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Despite Trump threat, growing number of school districts move to virtual learning to start academic year

Schools struggle amid pandemic
School districts go virtual as some officials say classrooms should open 03:07

Washington — As the start of the next academic year draws closer and the coronavirus crisis continues to worsen across the country, a growing number of school districts are opting to keep students out of the classroom and making the switch to virtual learning for the fall semester.

The Trump administration is pressuring school systems to open for classroom learning five days a week and has warned that federal funding could hinge on whether they do so. While the president cannot cut funding already approved by Congress, the administration can attach conditions for K-12 schools to receive future federal assistance. But that threat hasn't stopped dozens of school districts from moving to virtual instruction when they reopen in the fall.

A compilation of reopening plans from Education Week, a trade publication focusing on K-12 education, shows that more than 80 school districts are reopening with remote learning only. Of the nation's 10 largest school systems, five have either firmed up plans to start the new school year solely with online instruction or their superintendents have recommended doing so: Los Angeles Unified School District, Clark County School District in Nevada, Broward County Public Schools in Florida, Houston Independent School District and the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida.

These five districts combined educate nearly 1.5 million students.

School districts surrounding the nation's capital, which are among the largest in the country, have also bucked the Trump administration's call that schools be fully operating for the start of the academic year. Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia and Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland announced all students will begin the semester with virtual learning due to rising infection rates, while the superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia recommended online instruction only.

Fairfax County initially provided parents in the district with a choice of either full-time online instruction or two days of in-person instruction with independent study, prompting a rebuke from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos said earlier this month that limiting days of in-person instruction "would fail America's students and it would fail taxpayers who pay high taxes for their education."

But local and state officials warn that the resources needed to safely bring students and staff back for five days of classroom learning — which the Trump administration is calling for — would likely strain city and state budgets that are already hurting because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A study from the School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials International estimated it will cost the average school system nearly $1.8 million to safely reopen, with money going toward purchasing hand sanitizers, personal protective equipment for students and staff and cleaners for buses, as well as hiring additional custodial staff, for example.

To assist schools as they prepare for the start of the new academic year, Congress is expected to include funding for K-12 education in its next coronavirus relief package, though the amount has not been yet agreed upon.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the GOP's proposal will include $105 billion "so that educators have the resources they need to safely reopen." Of that, $70 billion would go to elementary, middle and high schools.

"This country wants its kids back in the classroom this fall learning, exploring, making friends," he said Monday. "Their educations depend on it. In some cases, their safety depends on it, and so do the livelihoods of working parents."

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have proposed $430 billion for education.

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