5 standout moments from the start of the new school year

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(The Hill) — The start of the 2023-2024 school year is in full swing as millions of U.S. students have returned to classrooms, but not without some hiccups. 

Kids across the country have seen some of their first days back canceled due to lack of transportation, extreme heat or insufficient educators to teach. Others saw schools closed over COVID-19 again.

The start signals that issues exacerbated by the pandemic will continue to cause trouble for educators and students.

Here are the biggest stories nationwide out of the new academic year:

School bus driver shortage

The school bus driver shortage alone has affected tens of thousands of students across the country as delays and cancellations plagued their first week back.

In Kentucky, Jefferson County Public Schools had a self-proclaimed “transportation disaster,” as some students did not get home until 10 p.m. due to the issue.

“I saw some incredible instruction. Kids excited, families excited, new school buildings, and to have it end with the transportation disaster that we had last night was truly unacceptable. And once again, I apologize for that,” Superintendent Marty Pollio said.

The bus driver shortage has been an ongoing problem as the industry faces low pay, licensing problems and a changing workforce. 

HopSkipDrive, a school safety transportation organization, found in 2022 that 88 percent of school district leaders and school transportation experts thought the shortage had hurt their operations. 

Heat days

Students have not only had trouble getting to school, but once there they haven’t been able to stay due to the weather. 

Multiple states have had weather over 90 degrees with school buildings that have no air conditioning. 

In Milwaukee, 154 schools with 70,000 students shut down due to excessive heat.

Another 33,000 students were let out of class early in Des Moines.

“Are these heat days becoming the new snow days? And my answer to that is yes,” Jan Carney, the associate dean for public health at the University of Vermont, previously told The Hill.

Around 41 percent of schools in the U.S. do not have proper heating and air systems in their buildings, according to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office. 

The extreme heat often has the strongest impact in northern states not used to the weather and poorer school districts that don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it. 

Teacher shortage

Another problem that has lingered into the new school year is not enough educators for students. 

Four Las Vegas Valley schools closed this week due to a teacher shortage amid a lawsuit against the teachers union. 

“There are an unexpected number of licensed staff/teachers absent from school today and we have made the difficult decision to not have school today,” Southwest Career and Technical Academy Principal Donna Levy said. 

Governors have become creative in avoiding shortages such as loosening restrictions on out-of-state teacher’s licenses and allowing retired teachers to come back to the classroom easier. 

One school in Pennsylvania switched to a four-day school week to preemptively avoid a teacher shortage.

PragerU in schools 

At least three states so far have approved materials from PragerU, a conservative education platform, to be used in classrooms this school year. 

Teachers in Florida, Oklahoma and New Hampshire are allowed to show PragerU videos in class without fear of repercussion, although they are not required to use it.

“PragerU is proud to provide high-quality, engaging, and informational materials to New Hampshire and other states throughout the country for K-12 students,” the company said after its latest win in New Hampshire. “More specifically, PragerU’s Cash Course series is wholesome, age-appropriate, and non-political, making it a great option for students seeking to learn more about financial responsibility in an entertaining and educational way.”

PragerU has become popular with billions of views for its five-minute videos that dive into political and cultural topics from a conservative perspective.

Others have raised alarm over the videos, saying the conservative education platform spreads misinformation on topics such as climate change. 

“Kids are told to fight climate change but are rarely taught about the human cost of reducing emissions. This animated video teaches middle and high school students about energy and the environment through the eyes of young Ania living in Poland, who must face a devastating winter after the Polish government bans the use of coal,” the PragerU video about climate change says in the description. 

Other PragerU videos include  “Was the Civil War About Slavery?” to “The Inconvenient Truth About the Democratic Party.”

COVID-19 rise again

Coronavirus cases are rising and caused a few schools to shut down for a couple of days due to the number of absences.

A spout of cases in Texas and Kentucky caused three schools to switch to online classes briefly. 

It is difficult to track COVID-19 nationally now that the federal public health emergency and tracking requirements are over, but data such as hospitalization rates have concerned experts that cases are going to spike this fall. 

Superintendents told The Hill that school districts are focusing on COVID-19 mitigation tactics and working with local health authorities on what is the appropriate action to take. 

“Superintendents will not make these calls in isolation,” said George Roberts, a Maryland school superintendent. “What they did do during COVID, and what they’re currently doing now — and I suspect will continue to do as we get into the fall and winter season — is work in conjunction with their own internal health office” in their county or city.

For the most part, a vast majority of schools have not tried to implement district-wide mask mandates or closures again.

As the cases rise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved new COVID-19 vaccines for school-aged children this past week.

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