What To Do About the Schools

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S1: Back when this pandemic started, I hung the calendar on my wall. It was just a couple of feet off the ground. So my kindergartner could see it. I’d make her write out the date each morning, the same way she would have in school. And I remember looking at this calendar and thinking, OK, just a few more weeks of this of splitting my time between managing a classroom and managing a job. And then schools got closed down for the rest of the year. And I thought, all right, three more months. I got that. And now I’m looking at September and I’m thinking, are we really going to keep doing this?

S2: Yeah, I know that feeling.

S1: Laura Meckler covers education over The Washington Post. And she’s a mom, too.

S2: You know, I sit around, like, hoping, hoping that my kids are going to be back in school.

S3: Laura realizes that starting up schools again is a tall order. So. But what happened this spring? Let’s just say it did not inspire a whole lot of confidence in the national push towards remote learning.

S2: In the spring, schools were just caught so unaware and they were just so unready for this moment. You know, in a lot of places, it truly was a total disaster zone. A lot of places did not do well at all. That said, though, there was an advantage that a lot of us haven’t thought about, which is that they at least were going virtual with a teacher who they had had for many months at that point. That is a lot easier, I think, than what we’re going to see, especially there are going to be people who go back to school this fall all in an all remote situation. And they, you know. They’re starting from ground zero.

S1: The debate over what schools should look like in a few weeks, no matter what your perspective, it doesn’t have a lot of simple answers, which is why every individual school district seems to be doing it differently. What does the CDC say about reopening? Like what? Schools should look like they have a lot of a lot of guidelines.

S2: And one of them is about social distancing essentially within the building. So trying to keep kids away from each other.

S1: Essentially, that means keeping kids six feet apart, keeping them in one room all day. No changing classes, no cafeteria.

S2: There’s also health stuff like temperature checks, masks, having staff and kids wear masks, wiping down surfaces. Kids would have their own supplies instead of having, like, you know, a pile of crayons in the middle of the table for everybody to use. You have your own set of crayons.

S1: Can I just stop you first? Yeah, sure. Because as someone who’s covered education for years. When you look at these guidelines, do you think they’re reasonable?

S2: I mean, the first thought I had was like, is anything reasonable right now in our lives? The question is, it’s a balancing of risks. I mean, do I think they make sense? I do think they make sense. But how many schools are really going to be able to implement them? You know, with true fidelity, I don’t know. I mean, there are places where they don’t even have soap in the bathrooms.

S3: Today on the show, the first day of school is going to look a little different this year. And even though kids are headed back in just a few weeks, it’s hard to know how. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. So it’s mid-July when we’re talking. But we have only for six weeks before schools will be cranking up again. Maybe. So I’m curious if we can just look at how some of this confusion is trickling down to actual school districts like I live in New York City. And here we’ve announced one of these hybrid plans for going back a few days on, a few days off. It’s still pretty unclear what that will really look like because we don’t even have a first day of school yet.

S2: It’s stunning, right? I mean, it’s just stunning that we are so close to the start of school and so many people don’t even know what it’s going to look like. I mean, I’m in in Washington, D.C., the D.C. public schools have not said yet. Speaking is sitting here today what their plan is going to be. I mean, I think that’s a world we’re living in right now.

S3: Just this week, Los Angeles announced that they weren’t even going to try in-person classes. It was gonna be all digital in the fall. And it struck me because at the same time, just a few miles away in Orange County, the school board voted to issue their own recommendations about going back to school and saying schools should go back five days a week in person. Kids aren’t even required to wear masks. They’re non-binding recommendations. But to me, it just seems like that encapsulates the confusion going on right now.

S2: I mean, the situation with the virus is different in different parts of the country. So Los Angeles and San Diego also said they were going to start all digitally while the, you know, the covered cases are searching in California and Southern California right now. So that’s much different than what’s happening in a rural town somewhere in the middle of Montana, you know, where they might not have any covered cases at all. And it’s also different from New York and Washington, where we had a lot of cases in the spring. But we have not yet. Hopefully not at all. We’ll see, you know, had another wave of cases. So maybe a hybrid model makes sense here.

S1: So I do think it kind of depends on where you are thinking about our conversation. I was thinking about what a funny story this is, because I think almost everyone wants kids to go back to school. Parents definitely want their kids learning. And I think a lot of teachers hated online teaching. But I think there’s all this confusion about how to do it and when to do it. What’s the best way to do it? To me, it was best crystallized by how the American Academy of Pediatrics responded to all this, because in the last month, they’ve kind of said a couple of different things. You know, they first came out with this statement saying schools need to reopen. The benefit is really much greater for kids than the harm of reopening schools was pretty strong. And then just in the last week, they issued another statement together with superintendents and teachers’ unions saying, okay, but, you know, if there’s a risk of the corona virus, of course, you know, schools should have the option to close. And it was just so interesting to me because it summed up to me the confusing point we’re at totally.

S2: And they were right in both of their statements, truthfully. They’re right that it is better to go back to school. And then their second statement said, you know, you need to follow local health conditions. And, you know, that’s right to you know, I think what happened was they came out with their first statement, which they really believed and for four good reasons, and it got super politicized. I mean, suddenly, you know, the American Academy of Pediatrics was President Trump’s favorite medical association to have a veto, ever walked the earth big. And they were, you know, invited to the head, was invited to the White House.

S1: The White House was eager to hear what these pediatricians had to say because President Trump wants schools open. His education secretary, Betsy Davos, she’s been clear. If we’re up to this administration, kids reback in the classroom five days a week, they are trying to essentially jawbone districts into making this decision.

S2: And, you know, there has there’s been some success. I mean, so Trump started talking about this about, you know, a week and a half ago where he really started, you know, saying schools need to open, schools need to open. And right after that happened, the governors in Texas and Florida both issued orders saying schools will be open. Well, at least have an option for parents, a five day a week option for parents. These are two states that have both seen surges in coronavirus cases. And, you know, whether there actually is going to be full time school in every district in those states, as is, is another matter. There probably won’t be. But, you know, he can exercise this kind of political pressure. And I think that’s what he’s trying to do.

S3: The president has this event at the White House last week. Can we talk a little bit about what? There because it was this funny dance where you saw, you know, the president and his advisers talking about how important it was to reopen schools and the school leaders who are there very gently sort of saying like, well, you know, I think we’re going to try a little digital learning and a little something a little bit in person.

S2: I mean, I was kind of amused at this moment that I think you’re you’re talking about with this principal from California, from Catholic school.

S4: We have put a plan together that is a working document with all the safety precautions and policies in place in the big roundtable with with Trump.

S2: He says, oh, well, we’re planning or planning this basically a hybrid model where kids are at home some days and in school other days, a hybrid plan, which is two days on, one day off, two days back in.

S4: And then, as I’ve mentioned earlier, God forbid, if we had to go back to the distance learning, I just don’t think which is what a lot of districts are planning.

S2: A lot of places are planning this hybrid model. You know, and the implicit message of the whole White House event was like, no, we want you there full time. And so trump this these like, OK, well, try and keep keep trying for full time, though, right?

S5: And hopefully you can do five days, sort of the two and back and forth. I know you want to be able to do that. So you’ll try.

S3: Thank you very much. So the CDC has guidelines for how schools should reopen again, but over the last week or so, it’s become pretty clear that the White House wasn’t too happy with those.

S2: Yeah. The tension between the CDC and the White House has been amazing to watch at the White House does not have much use for that for the CDC, it seems. And certainly the president doesn’t seem to hear the CDC has some very practical guidelines for how you can open. And the CDC director has emphasized over and over again, perhaps mindful of of keeping his boss happy, that the guidelines are meant to tell people how to reopen, not to give them a reason to stay closed.

S5: The purpose of the CDC guidelines are to provide a variety of different strategies for schools to use to help facilitate the reopening of schools.

S2: That said, one of the key pieces in the CDC guidelines was to have social distancing, physical distancing between students in the classrooms at six feet apart, desks six feet apart. While most schools do not have enough space to accommodate that if all the kids are in the building and that’s why schools are looking at these hybrid models where half the kids would be in on some days and the other half would be in on other days in order to allow space between them. So the problem with the CDC guidelines is it’s pushing schools toward something less than fully reopening. And that seems to be why the you know, why why some don’t really like them. One of the things I’m looking for is whether the CDC modifies its guidelines to take out the specific reference to six feet and maybe makes it three to six feet or something a little more nebulous.

S3: So the White House doesn’t like the CDC’s plan, but does the White House have a plan for how schools should be opening instead? Or is it just we don’t like what they’re doing over here?

S2: When you say the White House, I assume you’re referring to the president and we are. You know, what he has said is I want schools open.

S1: Everybody wanted. The moms want. The dads wanted. The kids want it. It’s time to do it.

S2: You know, or I don’t know if we could call that a plan. You know, I think it’s sort of like you take it from here. So I he just he has said he thinks the CDC guidelines are, you know, tough and expensive and essentially go too far.

S3: Secretary divorce has also taken things a step further. She started talking about maybe not funding schools that don’t reopen fully. Yeah. Can she do that?

S2: Well, that was actually a Trump. Put that on the table. Initially, he said he suggested cutting off funds for schools that don’t open. The short answer is no. I mean, you certainly can’t do that with funding that’s already been appropriated. But the vice president actually answered this question at a briefing last week. What he said is something that they could try to do, which is if there is another Corona virus relief package and it includes money for schools, you could theoretically put a requirement on that says you only get the money if you reopen. So the vice president said that they would be pushing for that. And we’ll see if they actually do.

S1: Hmm. Is there an estimate of how much it will cost if we wanted to bring kids back to school fully?

S2: You know, these estimates are just like all over the board. Right. But you clearly do need more money. And it’s because, you know, if you want to have no touch trashcans. Most schools don’t have that. You know, you want to be sure that there’s, you know, hand sanitizer throughout the building. Most schools don’t have that. You want to do temperature checks. Who’s doing the temperature checks? Law schools don’t even have a school nurse. Not to mention the fact that kids have like a lost learning over the over the spring and summer and they’re going to need even more help going back to try to catch up. So, you know, clearly, money is needed.

S3: Yeah. Have you been able to talk to school stakeholders, people, principals and teachers who are going to have to figure out the fall no matter how it plays out?

S2: I’ve talked to some of them, you know, and they’re doing professional development and everybody says it’s going to be better. You know, we’ll see. I have a story that’s that’s just posting now about a class of sophomores taking AP world history in the spring. And I followed them over the course, the spring, as they did Romo learning and at a very high poverty school in San Francisco and were preparing also for this high stakes test. At the same time and, you know, there were certain things that got mentioned over and over again, like two people have computers, do people have Internet access? And those were real issues. But there were just so many other issues that came up in this reporting that I don’t really know if people have figured out how to solve. Like what? Well, like for some kids, it was just like an extreme social isolation. You know, one of the kids who I spent a lot of time talking to, his name is Ryan, was just really just lonely, you know, missing. And then so as a result, he was up till like 2:00, 3:00 in the morning every night playing video games with his friends online, because that was his connection. It was the only way he could connect to his friends, talk to other people who had to spend hours every day caring for their younger siblings or nieces and nephews who were living with them. You know, families who living together. You know, one one girl who I talked to, she had I think she has three siblings and a niece and parents and they were all doing online school at the same time. The Wi-Fi would get really taxed by all these people and she would have to spend a lot of time watching her year old D while her sister was doing her own online classes. Another kid who has a little baby sister, he’s a sophomore in high school, but he has a two year old sister and his mom is busy trying to kind of keep the family together. And he’s watching her all day, almost all day long. So, I mean, this is the this is the kind of stuff that is not easily solved by anybody, frankly.

S3: Yeah. Especially like a principal or a teacher. They just can watch it over, zoom and display.

S2: Exactly. And the zoom thing also. I mean, this teacher was incredible on the Zamzam, Eric Nielsen. I really enjoyed getting to know him over the course of this reporting. And, you know, he had so much material he was trying to cover. And normally he would meet with these kids, you know, for one period a day. And I think he had some double periods along the line and it got reduced to the only life lessons he had was like one hour a week. And they did that because they didn’t want kids having to be like staring at the computer all day long. But now that meant that instead of having, you know, say, you know, five or six hours of class time, he had one hour. And he also said that like he was you know, he’s used to sort of really reading the room when he’s teaching, you know, acting stuff out and seeing when kids are kind of getting sleepy and when and who’s not getting in and who is in it calling on people randomly. And now he’s like, now it’s just me with a PowerPoint, you know, often kids would have their cameras off. So we couldn’t really even see any even see a face, even though he would encourage them to keep their cameras on. And then when people did have their cameras on, sometimes, you know, embarrassing things would happen. There’d be fights behind them in the background or stuff in their house that might be a little bit embarrassing to their peers. You know, so there was just a lot a lot of complicating factors that he found as he was trying to really he wasn’t giving up at all. I mean, there is a little a lot of a lot of districts, frankly, did kind of give up. But in this case, he had a teacher who was so committed and was working so hard to make this work. It was just really, really challenging. You know, when he can’t even see these kids, it has so little time to teach.

S3: You know, other countries have sent their kids back to school. Places like Denmark, are there people in the U.S. looking at those other countries for guidelines here?

S2: Yeah, there’s a lot of looking at what’s happened in other countries. And in fact, people who advocate opening schools have said, hey, it’s gone all right in other countries. The problem is you don’t have the surge in cases. I mean, I think that if we had not had this recent surge, if things were like the way it looked like, say, in early June, where it seemed like it was kind of tailing off, I think this would be a lot easier conversation. I think that the case for going back would be a lot stronger. The problem is across the Sunbelt in California, Texas, huge states, Florida, you’ve got such rising numbers of infections. So that’s what makes it so hard. So you don’t really have that is not the case in some in in most of these other countries at the times when they were reopening schools.

S3: Yeah, that’s a really good point. The fact that, like, we’re in a very particular place right now, we’ve got the clock ticking for schools, but we’ve also got this. If you want to call it a second wave. A second wave happening.

S2: Yeah. And that’s why this is a hard problem. It’s not just like one point of view is the obvious, right. One. And everybody else doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I mean, there are legitimate points on all sides. And that’s you’ve basically got, you know, more than 13000 school districts in the U.S. You’re serving fifty six million kids who are having to navigate this, essentially one at a time.

S6: Laura Meckler, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks so much for having me. Laura Meckler is a national education writer at The Washington Post. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewitt and Mary Wilson. We get wisdom from Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. And I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.