About half of the nation’s students are now attending school in person, and a majority of districts offer at least some live instruction. But in Washington, less than a quarter of the state’s 1.1 million public schoolchildren are receiving in-person instruction. A plan to reopen Seattle schools on March 1 for prekindergarten through second grade was scrapped this month as negotiations stalled.
And in California, where more than six million students are in public schools, only about a third of middle and high school districts are offering any live instruction. All of the state’s largest cities remain almost entirely remote.
There is no clear, single reason for the West Coast’s caution, experts say. California suffered a vicious holiday surge in Covid-19 infections that until recently kept rates too high for most schools to meet in person. Until Tuesday, Los Angeles County’s infection rates had ruled out the return of students for nearly a year. But some districts, such as San Francisco’s, resisted live instruction even when the state thresholds would have let them reopen.
Infection rates in Washington and Oregon have consistently been among the country’s lowest. Although they rose sharply along with the rest of the nation’s in December, they have more recently trended down.
Critics of a swift reopening of schools note that high percentages of Black and Latino parents do not want their children back in classrooms, citing the pandemic’s disproportionately deadly impact on their communities. But that has also been true in New York, Chicago and other cities that have managed to open at least partly.
Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University school finance expert based in Seattle, points out that Washington, Oregon and California “all have more left-leaning leadership that is cozier with the unions.” But Boston, Chicago and New York also have strong public employee unions.
Those Eastern cities also have mayoral control of the school systems. Elected school boards govern the districts on the West Coast, and in most, teachers’ unions are strong political players, particularly in major cities such as Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.