RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Schools are saying no. An increasing number of school districts and universities around the country are saying it's just too dangerous to teach students in person. We'll talk about how these decisions are taking shape in higher ed in a few moments. But first, what is school going to be like for K-12 students? President Trump and his education secretary have repeatedly urged schools to reopen in the fall even as the outbreak rages and cases rise in many parts of the U.S.
Last night, Virginia's largest school district, Fairfax County, announced its 190,000 students will start the school year entirely virtual with no in-person instruction. Georgia's biggest districts have said the same. Gwinnett County Public Schools in the Atlanta area had planned a mix of face-to-face and virtual learning. This week, they changed course. And Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks is on the line with us now. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.
J ALVIN WILBANKS: Thank you. Glad to be with you.
MARTIN: What changed your mind and made you decide to go all virtual?
WILBANKS: Well, I think we all understand that face-to-face instructions is always a preferred model. But that needs to be done at this time with a pretty good assurance that students and staff will be safe, and we did not feel like that was the case. We have waited as close to the beginning of school as we could to make that decision. And quite frankly, every decision we make has some possibility of being modified or changed. And - but we felt like that the best way was to open digitally. And that's what we plan to do.
MARTIN: Before you made your announcement, the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, said again that he wants Georgia kids back in schools in person. I want to play a clip from what he said Friday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BRIAN KEMP: There's bad outcomes of not having kids in classes from a nutrition standpoint, child abuse, human trafficking, you know, and other things that go on. So I'm a believer that kids need to be in the classroom.
MARTIN: Which you just agreed with, right? We know that for so many kids, school is where they are safe, let alone where they are able to actually learn better. But can you explain what measures you are planning to take to try and minimize negative effects on the neediest kids?
WILBANKS: First of all, the governor's comments were on target. What we know is that we have a number of students that do not have reliable Internet service. Some don't have any Internet service. However, we've been working with some community groups to make sure that we have hot spots and those different ways to connect to the Internet. We are also - as we did the last nine weeks of school, we loan those students and those households Chromebooks. That's - you probably know what those are, small computers. And we are tending to do that. As a matter of fact, we are purchasing more Chromebooks.
So we will try to make sure that not only do they have devices but we're going to do more personal contact with those students. And then special ed students is another case. We know that we need to do some things very differently. I met with the special ed director and his person he reports to yesterday. And they're planning a number of things that will beef up our service to the special ed students. Again, nothing beats face-to-face instructions.
MARTIN: But what I hear you saying is that you can't guarantee that every student has reliable Internet in their homes. And they may have to go to parking lots in order to access hot spots just to get online.
WILBANKS: I cannot guarantee that. But we think, for the most part, if they have accepted one of the plans that we have, most everybody will be - will have access.
MARTIN: Let me ask you - what about teachers who are going to have to report to their schools to actually give these digital lessons? That's what's happening in your county. What if they have kids? What are the teachers who are also parents supposed to do with their own children?
WILBANKS: Well, we can't assume the responsibility for child care. But we also don't want to make that difficult for people, whether they're a teacher or people that have jobs and have children. But what we plan to do is to allow the teachers to bring school-age children to school. And they'll be - they can be in their room during the day.
MARTIN: Which is going to be hard because there'll be distractions - but I guess you just have to make the best of the situation. I want to ask you, are you worried about political blowback? I mean, can the governor withhold funding from the county because of your decision?
WILBANKS: I'm not worried about that. I certainly want to get students back in school for face-to-face instructions as quickly as possible.
MARTIN: Do you know how you will decide that? I mean, how long are you willing to keep kids out?
WILBANKS: Well, we will continue to monitor it as we do and have been. And once we feel that it's safe to do so, we will pivot back to in-school instructions. And we can do that on a day's notice.
MARTIN: I hear you're saying it depends on community transmission. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia. Thank you.
WILBANKS: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. 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.