How one superintendent plans to reopen her schools : The Indicator from Planet Money The question of whether to reopen schools or educate children at home is medically sensitive, logistically complicated and politically fraught. How one superintendent is handling it.
NPR logo

Opening Schools: Mission Impossible

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/908922754/908934668" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Opening Schools: Mission Impossible

Opening Schools: Mission Impossible

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/908922754/908934668" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

It is back-to-school season.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Of course, this year, it's more like back-to-school season.

GARCIA: Yeah, back to - maybe - school season.

VANEK SMITH: Maybe school.

GARCIA: Yeah. A lot of schools are still wrestling with the question of just how to have school. Will it be online classes only? Will there be in-person teaching, some kind of mix? And it is a really emotional topic. Every state is handling it differently.

VANEK SMITH: There is a ton of pressure from every side. In Indiana, for instance, state lawmakers really wanted to see kids back in school. Parents were saying, we need this. We need this so we can go back to work, also to get the best education for our kids, start getting back to normal a little bit.

GARCIA: So state lawmakers told the schools, hey, you need to open for in-person learning or, otherwise, you could see your state funding cut by 15%.

VANEK SMITH: Dr. Flora Reichanadter remembers this moment very well. She is a superintendent of schools in Indianapolis for Pike Township.

FLORA REICHANADTER: We are a met a majority minority district. We have 85 different languages spoken in our schools.

GARCIA: Eighty-five languages and 11,000 kids in grades K through 12 - that's a lot.

VANEK SMITH: So Flora hears this mandate from the state - I-R-L, in real life, or else. But then also over the summer, Flora's school district gets hit really hard by COVID-19.

REICHANADTER: We saw a spike in positivity cases, which is why the Marion County Health Department closed bars recently again.

GARCIA: More than 10% of the residents in her area were testing positive for COVID-19, and the parents were freaking out. So were the teachers. Like, it's not safe for these kids to go back to school. You cannot put people's lives in jeopardy. Schools need to be online.

VANEK SMITH: To complicate things, virtual learning is really tricky in Flora's district because more than half of her students do not have access to a computer.

REICHANADTER: For many of our families, the only device that they had available was a cellphone. And if you have multiple children using a single cellphone or - to be honest, learning from a cellphone is not an ideal situation.

VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Dr. Flora Reichanadter found herself in a kind of "Mission: Impossible" situation. She had to find a way to educate thousands of students in a way that makes sure that they all have the best education and keep them safe and do all that with no money.

VANEK SMITH: Actually, less than no money - remember; there's the 15% budget cut.

GARCIA: This kind of pressure would have crushed most people, but not Flora. Flora made a plan.

VANEK SMITH: Flora made a plans (ph) (laughter).

GARCIA: Za (ph), plural - multiple plans, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, multiple plans.

GARCIA: Spoiler alert - these plans did not include jumping out of an exploding helicopter.

VANEK SMITH: Unlike most "Mission: Impossible" plans, that is true. Although, I would argue, metaphorically, they did.

GARCIA: Yeah, sort of.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE" THEME SONG)

VANEK SMITH: Dr. Flora Reichanadter runs the Pike school district in Indianapolis. She is in charge of 11,000 students, and most of them do not have ready access to high-speed Internet or devices that would make remote learning possible.

GARCIA: Also, if she opted for remote learning, it might mean losing 15% of her state funding - $4.4 million to be exact.

REICHANADTER: And so, of course, then you have lots of sleepless nights thinking, what am I going to do? What has to go when you lose $4.4 million?

VANEK SMITH: Not only that, Flora needed to spend money to get equipment and Internet access to thousands of students in case virtual learning needed to happen and also to get equipment for the school itself in case school opened back up and social distancing needed to happen.

GARCIA: Before making any plans, Flora needed to deal with the money situation, so the first thing she did was prepare for that 15% cut.

REICHANADTER: We will have to make some significant cuts by either increasing class sizes, reducing the number of course offerings like related arts and things like that, which would be so devastating because it's what makes a child well-rounded. But something has to give.

VANEK SMITH: In the meantime, Flora wrangled a few hundred thousand dollars from the CARES Act and from a city fund, and she took out a loan. She issued a school bond for $5.3 million. And Flora's district was already in debt from a bond she'd issued a few years ago, so now her district is more than $15 million in debt.

GARCIA: But summer was ending, and Flora was still waiting to see what the state would say and what would happen with COVID cases.

VANEK SMITH: And 11,000 students are counting on her for education, safety, meals, a safe space, so she developed her plans.

REICHANADTER: Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan C and a Plan D, trying to work forward with, what are all the what-ifs?

GARCIA: Plan A - going back to school I-R-L; classes in session, butts are in the seats. And that meant making the physical schools as safe as possible for the kids coming back.

REICHANADTER: We have social distance markers, stickers that go on the floor. We've also invested in what we call our classroom barriers. They're actually plexiglass, and they're clear barriers that go on top of the desk.

GARCIA: So that is Plan A.

VANEK SMITH: So now we'll jump to Plan D, the polar opposite of Plan A, the other extreme that Flora had to prepare for - 100% virtual learning. That means every kid needs a computer and Wi-Fi. And remember; more than half of Flora's students do not have a computer. And a lot of them do not have proper Wi-Fi.

GARCIA: Which meant that if the schools shut down, these kids would have no way of attending class. The district had already invested in Chromebooks that students in need could check out. They just made the check-out longer and bought more Chromebooks.

REICHANADTER: At this time, every student who needed a Chromebook has one.

GARCIA: Boom - Plan D.

VANEK SMITH: Plans B and C were hybrids, so students come in alternating days a week by last name or by classroom. And they go to class online the other days, so it's kind of both.

GARCIA: And then Flora waited with all of her plans at the ready to see what the state would say and what would happen with COVID cases.

REICHANADTER: That has been a very emotional roller coaster in just the last two weeks.

VANEK SMITH: The verdict - butts in seats; go. So we're going with Plan A.

GARCIA: And Plan B also.

VANEK SMITH: Plan A and Plan B, yes. So here's what's going on. The elementary students are back full-time; all the kids.

GARCIA: Middle-school and high-school students have a choice. Flora said COVID cases are still a little high in the area, so students could opt for virtual learning for this semester. And about 40% of the students did opt for virtual learning. The other 60% percent are coming to school.

VANEK SMITH: Unless, of course, there is an outbreak of COVID. And, of course, Flora has a plan for that too.

GARCIA: Of course; she has a plans again.

VANEK SMITH: She has a plans. Yes, she does.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE" THEME SONG)

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and Nick Fountain. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE" THEME SONG)

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.