The Latest Updates About The Pandemic's Impact On Back-To-School Season

Published August 19, 2021 at 7:55 AM EDT
Students and parents arrive at Grant Elementary School in Los Angeles for the first day of school.
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Students and parents arrive for the first day of the school year at Grant Elementary School in Los Angeles on Monday.

Good morning,

Today we have our eyes on students of all ages as they adjust to yet another year of uncertainty. Follow the back-to-school updates below for a mix of the latest news and what you need to know about the pandemic's impact on this important transition, including:

🎧 Also on 1A from WAMU and NPR, can special education make up for lost time?

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Nell Clark, Sneha Dey, Tori Dominguez, Dana Farrington, Alexandra Rivasplata, Rachel Treisman, Nicole Hernandez, Emily Alfin Johnson, Casey Noenickx, Jeffrey Pierre and Carol Ritchie)

Just In

The Department Of Education Is Discharging Student Loans For Thousands Of Borrowers With Disabilities

Posted August 19, 2021 at 11:13 AM EDT
A view from below as people toss their graduation caps into the cloudy blue sky.
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The U.S. Department of Education is discharging the outstanding student loans of more than 323,000 borrowers.

Today, the U.S. Department of Education is discharging the outstanding student loans of more than 323,000 borrowers who have significant, permanent disabilities, and says it will remove barriers for borrowers with disabilities who qualify for this relief in the future. It marks a significant step toward fixing a troubled debt-relief program meant to help borrowers with disabilities.

The announcement today affects hundreds of thousands of borrowers who qualify for the federal Total and Permanent Disability Discharge program, which is meant to wipe out the student loans of Americans who can no longer work due to a significant disability. But, until now, borrowers who qualified for the program had to apply for the relief -- though many didn’t even know it existed. Starting today, relief will be automatic for those who are identified through a data match with the Social Security Administration.

The department will also propose eliminating a significant hurdle for those borrowers who have been approved for loan discharge. Approved borrowers currently have to go through a three-year income monitoring period, during which many people had their loans reinstated through no fault of their own. The department said today it will stop sending these borrowers requests for income information during this period and will pursue doing away with it entirely during upcoming negotiated rulemaking.

NPR’s reporting on this program over the past two years has shown that just a fraction of eligible borrowers have been getting the relief they’re eligible for.

“Today’s action removes a major barrier that prevented far too many borrowers with disabilities from receiving the total and permanent disability discharges they are entitled to under the law,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.


📚These Books Got Us Through College. They Might Help You, Too

Posted August 19, 2021 at 11:06 AM EDT
A person reads a book in a bookshop surrounded by shelves.
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A student reads a book in Blackwell bookshop on October 8, 2009 in Oxford, England.

College can sometimes feel like a one-way track: You need to study to do well in this class, to get this internship, to get a good reference, to get this job, etcetera forever. Then you graduate and it’s on with your life! And all along the way you're finding yourself challenged and growing as a person.

So, as college students prepare for classes to restart soon, we picked out five books to help you navigate that track.

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney - Watching the beautiful and frustrating relationship at the heart of this novel will touch anyone wondering if a masked stranger in their own life could be the beginning of a tragic love story.
  • Franny and Zooey by J.D Salinger - This book will help you through the toughest conversations — even those you may be having with yourself. It pointedly explores issues surrounding religion, family and academia/intellectualism.
  • Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed - An advice column turned book (also turned WBUR podcast!), you’ll find powerful wisdom and mentorship on every page. It's best read with care and time, as you may feel the need to revisit it in times of metamorphosis.   
  • Know My Name by Chanel Miller - As previously recommended in our top nonfiction audiobooks, this is a powerful memoir that will take you along a journey navigating the trauma of sexual assault, frustrations along the path of seeking justice and the strength it takes to rebuild a life.

Want more book recommendations from NPR? We've got you covered (for a very long time) with our Book Concierge.


More Than 12,000 Students And Staff In A Florida District Have Isolated Or Quarantined

Posted August 19, 2021 at 10:46 AM EDT

In the Hillsborough County Public Schools District in Florida, more than 12,000 staff and students have had to either isolate or quarantine — just one week into the school year.

There have been more than 2,000 reported cases of coronavirus, including more than 1,500 students, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard.

On Wednesday, the Hillsborough school board voted to make masks mandatory for all students and staff without an approved medical exemption for the next 30 days.

NPR member station WUSF notes that cases are up across Florida this first week of school compared to last year. This year the highly contagious delta variant is a factor. Plus: Remote learning was not funded by the state this year, so classes are more crowded.

See how your state is doing with NPR's case tracker.


In A Huge Source Of Hope, HBCUs Are Using Federal Funds To Erase Student Debt

Posted August 19, 2021 at 10:31 AM EDT
Graduates from 2020 and 2021 during the 137th Commencement at Morehouse College are seen on May 16 in Atlanta.
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Graduates from 2020 and 2021 during the 137th Commencement at Morehouse College are seen on May 16 in Atlanta.

The CARES Act of March 2020 gave $1 billion to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

And more than 20 of the country's roughly 100 HBCUs are using this money to help pay of student debt.

It's a huge win for both the students and schools, as NPR's Deepa Shivaram reports. She notes that student debt affects Black students differently than their white peers, and that the low graduation rates — which HBCUs face criticism for — are directly tied to students not being able to afford their education.

Carrington Wigham was one of thousands of students at Florida A&M University who got her debt erased. She said she is now feels much more hopeful that her future will be bright.

"Sometimes people feel like giving up, people feel discouraged but when little miracles like this happen, it's reassurance, for sure," she added.

Read the full story here.

College During COVID

Colleges Students Move In And Bring Their COVID Anxiety With Them

Posted August 19, 2021 at 10:08 AM EDT
Ariana Huey stands on an indoor track and takes a COVID-19 test.
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Ariana Huey, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, takes a saliva-based COVID-19 test upon arrival on campus.

It's move-in week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. That means excited students hugging friends, lots of trips to the car for more boxes, and new this year for returning Huskers — mandatory COVID-19 tests.

This sprawling university of about 20,000 undergraduates, nestled in the Great Plains, was hoping — like many colleges — for a normal fall semester. But as millions of college students descend on campuses throughout the U.S., the delta variant is raging, raising questions about how to pull this off without outbreaks.

"It's a little scary, because of delta," says Maria Huey, who is here to move her daughter Ariana, a sophomore, into campus for the first time. Ariana attended college from home in San Antonio last year, and though mom and daughter are both vaccinated and wearing masks, there's still some hesitancy at being on a big campus with so many other people.

"Walking around here, there's not many people with masks and that's pretty scary for me. Back home, everybody wears masks ... So, yeah, we've had to be even more careful."
Maria Huey, mother of Ariana Huey, a sophomore at University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Click here to read the full story on what college move-in is like during the pandemic.


From Dunk Tanks to Puppies, Colleges Are Rewarding Students Who Get Vaccinated

Posted August 19, 2021 at 9:55 AM EDT
A colorful illustration shows a man sitting in a dunk tank, slices of pizza and a group of puppies.
Ana Galvañ for NPR
Colleges are offering all sorts of incentives to get students vaccinated against COVID-19.

As college students prepare to head to campus this fall, some schools are pulling out all the stops to get them vaccinated against COVID-19.

Most undergraduates are part of an age group with low vaccination rates. So colleges are offering all kinds of vaccination incentives in the hopes of preventing outbreaks and a potential return to remote classes.

One university promised to bring back “puppy therapy” once its campus is 70% vaccinated, and dunk its president in a water tank once they reach 90%. NPR's Elissa Nadwornyruns us through a few others here: football tickets, free laptops, a drink named after them at a campus coffee shop and thousands of dollars in tuition costs.

However, incentives only go so far. For example, Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, made vaccines a requirement after their offers of cash rewards and free tuition failed to bump students' vaccination rate up. It increased from around 73% to 98%.

Batool Ibrahim, a student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, spoke to NPR about the hurdles her college is facing:

"We're battling with students that are coming from states where a mask mandate is banned ... or they're coming from states where the vaccine is more than questioned, it's a conspiracy," Ibrahim says.

To learn more about how how incentives are working and where they're falling short, read this piece from NPR Education Desk intern Sneha Day.


Teachers In Washington State Must Get Vaccinated — Or They Could Be Fired

Posted August 19, 2021 at 9:44 AM EDT
A medical professional in blue scrubs gives a vaccine dose to a person. Both wear black face masks.
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Nurse practitioner Tara Biller administers a COVID-19 vaccination during a clinic June 16, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. The clinic was part of a state program that allows cannabis retailers to offer one free pre-rolled joint as an incentive to get vaccinated.

All K-12 teachers and staff in Washington state, including public, private and charter school employees, could be fired if they aren't fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued the order Wednesday, which also applies to higher education institutions and most child care facilities in the state. Washington now has stricter and more decisive requirements than many other places in the U.S.

“This is a serious issue. This is not some suggestion or whimsical idea we’re floating. It is a job requirement.”
Washington Governor Jay Inslee

Washington's mandate is wide-ranging: It applies to anyone working in a school environment, including bus drivers, coaches and volunteers. If employees don't comply, they could be subject to dismissal. Exemptions for religious or medical reasons will be allowed, but "personal or philosophical exemptions" aren't acceptable, according to Inslee.

Inslee announced the order likely impacts about 118,000 workers in early-learning and child care programs, and about 90,000 employees in higher education institutions.

The vaccine requirement doesn't apply to any students or to tribal schools, but Inslee also issued a new indoor mask requirement for all residents ages 5 and up, set to go into effect Monday..

In Washington, the spread of the delta variant is driving up infection rates.As of Aug. 9, Washington averaged 2,665 cases per day, and Inslee reports over 95% of COVID-related hospitalizations in the state are among unvaccinated people.

Read more on the requirements here from KUOW.

Mental Health

Heading (Back) To College? Check Out These Tips From NPR's Life Kit

Posted August 19, 2021 at 9:30 AM EDT
An illustration shows the scene from above as two people sit over a table covered with open and closed notebooks and a laptop.
Paige Vickers for NPR
NPR's Life Kit offers tips and resources for just about any situation, including college.

Attention, college students.

A new academic year is upon us, and that's both exciting and overwhelming — whether you're starting your first year of school, your first year on campus or your first semester back after a stretch of remote learning.

Our friends at Life Kit have a bunch of tips and resources just for you, and we've compiled a list of some of our favorites below. Check these out and share them with the college kids in your life!


Most Parents Support School Mask Mandates But Oppose Vaccine Requirements

Posted August 19, 2021 at 9:19 AM EDT
Students with masks behind safety barriers
Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images
Student wear facemasks as they attend their first day in school after summer vacation at the St. Lawrence Catholic School in north of Miami on Wednesday.

As millions of children head back to classrooms, parents are trying to track mask mandates and other COVID-19 school safety protocols. Most U.S. parents support mask mandates in schools, but are against vaccine requirements for eligible students, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey finds.

Opinions on masks and vaccines

Across the country, some state leaders are demanding schools make face coverings optional. But more than 6 in 10 parents of school-age kids would like to see their children’s school institute a mask mandate for unvaccinated students and staff.

At the same time, 58% of parents are against schools requiring students ages 12-17 to get the vaccine, according to the KFF survey. Vaccination rates among teenagers remain low. Only about 1 in 3 children aged 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children under 12 are not yet approved to get vaccines.

What parents say about safety protocols

With regards to COVID-19 testing in schools, a RAND Corporation survey finds that 51% of parents would take advantage of voluntary, free weekly testing, and 75% supported symptomatic testing.

As the delta variant surges, most parents are still sending their kids back to school buildings, the RAND survey finds. But parents also want more information about the safety protocols in place at schools.

According to the RAND survey, only 27% of parents said that they already knew the specific COVID-19 safety measures their child’s school will use. Sixty percent of parents wanted to know more about which COVID-19 safety measures their child’s school is enacting this fall.

Race And Identity

A Guide To Critical Race Theory

Posted August 19, 2021 at 8:40 AM EDT
A group of people stands on a grassy field, facing away from the camera. A bench is covered in signs reading things like "STOP Teaching Critical Racist Theory To Our Kids" and "We The Parents Stand Up!"
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Demonstrators gathered at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12 to protest "critical race theory" being taught in local schools.

There’s been a lot of talk the last few months about critical race theory, which NPR politics reporter Alana Wise concisely defines as “an academic attempt to square public policy with the racial and racist factors that have shaped the law.” Here she is explaining the debate while solving a Rubik’s cube:

The debate is political: Some Republican lawmakers decry what they label as critical race theory as unfairly divisive , while Democrats maintain the country can’t make progress without examining the root causes of disparity. It's becoming a major cultural battle ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

And it's also playing out in schools. In Tennessee, for example, the state’s education department is proposing a new law that would limit how teachers address race, sex and privilege at school — and could rescind their teaching licenses if they’ve been found to violate it.

“This law is a disservice to our students because as part of that well-rounded education, we have to have conversations about difficult but important topics,” Beth Brown, the president of the Tennessee Education Association, told NPR this month.

🎧Why one of the first academics to apply critical race theory in education believes anti-CRT bills are misguided.

Earlier this summer, while the debate around critical race theory was in full swing, a 377-page review of states’ U.S. history and civics standards offered us some very comprehensive context. These learning standards guide curriculum, textbooks and teaching itself, and can reveal a lot about states’ values. Reviewers rated each state’s learning standards, assigning them a letter grade (how fitting) for things like depth and clarity.

Cory Turner of NPR's Education Desk walked us through that report card, and explained how strong standards can help teachers navigate anti-CRT laws. Get the full story here.


Yik Yak, The Anonymous Messaging App Shuttered in 2017, Is Back. What’s Different Now?

Posted August 19, 2021 at 8:30 AM EDT

If you or someone you know attended high school or college in the past decade, you might remember Yik Yak, the anonymous gossip app that swept campuses across the nation. The platform shut down in 2017, after a string of controversies around its lack of moderation of cyberbullying and hate speech.

Four years later, Yik Yak is back (so far only for iOS users in the U.S.), this time with new owners who have pledged to take a stronger stance against online abuse.

"On the new Yik Yak, it's against the Community Guardrails to post bullying messages or use hate speech, make threats, or share anyone's private information," the company says on its website, adding that users who violate guidelines can be permanently banned from the app.

Yik Yak’s return elicited mixed responses — and lots of memes — on Twitter, where some users reflected on the app’s controversial past:

To learn more about Yik Yak’s attempt to "grow the herd" again, read this story from NPR's Jonathan Franklin.

Back To The Classroom

Students Are Trying To Get Back On Track After A Major Disruption In Special Education Services

Posted August 19, 2021 at 8:20 AM EDT
Four yellow school buses are lined up side-by-side under a blue sky.
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School buses parked at a bus depot in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn on November 19, 2020 in New York City.

Remote learning has been especially disruptive for the roughly 7 million children who receive special education services in the U.S.

Things like modified instruction, behavioral counseling, as well as speech and physical therapy, went virtual during the pandemic or else completely disappeared for many.

As NPR's Cory Turner and freelance journalist Rebecca Klein reported in June, many families were devastated to watch their kids lose academic, social and physical skills as the months ticked by, and began calling on schools to make up for the vital services that they missed. Check out their powerful reporting here.

Flash forward a few months, and the show 1A from NPR and member station WAMU just took another look at how the pandemic has changed special education and what students need to get back on track.

🎧 Here's what their roundtable of experts and educators had to say.


Back-To-School Spending Is Poised To Break Records This Year

Posted August 19, 2021 at 8:12 AM EDT
A large pencil-shaped sign reading "School Shop" hangs above rows of store shelves stocked with boxes of snack foods.
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A Target store offered school supplies in Aug. 2020 in Colma, California. A year later, families are poised to spend even more money as students head back into classrooms during a COVID-19 surge.

Back-to-school shopping last year was more like work-from-home buying. This year, families are preparing for a return to the classroom and a possible switch back to remote learning, too. Many are catching up on the clothes shopping they skipped last year, especially for kids whose growth spurts coincided with the pandemic.

Families are already spending much more money on clothes, electronics and school supplies than a year ago. In fact, the National Retail Federation expects back-to-school spending to top $37 billion this season, setting a new record.

The numbers can reveal a lot more than just which clothing brands are in and how many people are overdue for a new cellphone.

As NPR business correspondent Alina Selyukh reports, the industry is watching back-to-school shopping as a key bellwether for economic recovery. Get the full story here. Plus:

  • Families may be able to fill their shopping carts higher this year because of the increased child tax credit included in the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan. Monthly payments began in July, though families can choose to opt out. (A new survey shows the expanded credit coincided with a quick drop in the number of U.S. households reporting hunger.)
  • People may also be spending more in part because some goods just cost more. Consumer prices have hit a 13-year high, and wages are up, too. NPR business reporter David Gura flags four factors that could determine the country’s economic trajectory.
Mask Battles

3 States Where School Leaders Are Defiantly Sticking With Mask Mandates

Posted August 19, 2021 at 7:48 AM EDT
Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla., on Aug. 10.
Chris O'Meara/AP
Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla., on Aug. 10.

School superintendents in Florida, Texas and Arizona are standing firm against state leaders who say masks shouldn't be mandated in classrooms as students and teachers head back into school.

Most school-age children are not yet vaccinated against the coronavirus. Students under 12 aren't currently eligible for the vaccine, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccination rates for older kids are still far behind those of adults.

Here’s where mask fights stand in three key states:

In Florida, school is in session — and already chaotic.

In late July, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order aimed at preventing schools from adopting mask mandates. On Tuesday, Florida's Board of Education authorized the education commissioner to investigate districts that require universal mask-wearing and potentially to withhold state funding.

In Miami-Dade County, the largest school district in Florida voted to mandate masks for the school year on Wednesday night.

“The stakes are too high for us to not do everything we can to ensure the safety of our children,” school board member Marta Perez said during the meeting, NPR member station WLRN reports.

In Alachua County, school started last week with mask mandates in place. Carlee Simon, superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, told NPR'sAll Things Considered last week that people from around the world have contacted her about fundraising to make up for any future financial penalties from the state.

"I believe that there's a lot of people who are watching, and they're concerned," she said. "And they don't want people to let go of their principles because they're worried about money."

In Texas, the standoff plays out in court.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott banned mask mandates in an executive order this spring, but as in Florida, a handful of school districts in the state — including Dallas, Austin and San Antonio — have announced masking requirements anyway.

School districts are now caught in the middle of a legal tug of war: On Sunday, the Texas Supreme Court issued a temporary order to stop Dallas County and Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, from mandating face coverings. While some school districts have walked back their masking plans, classes began in Dallas on Monday with a mask mandate still in place.

Adding to confusion is the fact that the state Supreme Court ruling wasn't the final word: It allowed a district court hearing on Monday to proceed — and thatjudge ruled that schools in Bexar County and the city of San Antonio can require masks for the time being.

A numberof lawsuitsnow challenge the state's ban on mask mandates.

One Arizona district can keep its mandate — for now.

The budget that the Arizona Legislature passed this summer includes a prohibition on mask mandates in schools, but, for the time being, that prohibition is not holding some school districts back from enforcing their requirements for face coverings.

On Monday, a judge in Arizona declined to step in to stop Phoenix Union High School District, which serves almost 30,000 students, from keeping its mask mandate.

A handful of other districts, including Tempe Union High School District, announced their own maskrequirements after the ruling. (NPR member station KJZZ has the history behind the Phoenix legal battle here.)

📕 Read more on all of these mask fights from the NPR Ed team.

The Biden Administration

What The Education Department Says It Will Do To Support Masks In Schools

Posted August 19, 2021 at 7:36 AM EDT

President Biden is reiterating his support for school districts where local leaders are defying their governors' orders to ban mask mandates.

In a briefing yesterday, he directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to do more to protect students and staff — including "using all of his oversight authorities and legal action, if appropriate, against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators."

Cardona later published a blog post outlining the ways in which the Education Department is working to meet that call. He stressed that the department "has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally."

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, wearing a suit and yellow tie, stands at a wooden podium in front of an American flag and a blue oval sign with the White House logo.
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Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona spoke at a White House briefing on August 5, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

There's also the matter of using federal funds to support in-person learning, as Cardona stressed in letters to Florida and Texas officials last week — and six more states yesterday.

The American Rescue Plan requires districts to use emergency relief funding to plan for the safe return to classrooms — and Cardona said that federal relief funding could be used to pay the salary of school staff if their state enacts financial penalties for having mask mandates.

"Let me be clear," Cardona concluded. "This Department will continue to use every tool in our toolbox to protect the health and safety of students and educators and to maximize in-person learning as the new school year begins."

Race And Identity

How Students, And Schools, Have Changed After A Year Of Racial Reckoning

Posted August 19, 2021 at 7:23 AM EDT
A school bus has "Black Lives Matter" written on it with the names Philando Castile and Trayvon Martin.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
A school bus drives past demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd in Bethesda, Md., on June 2, 2020.

2020 wasn’t just the year of remote learning — it was also a time of tremendous pain and protest in the fight for racial justice.

Students across the country got involved, taking to social media and city streets to push for an end to structural racism and police brutality. NPR’s Education Desk profiled five of these inspirational student activists, who you should read about here.

And the return to in-person learning this spring lent itself to additional forms of protest, like when students from a dozen Minnesota schools organized walkouts after the police killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright.

The country’s racial reckoning has shaped many students, teachers and school districts.

Take the story of 13-year-old Natalie McCray of Alpharetta, Ga. McCray. McCray, who is Black, started speaking up about racism on social media while classes were virtual. She both lost and gained friendships as she found her voice, and returned to school last week a different person than she was in March 2020.

So what happens now, after 17 months of disruption and development?

We know that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted minorities and widened learning gaps for communities of color, low-income students, homeless students and those with disabilities.

But, as Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Elizabeth Miller reported in March, remote learning did present an opportunity for some Black students to thrive, outside of school environments where they didn’t always feel welcome or comfortable.

She brought us the story of one of those students, eighth-grader Josh Secrett, as well as expert tips on what schools can do to make in-person learning a better experience for everyone.

Those include hiring more teachers of color, offering a curriculum that reflects students’ culture and history, training current teachers to understand their biases and forming groups where marginalized students can share their stories.

For more resources, check out this Q&A on how to teach kids about Black lives and police violence.