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Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

The school year is on the verge of starting in much of the United States, and the country is still deep in a debate over whether, how and when to bring students back. The White House is pushing for a full return to classrooms, school officials are struggling with safety precautions, and concerned parents are becoming increasingly desperate as their children have fallen behind.

Adding to that volatile mix, teachers’ unions are emerging as a powerful force in determining the shape of public education during the pandemic. Teachers across the country are fighting for stronger safety measures, limits to their online teaching responsibilities, and delayed returns to in-person teaching.

This week, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union authorized its members to strike if adequate safety precautions like masks and new ventilation systems are not put in place. Teachers’ unions in Florida have already sued the governor over his push to require in-person instruction.

Critics say that teachers’ unions are inflexible and want to have it both ways: reluctant to return to classrooms, but also resistant to teaching online. Union leaders point out that many teachers went above and beyond their normal duties when schools were closed in the spring.

Even as unions exert their influence, they face tremendous public and political pressure: Getting parents back to work requires functioning school systems, and remote learning failed many children this spring, deepening achievement gaps by race and income.

Outbreaks on campus. The new academic year hasn’t even begun, and already at least 6,300 cases have been tied to about 270 colleges over the course of the pandemic, based on a New York Times survey of every public four-year college in the country as well as many private institutions.

Can school closures save lives? In a new study, researchers estimated that school closures last spring likely saved tens of thousands of lives. But experts caution that the findings are from a period when few coronavirus precautions were in place.

Our colleague Donald McNeil Jr., a science reporter who covers infectious diseases, recently spoke to 20 public health experts — clinicians, epidemiologists, historians and sociologists — to assess where the U.S. crisis is heading.

“Over all, the scientists conveyed a pervasive sense of sadness and exhaustion,” Donald writes. Here are four takeaways from his interviews.

  • The pandemic has splintered, with multiple epicenters driven by different factors. Each state, each city has its own crisis: vacation crowds in one, bars reopened too soon in another, a revolt against masks in a third.

  • Some experts argue that only a nationwide lockdown can contain the virus now. Others say that’s politically impossible. Danielle Allen, whose ethics center at Harvard University has issued pandemic response plans, said that recording more than 25 cases per 100,000 people means a community should issue stay-at-home orders.

  • Some experts think the states in the South and Southwest that are currently fighting big outbreaks might become safer in the winter. Their summers are so hot that people are more likely to spend time indoors with air-conditioning, which has been shown to spread viral particles, but their winters are more temperate.

  • It’s unclear whether flu season will make the crisis worse, possibly sending more respiratory patients to the hospital. But there’s a chance that it could be mild or even nonexistent, some experts said, after an abrupt decline in international air travel appears to have halted transmission in the spring.

Here’s a roundup of restrictions in all 50 states.

I’ve started an Apocalypse Book Club with my friends. We all pick a book with an apocalypse as a main plot point (some highlights include pandemics, asteroids, dictatorships and global warming) and meet every Friday. It’s great to focus on a fictional world falling apart instead of the stress of our current world, and a really good way to stay in touch.

— Ezra Silkes, San Diego

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