Back to school in US brings unprecedented chaos

By Alfonso Fernandez and Alex Segura Lozano

Washington/Los Angeles, Sep 16 (EFE).- Fights over wearing facemasks or not, parents who are moving out of state to avoid restrictions … The sharp political polarization in the United States has reached the schools as millions of students are returning to in-person classes after more than a year of remote learning due to the pandemic.

Although restrictions around the country are heavily dependent on what individual states elect to do, and some have been making their educational centers more flexible, September is the first month since 2020 in which all US schools have once again opened their doors.

Nevertheless, the smiles normally seen on the first days of school are not very much in evidence because many children must wear facemasks at all times, just like their teachers – something that has sparked the ire of some parents depending on their political persuasions and whether they think that mask-wearing limits personal freedom.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union with more than 450,000 active members, has positioned itself in favor of masks and has complained about the complicated situations that some of its teachers have had to deal with vis-a-vis students’ parents.

In fact, in recent weeks the NEA has received reports on parents who have approached teachers and torn up facemasks, insulting them for “forcing” their children to use this protective measure against Covid-19.

In an interview with EFE, NEA secretary and treasurer Noel Calendaria said that “unfortunately” these parents are doing all this in front of their children, thus “setting a very bad example.”

In the face of these incidents, Calendaria, who is a Special Education teacher, insisted that the association wants open schools and “to do that, the students must return to the classrooms in a way in which they can be inside” without worrying about becoming infected by asymptomatic but infectious fellow students or teachers.

States like Florida, which has a Republican governor, have tried to impede the obligatory use of facemasks in the schools, while the Los Angeles school district, controlled by Democrats, has ordered all students over age 12 to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

These are just two examples of the division that prevails in the country, which is also reflected in the decision made by many families – given the anxiety and the stress generated by the prolonged shutdown – to move to other states seeking greater controls or, alternatively, more open schools.

Andrew, the father of three girls who asked that his last name not be used, decided to stay this month in North Florida for the start of classes instead of returning to Washington DC, where the family lives, due to the “enormous uncertainty that still exists.”

He told EFE that he felt that “we’ve been too hard” with the kids and have forgotten the importance of education.

In Texas, other parents have decided to delay the reentry of their kids to in-person schooling and have opted for home teaching, something that is becoming more and more normal around the US.

“We’ve decided to wait a little more and focus on home learning until the cases disappear, since we saw that the kids of their age were infected at a high rate,” Justin Adoue, the father of two kids, ages one and three.

According to figures from the Ed Source educational organization, about 35,000 families have filed legal declarations with the state of California in recent months to open private schools in their homes for five or fewer students, more than double the number that did so during the 2018-2019 school year, before the pandemic.

This divergence of parents’ and public institutions’ opinions and strategies has resulted in unprecedented chaos as the school year gets cranked up again in the US, a country where political polarization has spread to the desks of the youngest members of society.

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