RALEIGH, N.C. – Within his first week back at school after a year and a half, 7-year-old Ben Medlin was exposed to a classmate with COVID-19, and he was sent home, along with 7,000 other students in the district, for 14 days of quarantine.
Not much learning went on in Ben's home.
On some days last week, the second-grader was given no work by his teachers. On others, he was done by 9:30 a.m., his daily assignments consisting of solving 10 math problems or punctuating four sentences, according to his mother.
“It was very much just thrown together and very, very, very easy work,” Kenan Medlin said.
As coronavirus outbreaks driven by the delta variant lead districts around the U.S. to abruptly shut down or send large numbers of children into quarantine at home, some students are getting minimal schooling.
Despite billions of dollars in federal money at their disposal to prepare for new outbreaks and develop contingency plans, some governors, education departments and local school boards have been caught flat-footed.
Also, some school systems have been handcuffed by state laws or policies aimed at keeping students in classrooms and strongly discouraging or restricting a return to remote learning.
The disruptions — and the risk that youngsters will fall further behind academically — have been unsettling for parents and educators alike.
The school board in Ben's district in Union County, outside Charlotte, relented on Monday and voted to allow most of its quarantining students to return to the classroom as long as they aren’t known to be infected or have no symptoms. On Wednesday, the state’s top health official threatened legal action against the district unless it returns to stricter quarantine procedures.
Union County school officials said they are not offering virtual instruction but are contacting parents of affected children to help them line up tutors or other help for their youngsters. One in 6 students in the mask-optional district were quarantined last week.
In the rural district of Wellington, Kansas, students got a week off from schoolwork when a COVID-19 outbreak struck. Instead of going online, the district decided to add 10 minutes to each day to make up for the lost time when it reopened on Tuesday. Masks also are required now.
Districts in Kansas risk losing funding if they offer online or hybrid learning for more than 40 hours per student per year.
In Georgia, Ware County's 6,000-student district halted schooling altogether for three weeks in mid-August. The district said it was unreasonable for teachers to have to offer virtual and in-person instruction at the same time. It also cited a lack of internet service in some rural areas.
In Missouri, the Board of Education rescinded a rule in July that allowed school districts to offer hybrid and remote instruction for months at a time. Districts that close entirely because of COVID-19 outbreaks, as eight small rural school systems have done this year, now are limited to 36 hours of alternative instruction, such as Zoom classes. After that, they have to make up the time later.
The U.S. Education Department said Tuesday that states and school districts should have policies to ensure continued access to “high-quality and rigorous learning” in the event COVID-19 cases keep students from attending school.
The Illinois State Board of Education recently passed a resolution forcing districts to make remote instruction available to quarantined students.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said laws restricting virtual instruction are short-sighted. She noted that some of these states have no mask or vaccine requirements either.
“It is just crazy because this is a pandemic still, and as much as we had all hoped that it would be over, delta has made clear that it is not over," she said.
In North Carolina, state health officials in July eliminated the requirement that districts provide remote learning for quarantining students, saying virtual options are “not supported by current evidence or are no longer needed due to the lower rates of community transmission and increased rates of vaccination.”
In the meantime, parents are left with some difficult decisions to make.
Medlin on Thursday pulled her two children out of school and plans to home-school them as she did last year.
Emily Goss, another Union County parent, said she likewise is planning to home-school her 5-year-old kindergartener after he was put under quarantine six days into the school year with no remote learning option in place.
“He’s supposed to be playing outside, riding bikes and learning how to make new friends, and he’s wondering what’s going to happen to him. That’s not how childhood is supposed to be, and it’s just heartbreaking," she said. "We can’t do this all year.”
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Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Atlanta and Collin Binkley in Boston also contributed. Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.