About a third of U.S. students haven't had a single day in a classroom since March 2020. Coming back now — with the virus still spreading and teachers pushing back — hasn't been easy.



President Biden has said he wants as many public schools as possible to open in his first 100 days. But those districts that have remained remote up to now are facing serious blowback as they try to open their doors. In Chicago, teachers are moving closer to a strike this morning. And in Montclair, N.J., earlier this week, teachers refused to come to school. Anya Kamenetz of our NPR education team has been following these showdowns, and she joins us now. Good morning, Anya.


MCCAMMON: So tell us what's happening in Chicago right now.

KAMENETZ: So the plan had been to bring back elementary school students. A fraction of teachers and staff was supposed to report to buildings today for an opening next Monday, but the union voted to stay all remote. And so that opens the door for a strike, although both sides have said they're open to a mediator instead.

MCCAMMON: OK. And this is something that's happening around the country, right?

KAMENETZ: Well, not everywhere. An organization called Burbio estimates about a third of the country's students are enrolled in districts that have not had a single day back in school since last March for the vast majority of their students. And having been closed for so long and with the pandemic getting worse and worse until very recently, those districts are having a really tough time opening now. And, you know, the teachers say they're scared for their health, and bluntly, they say they don't trust administrations to keep them safe.

Diana Muhammad is a Chicago teachers union member. She spoke at a press conference earlier this month about her own little girl who actually fell very ill with MIS-C, which is a rare complication of coronavirus.


DIANA MUHAMMAD: I did ask, what is the demographic that we're seeing of this happening? And, of course, like other COVID cases, it is Black and brown. And so now I am seriously concerned about us rushing back without having a well-thought-out plan.

KAMENETZ: Similarly, in Washington, D.C., schools are on their third attempt to reopen to a larger group of students this coming Monday, February 1, as well. And this is Laura Fuchs. She's a union activist and a high school teacher on the east side of D.C. And she's talking about what she says are years of disrespect.

LAURA FUCHS: We are rarely in control of our own fate. Things are dictated to us.

MCCAMMON: So a lot of frustration from teachers, Anya. How much pushback are these teachers getting as they're asking to stay remote?

KAMENETZ: You know, there is a small but vocal open-schools movement - mostly of parents, but also they've enlisted many pediatricians to talk about the basic needs, the mental health dangers and the academic setbacks that kids are having as closures drag on and on. And here's Lisa Cohen, a mother of a kindergartner in D.C.

LISA COHEN: It's fear-based. Like, if it was science-based, fact-based, data-based, we could put out a metric or we could look at the data and decide when we get there and when it's safe. But this has become an emotional conversation. It's become a political conversation. And I don't know where and how you end those.

MCCAMMON: And this parent raises a good point. I mean, what does the science say about going back to school?

KAMENETZ: So, obviously, there's been a lot of back-and-forth about this, but there does look to be an emerging scientific consensus that schools are not automatic superspreader locations. In fact, just yesterday, CDC scientists published a review of national, international evidence. And they're underlining that, you know, yes, you have to wear masks. You have to have sanitization. You have to distance. You may have to cancel high school wrestling. You may have to close indoor dining. But if you do those things, you can keep schools open fairly safely. And that should be a factor here.

MCCAMMON: Very reassuring. Good to hear that. Thank you, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.