their own version of these metrics," says Sarah Reckhow, associate professor of political science and education policy at Michigan State University. "A lot of politics and discussions went into creating these things, and it would be very hard and difficult to suddenly say, 'Well we will just throw away all of that.'"

"We didn't have these guidelines when they might have actually been implementable," she continues. "These CDC guidelines, a lot of it will probably never be implemented. People will not reinvent the wheel in February."

To be sure, Biden owns some of the criticism for a messy rollout. He first announced a plan in December to reopen the majority of schools for in-person learning in his first 100 days, only to backtrack a few weeks later to specify he planned to reopen the majority of K-8 schools as it became clear that the virus is easier to control in elementary and middle school settings. Then, earlier this month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified that the metric the administration is using to assess whether a school is open for in-person learning is whether it is offering in-person instruction at least one day a week – a much lower threshold than Biden initially signaled.

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According to at least one organization collecting school reopening data, Burbio, Biden has already met his goal using that metric – and perhaps that goal was already met before he was sworn in as president.

As of Feb. 21, 69% of schools were offering some type of in-person learning, according to Burbio's tracker – though that could mean anything from in-person learning only for students with disabilities or for students from low-income ZIP codes, to a hybrid model where students learn in-person a couple of days a week and virtually the others, to a fully in-person setting.

Biden said last week during a town hall event hosted by CNN that the goal is to get K-8 schools reopen for in-person learning five days a week, and he predicted that by the first 100 days of his administration that would be the case.

Much of the current political debate was set in motion during the previous administration, when former President Donald Trump argued that in order to reopen the economy, schools had to reopen for in-person learning first. That somewhat obvious sentiment has never been challenged and is not controversial, but his administration took a hands-off approach to helping school districts with the heavy lifting, leaving them in large part to go it alone while also demanding they reopen or risk forfeiting federal aid.

Then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos went so far as to say that it was not her responsibility or that of the federal government to establish any kind of data collection about reopening plans and coronavirus cases in schools – despite school leaders begging for exactly that type of guidance.

The dynamic was the genesis for how the reopening debate evolved into one of the biggest political controversies of the pandemic.

A newly published working paper from researchers at Michigan State University who analyzed local district reopening plans and public opinion on reopening in Michigan found that partisanship was much more associated with district reopening plans than COVID-19 infection rates. Republicans were "far more favorable" than were Democrats toward in-person learning, they found, and states' decisions to leave reopening plans to their districts opened the way for students' experiences to be shaped by the flavor of partisanship in their local communities.

Nowhere has that been on display more than in Florida, where six of its counties fall into the top 20 biggest school districts in the country and where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis was aggressive in demanding schools in the state reopen for in-person learning. As it stands, every school district is fully open, though parents can choose a virtual option for their children if they want.

"We have been open, we will remain open and we are not turning back," DeSantis said last week in reaction to the CDC's latest guidance.

"That is a disgrace, that is not science," he said of the guidance. "That is putting politics ahead of what's right for kids. That is putting politics and special interests ahead of what the evidence and observed experience says."

White House officials have said, and Walensky has confirmed, that the new guidance was drafted without input from Biden's political appointees and represents the best data and science available.

To be sure, DeSantis, who in the past has said that regardless of how severe COVID-19 outbreaks become in Florida that schools will remain open, and has even gone so far as to call those who close schools due to COVID-19 "flat-earthers," represents the far end of the political spectrum. Most local and state officials who represent school districts that already offer in-person learning have reacted more practically to the CDC guidance, saying it's helpful, sure, but they're not about to change their policies now.

"I think our district's COVID-19 protocols that we adopted over time are pretty well aligned with the vast majority of the renewed CDC recommendations," says Carvalho, who has no plans to backtrack his district's in-person offerings. "Our school environments are extremely controlled environments where the supervision and assurances that these behaviors and rules are followed is at a premium."

"But as soon as people step outside of schools – look at the South Florida community, they go to the beach, they go to restaurants, and sometimes they forget the protocols," he says. "So it seems like America has not had a COVID-19 school problem. We've had all along a COVID-19 community problem. It's the behaviors of individuals outside of the schools that are influencing the viability of schools being open."

In addition to the typical risk mitigation strategies schools implements, like providing masks and hand sanitizer and reconfiguring schools to allow for social distancing, Miami-Dade also offers several different testing options for staff, their families and students, including mobile testing units for students, run in partnership with the University of Miami's division of pediatrics. In addition, the district requires staff to fill out risk-assessment surveys every morning before reporting to work and distributed infrared thermometers to families so they can take students' temperatures daily before school.

According to a dashboard the district runs, which reports COVID-19 cases among staff and students and is searchable by school and updated daily, nearly 4,500 students and 2,000 school employees have tested positive since opening Oct. 5, 2020.

"All these metrics and plans are partly public health documents and partly political documents," Reckhow says. "In all these states and districts, these have been arrived at through that really challenging context of working out political compromises. The CDC document doesn't necessarily lie neatly upon our diverse state and political landscape."

The findings of the U.S. News analysis – that the majority of the country's biggest school districts are open beyond what the CDC recommends is safe – are by no means a monolith.

For Los Angeles, the second-biggest school district in the country serving nearly 500,000 students, offering any type of in-person learning has been impossible due to the reopening thresholds set by the state of California.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner, who was one of the first major school district leaders to roll out a comprehensive reopening plan, retrofitted schools with top-of-the-line air filtration systems and secured resources to establish aggressive testing and tracing, has called the city "a national example of how governmental dysfunction has allowed the virus to rampage out of control."

"Los Angeles Unified has been ready to reopen classrooms for months," he said earlier this month, before the state revised its reopening parameters last week, clearing the way for schools to begin returning students as soon as next month. "We are ready to reopen and want nothing more than to welcome children back to classrooms safely, but we cannot break state law to do so. What we cannot control is the community spread of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles area, which has not for one single day since the beginning of the crisis met the state standards for school reopening."

The 200,000-student School District of Philadelphia is operating remotely as well, currently in the throes of a labor negotiation not entirely unlike the ones New York City and Chicago experienced before reopening for in-person learning, with much of the debate centered on the poor conditions of the city's school facilities, overcrowding and the availability of vaccines for school staff.

Last week, Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite announced a March 1 return for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade and stressed that the district has invested $65 million in personal protective equipment, touchless hand sanitizer stations, plexiglass partitions and ventilation repairs, as well as $250 million to address lead and asbestos.

"Right now, with extensive safety measures in place, I firmly believe our schools are ready to begin welcoming staff and students back for in-person learning," he wrote in a letter to families last week.

Plenty of smaller urban school districts haven't returned in-person instruction, either. Seattle, for example, the first school system to shutter because of the pandemic, has yet to reopen. The 50,000-student district reported providing just 144 students with in-person instruction in February, and its plans to open classrooms on March 1 for 11,000 students with disabilities and kids in prekindergarten through first grade is on hold as district officials negotiate with the city's teachers union.

As teachers, parents and students approach the one-year anniversary of a difficult and chaotic switch to virtual learning, marked by academic, social and emotional learning loss – especially for low-income students, students with disabilities and Black and Latino children whose communities have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus – polling continues to show that not only do a majority of parents prefer their children learning at home, but the vast majority are happy with the way their children are receiving instruction, whether it be virtual, hybrid or in-person.

"Republicans are understandably looking for wedge issues," Reckhow says. "That's politics. But the political polarization is a key feature of how places that have been slower to reopen or haven't yet are facing enormous pressure."

"You can be remote or in-person, or you can be remote or hybrid. I think part of the intensity even when it's a minority of people who support returning in-person, is the all-remote places are truly all-remote. There is not an option if you're in a political minority. If you're not comfortable sending your kids to school and you live in a place where the schools are open, you still have an option. You don't need to make a Facebook group."

Lauren Camera, Senior Education Writer

Lauren Camera is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report. She joined the News team as an ...  Read more

Tags: Florida, CDC, students, children's health, public schools, K-12 education, education, coronavirus, pandemic, politics, Democratic Party, Republican Party, Congress, United States

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Miami : Movie lovers return to theaters in New York

Miami :

New Yorker Cindy B. was one of the first at the doorstep of the AMC Empire 25 theater in Times Square this Friday, when New York theaters reopened a year after being abruptly closed due to the coronavirus.

“Jeez, I’m so excited to be back. I’m not working, so I need something to do! ”This woman in her 60s told ., before buying a ticket to see“ Raya and the Last Dragon ”.

Theaters in the Big Apple resumed operations for the first time since March 17 of last year, when the authorities decreed their closure as a result of the covid-19 that was then beginning to devastate the city.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last month that theaters will be able to operate at 25% capacity – or a maximum of 50 people per screen – beginning March 5.

Anxious, Cindy arrived at the cinema at 10:00 a.m., 30 minutes before the doors opened and a full hour before the film began.

“I am a fan of movies. I went to the movies once a week, so last year I almost went crazy, ”said this woman who did not want to reveal her last name.

But he needn’t have worried so much, since the room, normally packed with tourists, was almost empty.

“I thought there would be a long line. But I guess a lot of people have already started working, ”Cindy said.

The use of a mask and social distance are mandatory in theaters. AMC has installed special air filters and is sanitizing each room between screenings.

Cindy said she was not afraid of catching the virus.

“I have two masks. I have disinfectant tissues, I have hand sanitizer. I have everything! ”, He affirmed.

Roy Evans was another of those who waited outside on this chilly morning for the doors of AMC Empire 25 to open, desperate to re-experience a movie on the big screen.

“I spent the last year lying on the couch, at home, watching television,” the 68-year-old man told ..

“It’s good to get out of that chair and go to a real movie theater,” added Evans, who was about to see “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

– Liam Neeson –

Thomas Levesque, 28, agreed.

“Netflix is ​​cool and all but it doesn’t have that movie theater atmosphere and my television isn’t a huge flat screen either,” he said.

The partial reopening of one of the largest movie markets in the United States, when theaters in Los Angeles remain closed, provides some relief to an industry badly hit by the virus.

Actor Liam Neeson was scheduled to personally thank those who came to a room in Manhattan this afternoon.

AMC, which required nearly $ 1 billion in emergency funds to avoid bankruptcy, is reopening its 13 multi-room complexes in New York.

However, the owners of smaller, independent cinemas say that it is not business to open theaters yet.

“At 25% capacity, it’s a challenge,” said Andrew Elgart, who will phase-open his theaters in Brooklyn and Queens later this month.

The reopening comes as authorities gradually ease restrictions in New York, where the virus has killed more than 29,000 people.

Madison Square Garden welcomed NBA and NHL fans last week, while Broadway theaters and concert halls may reopen with limited capacity on April 2.

“This is definitely a step towards a return to normalcy,” Cindy said before sitting down in the room.

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