RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is the pandemic itself and then the economic disaster it has brought. But there's another crisis that's building to a crescendo this week: how to educate America's children. Here's what's been happening just in the past couple days. President Trump met with education officials at the White House and said schools must open for full-time, in-person classes. On Twitter yesterday, he said he might cut funding to schools that don't do that. After Trump blasted the CDC guidelines on school openings as too strict, Vice President Mike Pence then said the CDC would issue new looser guidance next week. Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York schools would not open their doors full time as the president wants but instead would do a mix of in-person and distance learning.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BILL DE BLASIO: Here's the deal. For the vast majority of kids and the vast majority of schools, you'll be going to school, to the classroom either two days a week or three days a week, depending on the week.
MARTIN: So for the next few minutes, we're going to hear a range of views and perspectives on America's education crisis. And our guide through all this is Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team. Good morning, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So there are so many decisions that have to be made when it comes to schools reopening. Let's start with the big ones, whether they can open to in-person learning. How much control does the Trump administration really have here?
KAMENETZ: Well, not much, Rachel. I mean, this is the uniqueness of our school system. It's so decentralized. There are 14,000 districts across the country. And every single one is trying to sort through guidance - not directives - from governments, from states, from experts, from educators, as well as local health information. So, for example, the current CDC guidance says you should socially distance and group kids into small pods to reduce the spread of coronavirus. And that is really driving this drastic reduction in face time that schools, like in New York City, are announcing, you know, just two days a week because they need to rotate small groups of children in and out of the schools to reduce class sizes.
On the other hand, you know, districts are listening to parents and teachers. And a significant chunk - like, about 1 in 4 teachers nationwide - are saying we don't want to come back. You know, they may have preexisting conditions. They may be elderly. And that's also forcing schools to contemplate doing remote learning in parallel with their reduced face time classes.
MARTIN: Which means making sure kids have technology, which is its own problem. I mean, I want to drill down on what parents are seeing and processing through all this. You've been having several different conversations. What have you been hearing?
KAMENETZ: Right. So, you know, and obviously, I'm going through this myself as well, right? I talked to Ashley Ruiz. She's a mother of two in South Florida. And she says she and her mom friends have all learned through this...
ASHLEY RUIZ: We're all horrible teachers. Like, we now all recognize that, you know, teachers need to be paid, like, a million dollars, like, in cash, like, tax-free because of what they do. It's just invaluable to our lives.
MARTIN: I know you know that. I myself have experienced that for sure.
KAMENETZ: (Laughter) Yes, absolutely. And for Ruiz, in particular, her younger son is on the autism spectrum. And he receives all these services through school - speech therapy, occupational - that just are not easy to translate online, if at all. But at the same time, she's too scared to send her kids back right now with cases spiking in Florida.
RUIZ: How can I send my kids to school and do it safely? I just - I don't see that, not for Florida.
MARTIN: Which is the question so many parents are asking. They want answers from school leaders, like the person that we are about to hear from. We reached out to Mike Looney. He's the superintendent of Fulton County Public Schools in Georgia. We wanted to understand how he's making decisions for his school community right now. Let's listen.
President Trump is saying now that schools must provide full-time, in-person classes when the school year begins. Is that feasible for you?
MIKE LOONEY: Well, it's certainly what we're hoping to be able to do. We have presented our community with a choice of face-to-face instruction, albeit it's going to be different moving forward. And then we're also providing our families with a virtual remote learning option.
MARTIN: So families will have a choice. What about teachers? How do you take into account their own health concerns?
LOONEY: Well, I will tell you, one of the complexities of this work, obviously, is our teachers, as you very well know, are on average of the age that puts them in a little bit higher risk category based on the data that we've seen. And they are expressing significant concerns. I am having teachers that are deciding to retire at this point in time and teachers that are asking to be selected for the remote learning option. All of the modeling that we've done and our current plan that's been submitted to that community is predicated on the level of community spread that makes it safe for us to return to school.
MARTIN: So you're having to be very fluid right now. Can we get into the particulars of how you are trying to make in-person learning safe for teachers and students?
LOONEY: So our plan is to redesign the school day for students where we can keep them in small groups. And to your point, it is a very, very fluid situation because we simply don't know. We've also come up with a school closing matrix, so that when we are able to return to school, what is it that we're going to do when a positive case presents itself? And so we've shared our plan with the community about how we will go about dealing with that situation.
MARTIN: Let me ask more about that. I've looked at this matrix. And it accounts for community outbreaks and then outlines what your response would be if the risk in the community is present but low. You know, you would close the school for a certain amount of hours to turn it around, to give it a deep cleaning. And the matrix goes all the way up to if there's a very severe community risk and how many days or weeks or even months you might close the school as a result. The takeaway for me after looking at that is that your community, your district, is just going to have to sit in this uncomfortable reality of open, close, open, close, this sort of dance.
LOONEY: What I have tried to communicate is that who's really in control is our community, right? So all we can do is simply respond to the environment that we've been given in order to operate. So we also have to take the level of community spread that's happening to inform our decision. And that's the purpose of the matrix. And so we're trying to develop common language around what a closing is and why a closing is being made and how long a closing is for. So rather than talking about individual students and or employees, we can simply say we're in an L1 situation, which is a single case in a single school. And that's happening in the context of the low level of community spread and therefore, our reaction is this.
Whereas if we happen to be in an S4 situation, which is substantial community spread, and we have multiple schools and multiple students and/or employees, then our reaction is this. And we don't have to go into the details of who and where and that sort of thing, trying to develop a common language for our community so they understand the context in which our decisions are being made.
MARTIN: I imagine it's also part of your message that it's the society that, you know, whether or not people abide by social distancing and masking. I mean, those are the kind of things that will determine whether or not you're able to open.
LOONEY: What we're doing today is going to impact what school looks like on August the 17. And so, you know, we are not going to compromise the safety of our students and our staff. And so the more that our community does today, the higher the likelihood of us opening on schedule and traditional face to face instruction.
MARTIN: You're doing all this with some serious budget cuts. I mean, how much is your district going to be down this year as compared with last? And where do you think you're going to feel the hit?
LOONEY: Well, the state's funding has been cut about $26 million just for my district alone, so it is a difficult time. We're trying to not only continue to provide the same quality of instruction and services that we have in the past without, you know, laying off people or furloughing people because of budget cuts. And so far, our plan is holding, but we just don't know how sustainable that is over time.
MARTIN: What do you do about kids who live in particular districts that have been hard-hit by the virus? If you end up having to close schools in those neighborhoods because of a community outbreak, aren't those kids going to be left further behind in the education system?
LOONEY: Well, I'll say this. First of all, remote learning, virtual learning does not offer the same rigor or depth that traditional face-to-face instruction. With that being said, we have been working on building wraparound services to our families in greatest need, certainly providing hotspots and digital resources. But also, we have social workers that are following up with those families. We're providing meals to those families.
And, you know, we have so many people working hard to make sure that we don't lose ground with our most vulnerable students, but the reality of it is we will. And so we have already implemented a plan this summer to help those students begin catching up. And we think that, you know, assuming that COVID goes away this first semester, that our recovery process is two years at least to make up the lost ground that we've had.
MARTIN: Two years at least. That was Michael Looney. He's the superintendent of Fulton County Public Schools in Georgia. NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz is still with me. Anya, what is important for us to take away from what he said?
KAMENETZ: Well, Rachel, first of all, what really struck me about Mr. Looney is that he is communicating as a leader with his community. They're talking about a lot of uncertainty, but he's doing it in such a clear way. And that really is, I think, designed to inspire trust. It also illustrates how this conversation about school is not happening in a vacuum, right? So without suppressing the spread of coronavirus in communities, you cannot open schools safely. Schools are going to have to close again when cases are rising in the community. And then the other bit about budget cuts - right? - so how are we supporting schools or how are we not supporting schools in this unprecedented situation, right? So another person I talked to, Kirk Hansen, a middle school teacher in Florida, he made this point.
KIRK HANSEN: The story of public education is inadequate funding. And we are supposed to come back to an environment where we don't know what's happening. And we're supposed to do it on limited funds. And I think it's just - it's going to be a fiasco.
KAMENETZ: So we're hearing Trump and many Republicans calling so forcefully for schools to reopen, but that bailout package money that's been passed by the House, that is not really forthcoming right now in any clear way to actually pay for it.
MARTIN: All right. Anya Kamenetz with NPR's education team walking through all these questions. Thank you, Anya.
KAMENETZ: Thank you, Rachel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.