2021: Schools Debate Pandemic Restrictions, Race

28 December 2021

In the United States, debates over issues like reopening, masks, vaccines and racism played out all over the country in 2021. And it was no different for schools.

As vaccines started being distributed to teachers and school officials in January, Americans were hopeful schools could start returning to normal. The pandemic forced many school systems to give up in-person classes in 2020. Many American students were still learning remotely as 2021 began. Research from last year showed how students' learning slowed, largely due to the change to online learning.

Masks and Vaccines

Angela Black, right, with her brother Luke Black at their home, pose for a photo Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Angela Black, right, with her brother Luke Black at their home, pose for a photo Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

In the winter and spring, schools slowly started bringing students back in-person. And as the new school year began in the autumn, it appeared that schools were ready for a return to full-time in-person classes.

But officials, politicians, families and students could not seem to agree on how to safely return to class. The highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus started spreading in the U.S. just before the new school year, and plans quickly changed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance in August recommending that all students, teachers and school workers wear masks in schools. But some state lawmakers' policies on masking went against school and public health officials' opinions on what was safe.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis banned schools in the state from requiring masks. He called mask-wearing a choice that parents should make and not the government. He also claimed that masks prevented children from learning and communicating.

But some school systems in the state chose not to listen to the governor's order. One was Leon County, where the state capital of Tallahassee is located.

Sara Lee is a mother of two children attending school in Leon County. She said wearing masks did not prevent her kids from learning, as DeSantis has suggested. "I was relieved when our school board went against our governor," Lee told VOA.

The state of Texas also banned masks. But schools in the cities of Austin and Dallas chose to ignore the ban.

As vaccines for children became available in April and May, schools made efforts to get them shots. Public health experts say vaccines are the most effective way to prevent severe illness from COVID-19.

But there continues to be plenty of misinformation on the vaccines' safety and effectiveness. And some lawmakers have tried to prevent schools from vaccinating students.

In Tennessee, the health department ended vaccination events aimed at children. Republican lawmakers accused the health department of "pressuring" children to get the vaccine.

Children are at lower risk of getting severe COVID-19 infection and being hospitalized. However, the risk remains. They can also still spread the disease to school workers and family members.

Teacher and worker shortages

Like in many areas of the economy, the pandemic has led to teacher and worker shortages in schools. Teachers have been retiring or leaving their jobs at high rates. Many have experienced burnout. Districts have faced shortages before, but many now say it is the worst it has ever been.

The National Education Association questioned 2,690 educators in June. Thirty-two percent said the pandemic drove them to leave teaching earlier than expected. Another survey by the Rand Corporation found that teachers had high levels of stress and were three times more likely than adults in other professions to experience depression.

This is the worst "shortage of labor we have ever had," said Tony Wold. He is the superintendent of a school system in California's West Contra Costa County. "We opened this year with 50...teaching positions open. That means students are going to 50 classrooms that do not have a permanent teacher."

There is also a shortage of cleaners, food service workers and others, Wold said.

Debates over teaching race

Schools, parents and lawmakers also disagreed over ways to teach about racism, and critical race theory, or CRT, in schools.

Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America's history through race. It argues that racism is a part of all of America's government and businesses and more than just individual discrimination.

Some ideas related to the theory are being taught in public schools.

Tassie Zahner teaches American history in Montgomery County, Maryland. She said it would be very hard to teach her class without using some CRT ideas, like America's history of racism.

"In order to teach (a) U.S. history class correctly you have to talk about those things," she said. "You can't prepare students...if you're not teaching the truth about U.S. history."

Teaching race in schools has become an important cause for conservatives. Many Republican-controlled states have passed legislation restricting how history and race can be taught in public school.

The issue of Critical Race Theory helped Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin win the election for governor. He argued that CRT amounted to a kind of "reverse-racism" that taught white students to feel guilty about the nation's history.

Adu is a high school student in Chicago. Her class learned about The New York Times' 1619 Project. The well-known and controversial project released in 2019 is about slavery's effects on modern-day America.

She told VOA she sees a connection between states trying to control how to teach racism and George Floyd's murder and the nationwide protests for racial equality.

"They don't want us to know the effects of slavery are still going on," Adu said. "When George Floyd was killed, that kind of showed that even though slavery is over this is the remnant of it."

Omicron's impact

The quick spread of the Omicron variant of the pandemic threatens schools' ability to stay open. Many school systems around the country changed to fully online classes ahead of the holiday break.

New York City has the country's largest school system. On December 20, one-fifth of the city's students did not attend class, likely out of concern about the virus.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul promised to keep schools open.

She said last week: "We believe that it's critically important that our children not end up in that same situation they were for so many months, when they were so displaced from their normal environment."

I'm Jill Robbins.

And I'm Dan Novak.

Dan Novak adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.


Words in This Story

mask n. a covering for your face or for part of your face

variant adj. different in some way from others of the same kind

relieve v. to make a problem less serious

board n. a group of people who manage or direct a company or organization

burnout n. the condition of someone who has become very physically and emotionally tired after doing a difficult job for a long time

stressn. the condition of someone who has become very physically and emotionally tired after doing a difficult job for a long time

depression n. a serious medical condition in which a person feels very sad, hopeless, and unimportant and often is unable to live in a normal way

reverse n. something that is opposite to something else

remnant n. the part of something that is left when the other parts are gone

displace v. to move so that it is no longer in its original or regular location or position