Cold Interrupts Classes, in an Interrupted Year

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For teachers and students, the brutal storm that burst pipes, disabled power grids and left usually temperate cities coated in snow and ice has further derailed an uncertain school year across much of the South and Midwest.

“Our students have now lost an additional three, and it could be five, days of learning,” said Grenita Lathan, the interim superintendent in Houston. “And we were already behind.”

Much of Houston is without power, and many of the district’s 25,000 staff members and 196,000 families cannot log on to remote classrooms. About 44 percent of students had attended in-person school, while the rest were fully remote. Amid blackouts, the district canceled classes until at least Thursday.

“We had to deal with the pandemic,” Lathan said. “Now we’re dealing with a snow and ice storm, but everyone continues to bounce back.”

But a few days of learning loss pales in comparison with concerns about feeding students or keeping them warm, Texas educators said.

“Learning loss is at the very bottom of the list right now,” said Stephanie Elizalde, the Austin superintendent.

She worked with the city, county and the Red Cross to open school gymnasiums as emergency shelters and warming centers. Volunteers poured in, bringing games and food to people in need.

Sara Konkel, a fifth-grade bilingual teacher in Austin started messaging families as soon as she awoke on Tuesday morning. Many of the families are immigrants and refugees.

“Even if it was just emotional support for their students,” Konkel said, “I wanted to make sure they knew that I was there.”

In places where freezing temperatures are common, the cold also derailed plans. Some districts switched to virtual learning.

Others cashed in a snow day, just as they would have in a normal year. But for students in the South, even the discomfort was magical.

“Where I’m from, I have only seen snow around three or four times in my entire life,” said McKenzi Bryce, a 19-year-old student at the University of North Texas. “I actually went sledding for the first time on Sunday, which was the most exciting part of all.”


As more and more cities across the country have returned students to classrooms in recent months, the West Coast has been an outlier.

Los Angeles? Remote. San Francisco? The same.

San Diego? Seattle? Portland? Remote. Remote. Remote.

Across the country, roughly half of students are back in school. But in Washington and Oregon, fewer than a quarter of children are. Almost all of California’s biggest districts are remote.

Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon has pushed districts to reopen, prioritizing teachers over some older adults for the vaccine. But that has not persuaded two of the state’s largest districts to bring students back before April, at the earliest.

“We looked to see: ‘OK, if you do all of that, how far does it move the needle?’” said our colleague Shawn Hubler, who covered the Oregon story. “The answer was: not much.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California also wants schools to reopen. But as coronavirus cases fall across California, it remains unclear when public schools in major cities will reopen, as unions continue to negotiate. (Many private schools are open, even in districts where public schools are closed.)

San Francisco and its teachers reached a tentative deal that schools won’t reopen until cases fall substantially or until all staff members who will be returning have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. In Los Angeles, even though the county recently dropped below the level of cases at which elementary schools are allowed to reopen under state rules, the union argues that teachers should be vaccinated before they return.

“Once you haven’t opened for this long, it gets harder and harder,” said Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University school finance expert.

The difference between the West Coast and other parts of the country comes down partly to school governance, experts say. Mayors control the school systems in cities like Boston, New York and Chicago. Elected school boards influenced by powerful teachers’ unions usually govern West Coast districts.


  • Boston College may suspend students who do not follow coronavirus protocols.

  • Several historically Black colleges and universities will open as vaccine distribution centers and work to engender trust.

  • Republicans in Iowa are working to ban tenure at the state’s three public universities, partly because conservative students said the campus did not welcome their perspectives.

  • Basketball players at Bluefield College, a small school in southwest Virginia, knelt during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice. In response, the college’s president suspended the team, forcing a forfeit.

  • An opinion from The Washington Post: In most recessions, college enrollment increases. But the pandemic has caused college completion and new enrollment to plummet. That, Catherine Rampell writes, could have dire consequences for the economy and economic mobility.

  • A good read from The Times: Our colleague Kurt Streeter spoke with Demi Washington, a basketball player at Vanderbilt University who developed myocarditis, a heart inflammation that can lead to cardiac failure, after she contracted the coronavirus. “I could die,” she realized.

  • Some districts in Massachusetts may not reopen for in-person learning even after teachers receive vaccines, The Boston Globe reports.

  • The Los Angeles school board approved a plan to cut the district’s police force by 35 percent, ban the use of pepper spray and divert $25 million to programs supporting students of color.

  • In Connecticut, parents are moving their children from public school to Catholic school in pursuit of in-person learning.

  • Some districts in Minnesota may make remote learning permanent.

  • An opinion from Vox: “As we approach the one-year anniversary of remote education in America, I find that I am losing sympathy for the educators’ position and their myopic vision this far along into the pandemic,” writes Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University who has three children in public school.

  • A good read from The Times: In the months that New York City’s elementary schools have been open, teachers, principals and parents have gained confidence that schools are safe. But they have also had to deal with frequent temporary closures.

  • And this wild Twitter thread: Mike Piccolo’s 8-year-old niece managed to convince the adults in her life that she had a mysterious Zoom bug that kept her from logging on to class … for almost a month.


Angela Penticuff has not met her 27 first graders in person. But at this point, she said, she barely notices.

“I feel like I know them,” she said. “I know the toys they like. I know their pets. I know the clothes they wear. I know how fidgety they are. I know what makes them laugh. It’s almost like the screen’s not there.”

Penticuff, 53, opted to teach remotely last summer. She has significant health issues — an autoimmune disease and asthma — and didn’t want to take any chances. Her principal in Lee’s Summit, a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., let her move from the art room to a virtual first grade.

She uses all the same tricks that she would in a real classroom. Her students still have rug time, except now they have to un-mute to share. They celebrated Valentine’s Day with a dance party and goodies, although she drove three hours around town to deliver them. They even have a class pet: an old bunny puppet named “Carrot” that “lives” in her backyard.

“If we’re doing something neat, they ask: ‘Can Carrot watch us do this?’” she said.

First grade is a critical year for literacy, and she focuses on reading and numbers skills. (In math, Carrot features prominently; the kids regularly try to stump him.)

It’s also a big year for social development. Mischief matters now more than ever. Recently, when one student started doodling on his dresser with marker, several of his friends un-muted themselves to warn him: “‘Dude, you’re going to get grounded — you’ve got to stop!’” she recalled.

“I want them to end the year knowing how to read confidently within their own level,” she said, “and just to be good people to each other, and to be kind, and to care about the feelings of others.”

We’d love to keep hearing from parents and educators who are doing things that work. What’s going well? Do you have suggestions or stories that you think would help other people? Email us: [email protected].

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“Learning loss is at the very bottom of the list right now,” said Stephanie Elizalde, the Austin superintendent.

She worked with the city, county and the Red Cross to open school gymnasiums as emergency shelters and warming centers. Volunteers poured in, bringing games and food to people in need.

Sara Konkel, a fifth-grade bilingual teacher in Austin started messaging families as soon as she awoke on Tuesday morning. Many of the families are immigrants and refugees.

“Even if it was just emotional support for their students,” Konkel said, “I wanted to make sure they knew that I was there.”

San Diego? Seattle? Portland? Remote. Remote. Remote.

Across the country, roughly half of students are back in school. But in Washington and Oregon, fewer than a quarter of children are. Almost all of California’s biggest districts are remote.

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