Back To School In A Pandemic: U.S. Is Off To A Slow Start : Consider This from NPR With Labor Day weekend gone, summer is unofficially over — and millions of children head back to school this week, many virtually.

Two teachers — Rosie Reid in California and Lynette Stant in Arizona — share how things are going in their schools so far.

Many states have decided to allow high school football to go forward, even if kids are not in school. NPR's Tom Goldman reports that one coach in Alabama is demanding a coronavirus testing program for his players.

Students who are not in school are not just missing out on in-person education. Many are missing free or reduced-cost meals. NPR's Cory Turner reports on how some school districts are trying to feed students when they're not in school.

And for many parents who can't work at home, no school means a need for child care. But a recent study suggests millions of child care centers may not reopen after the pandemic, as Kavitha Cardoza with member station WAMU reports.

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School Is Off To A Slow Start, And It's Going To Be A Long Year

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School Is Off To A Slow Start, And It's Going To Be A Long Year

School Is Off To A Slow Start, And It's Going To Be A Long Year

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

High school football is happening in more than 30 states this fall. One of them is Alabama, where Mark Rose is head coach at Russell County High School. He's been coaching football for 23 years. And last week, he says he was about to do something pretty drastic because, he said, making kids play without a coronavirus testing program in place was wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARK ROSE: I mean, it's flat-out child exploitation. Of course, kids want to play, but we are charged to protect them.

MCEVERS: Still, officials in his district said the kids should play, even after a 33-year-old assistant coach ended up in the ICU for nearly two weeks. And the mother of a player got sick, too - all this in a rural county where a lot of students live with older people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROSE: We're breaking every rule that every doctor in the world says. We're not going face-to-face school, yet we're running players into each other all week and sending them home untested. And then on Friday night, they want us to go out there and run them in, a hundred on our sideline and a hundred on the other sideline. And all we know is that nobody out there had been tested.

MCEVERS: So last Friday night, Mark Rose decided he would not go to the game, said he wouldn't coach the season opener. But then one of his players tested positive and possibly exposed two dozen more players, and the game was canceled. Coming up, with some schools open around the country, millions of coaches and teachers and parents and students are having a really hard time.

This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR with some new theme music. I'm Kelly McEvers. It is Tuesday, September 8.

This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Lynette Stant teaches Indigenous students at Salt River Elementary School in Arizona. She's Dine, which means she's part of the Navajo Nation. And she says a month into virtual school, some parents are still struggling with technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LYNETTE STANT: I think there's an assumption - well, I know there is an assumption - that our parents just automatically know how to maneuver and manipulate our learning platforms.

MCEVERS: Stant says she was checking in with parents recently about some learning packets that the school had sent home to kids, and one mother had a kid who was having a hard time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STANT: You know, she said that when she opened the envelope to get the learning packet, there was other things in the packet. She said, for a moment, I just stopped and was like, are you kidding me? And I sat, and we did some collective breathing. And I've never done that with a parent before where I've just, like - OK, let's breathe together. You know, we're going to breathe in. We can do this. And we're going to let go of the I can't.

MCEVERS: And they decided to work together to design a new packet just for that one student. That kind of thing takes time. And millions of kids who are doing school remotely do not have a teacher like Lynette Stant. Last year, she was Arizona's teacher of the year.

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STANT: I miss my kids. I haven't even met them. I mean, I've met them over the - talking on the phone. But I haven't met them face-to-face, and I look forward to the day when I get to meet them.

MCEVERS: There's something else kids are missing out on by not being at school in person. More than 30 million kids in America depend on school for meals, either free or reduced price. A new analysis shows that now many kids are just not getting the food they need. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner talked about that with my colleague Noel King.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NOEL KING: How many kids are we talking about who may not be getting food?

CORY TURNER: You know, well, I spoke with Lauren Bauer at the Brookings Institution, and she's been studying the results of this new household survey from the Census Bureau. And she found that among low-income households with kids who qualify for either free or low-cost school meals, only about 15% have recently been getting them.

And, you know, I heard something similar when I got on the phone with school leaders all across the country. So, for example, in Tucson, Ariz., the schools' food services director, Lindsay Aguilar - she told me they're now reaching just a small fraction of their kids.

LINDSAY AGUILAR: Every day that goes by is a day that we're serving 10% of our normal amount of meals. And that's the disheartening part - is because in our district, 70% of our families qualify for free or reduced, so I know there's a need.

TURNER: Aguilar's now trying to meet that need, Noel, by actually putting meals on school buses and then trying to meet students at dozens of bus stops each day.

KING: Oh, wow. So that is a lot of logistics. How common is that?

TURNER: Yeah.

KING: Are other schools trying things like this?

TURNER: Well, so the standard here when the pandemic began, at least, and schools closed is that families would generally have to show up at a daily designated pickup site, like a school, to grab a bag lunch and usually a breakfast for the next morning. But as more and more parents and caregivers have returned to work, it's become much harder for them or their kids to get to these sites. And that's why school districts are right now really trying to improvise.

In Fulton County, Ga., I spoke with Alyssia Wright. She heads the school nutrition program there. She told me since lots of people just can't show up every day, she's been trying to pack and freeze a whole week's worth of meals into just one pickup. And now she's doing what Tucson's doing. She's trying to figure out how to fit all this food onto their school buses. And she told me she is constantly worrying about hungry students.

ALYSSIA WRIGHT: Every day - I worry about them every day. I think about it every night. We come up with ways every week to find a new way to get meals to our kids.

TURNER: But this is really important, Noel. As they're trying to find these new ways, many meal programs - in fact, the majority - appear to be losing money, and some are even at risk of having to lay off staff soon.

KING: And in the meantime, 30 million kids rely on this. Can the federal government do anything?

TURNER: Well, I want to focus on one really interesting wild card in this whole equation. In the spring, Congress created something called Pandemic EBT. It basically took the value of the school meals that kids weren't getting in the spring, and it put it - usually in a lump sum of a few hundred dollars - onto a debit card that families could use directly at the grocery store.

Now, Lauren Bauer, the researcher at Brookings - she studied this program, and she says it kept between 2.5 and 3.5 million children out of hunger this summer. But by Labor Day, it's expired now in 33 states, and only Congress can renew it. And that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon - at least, not at the moment.

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MCEVERS: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner.

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MCEVERS: Having kids at home puts a lot of parents in a difficult, sometimes impossible situation, especially if they can't work at home themselves. For those parents, child care is one of the biggest things standing between them and going back to work. According to some recent research, there are 4.5 million child care centers in the country, but fully half of them might never reopen because of the pandemic. Here's Kavitha Cardoza from member station WAMU in Washington, D.C.

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ANGELIQUE SPEIGHT-MARSHALL: And this is how we communicate with each other.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Angelique Speight-Marshall has come up with an ingenious idea to keep the seven little kids she looks after at her home-based day care apart. She's given them little walkie-talkies.

SPEIGHT-MARSHALL: They request a toy, the bathroom, a snack (laughter).

CARDOZA: These toddlers run as far apart from each other as possible to talk.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Hey, Auntie P (ph).

SPEIGHT-MARSHALL: Hello, Jules (ph).

CARDOZA: Speight-Marshall constantly reminds children - no hugs or holding hands, no sharing toys or art supplies. Everything she's taught for 23 years - this is the opposite.

SPEIGHT-MARSHALL: That has been definitely a strain, trying to teach the children not to share. They don't understand it. And I'm an educator, and I don't understand it (laughter).

CARDOZA: Speight-Marshall's laughter covers up serious concerns. She's serving only half the number of kids she used to because of new health guidelines, so she's making far less money. She's had to lay off staff. And she spends many more hours doing paperwork, laundry, disinfecting toys. But she's grateful her day care is still open. Here in Washington, almost two-thirds of child care facilities have closed.

SYLVIA CREWS: It's been kind of rough.

CARDOZA: Sylvia Crews ran a home-based child care service in D.C. until mid-March. She says with the stringent pandemic restrictions, she just couldn't make the numbers work.

CREWS: All the PPEs, the Clorox, the disinfectant...

CARDOZA: Crews says even if she manages to reopen, she's not sure how she'll afford the new extra expenses.

CREWS: ...The thermometers, the face masks, the shields.

RHIAN ALLVIN: They are hanging on by their fingernails.

CARDOZA: That's Rhian Allvin, the CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She says providers have reached breaking point.

ALLVIN: And without a sustained public investment, the sector will collapse.

CARDOZA: Allvin says more than 80% of providers have reopened but at substantially reduced capacity, many unsure whether they'll be able to survive long-term.

ALLVIN: As we look to the financing of a system, parents can't pay any more, and early childhood educators can't earn any less.

CARDOZA: In recent months, the CARES Act federal emergency assistance provided $3.5 billion for early childhood education. Advocates say 50 billion is needed.

(CROSSTALK)

CARDOZA: Diamond Holland tries to keep her worries from her 2-year-old daughter. She's a single mom who was laid off from her job as a home health aide.

DIAMOND HOLLAND: I'm worried about my unemployment, worried about my rent. I'm worried about all of those things. How am I going to be able to survive?

CARDOZA: Holland is desperately looking for another job while also worrying about her other child, a 4-year-old. His preschool is closed, and she's not sure how long family members can help out.

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SPEIGHT-MARSHALL: The batteries went dead.

CARDOZA: Angelique Speight-Marshall watches the toddlers play. The majority of children she cares for have parents who are essential workers - nurses, grocery store workers and truck drivers. She says any additional funding would help.

SPEIGHT-MARSHALL: Child care powers the economy because when we're caring for the children and the parents are happy, the parents are able to go to work.

Everybody ready? Go.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Go.

SPEIGHT-MARSHALL: You don't want the radio? You going to run? She wants the pink one.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Unintelligible).

MCEVERS: That report by Kavitha Cardoza from member station WAMU.

Nick DePrey and Louis Weeks wrote our new theme, which you're hearing now. This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers.

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