This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get the newsletter in your inbox.
Demetria Bannister, known as Demi, a 28-year-old third-grade teacher and choir director in Columbia, S.C., died of Covid-19 on Monday.
Bannister, who last year made a video about tardiness to the tune of “Old Town Road,” had last been in Windsor Elementary School on Aug. 28 to prepare for the school year, and had been teaching remotely since Aug. 31.
She tested positive on Sept. 4 and died only three days later. It is not clear whether she caught the virus at school; officials are now tracing her contacts. Her parents, with whom she lived, have both tested positive, and her mother is in the hospital, a family member told The Times.
Over the last month, the coronavirus likely played a factor in deaths of teachers in Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi, stoking fears that reopening will lead to more outbreaks. The unabated pandemic is killing hundreds of Americans every day, from many occupations and backgrounds.
In South Carolina, students have been slowly returning to in-person classes over the past three weeks. Earlier this week, about 14 percent of state residents who tested for the virus were positive. Most experts agree that schools should reopen only if positivity rates are lower than 5 percent. Columbia is in Richland County, which had the most positive cases in the state over the past seven days, according to a Times database.
In virtually every community in the United States, some number of students and staff members could come to school with the coronavirus. That makes it crucial for schools to have a plan to handle those cases.
Teachers from across the country have signed Bannister’s online guest book, sharing condolences and fears for this fraught school year. Her students have, too.
“She was my favorite teacher,” wrote Corinne Freeman. “I wish I was still [in] elementary school to say my goodbyes.”
Partying foils the best-laid plans
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a complex modeling and testing plan to keep the virus under control. More than 40,000 students take tests twice a week. Masks are mandatory. And strict rules dictate who can enter campus buildings.
Nevertheless, the university reported an unexpected upswing of coronavirus cases and imposed a lockdown last week.
The school’s computer model, designed by a group that included physicists and civil engineers, had a flaw: It acknowledged that students would socialize at parties, but assumed they would stop after receiving a positive test result. As you can probably guess, that’s not what happened — some students who tested positive even tried to spoof a tracking app so they could leave their rooms.
“If you know you are positive,” said a professor who worked on the model, “and you go to a party, that’s not just a bad act. That’s very, very dangerous.”
Even with the model’s mistaken assumptions, the school’s positivity rate is only about 1 percent — higher than the school would like, but currently trending down.
More broadly, a newly updated Times analysis of campuses around the country found more than 88,000 reported cases, including 61,000 since late August.
Essential counseling in jeopardy
In 2014, only about half the freshmen at Richmond Hill High School in Queens graduated on time and only 40 percent of those graduates were going to college. There was just one college counselor for almost 600 seniors.
Then, working with a local nonprofit group, the school shifted its strategy. Instead of trying to pole vault its top students into top schools, it tried to focus on getting everyone into a degree program. With a dedicated college-advising office and recent graduates called “bridge coaches,” the on-time graduation rate is now about 70 percent. In 2019, 75 percent of graduates went directly to college.
“We build up our students for four years, to get to the point where they’re confident and comfortable that they belong in college,” Robert Schwarz, a vice principal, told The Times. “That takes a lot of hand-holding.”
Although the pandemic hit the school and its students hard, Richmond Hill maintained its counseling program. Even as the parents of some students died or lost their jobs, most seniors stayed on track. By early September, despite the pandemic, 70 percent of the graduating class was enrolled in college.
“The intensive counseling the bridge coaches provided was the key factor in persuading those students to stick with their plans,” said Paul Tough, a contributing writer at The Times Magazine who spent months looking into Richmond Hill’s strategy.
Now, similar counseling programs are under threat as districts and public college systems face budget cuts. Student support systems — like counselors — are often the first to go.
“When you make those cuts, you inevitably have higher drop out rates, especially for low-income students,” Paul said. “That feels like the part of the crisis that hasn’t happened yet, but everyone can see coming.”
Read more: Predominantly white districts are more than three times as likely to be open for some in-person learning, compared with districts that enroll mostly students of color, according to an analysis by The Associated Press and Chalkbeat.
Around the country
At least 23 business school students at Dartmouth College are in quarantine following a dorm party.
Winona State University quarantined students for two weeks starting Tuesday amid an increasing spread of the coronavirus on the southeastern Minnesota campus.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is moving all classes online and quarantining students in two of its largest dorms as it deals with rising cases.
One week after he tested positive, a Miami University student in Ohio hosted 20 people at a house party.
Thirteen members of the swim and dive team at Boston College have tested positive.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has a plan to offer free college to 625,000 essential workers who helped provide frontline services to fight the virus, a bill inspired by the G.I. Bill that provided college education to those serving their country in World War II. The free college is currently limited to community colleges.
Rowan University in New Jersey has more than 100 cases. Officials expect that number to increase.
Across the country, students are using social media to shame their colleges into better coronavirus practices.
Tip of the day: Parental mental health
Lucy Rimalower, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, recommends asking yourself: What kind of self-care is realistic for you now? Old coping mechanisms may not be available any time soon, so if you can even take a tiny break for yourself every day, that’s better than nothing.
And, consider helping out another family in need. Many families are struggling to afford diapers, wipes and formula for their babies. If you have the means, donating to the National Diaper Bank can help.
Jessica Grose contributed to today’s edition.