Public School Teachers On Vaccines, Masks And Classrooms : Consider This from NPR The Biden administration has set a goal: a majority of public schools open "at least one day a week" by the 100th day of his presidency. But it's possible the country is already there — and decisions about when to reopen largely fall to cities and school districts, where administrators and teachers sometimes don't see eye-to-eye.

Students are losing a lot of academic ground the longer their schooling is disrupted. Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg reports on how one rural district is trying to reach students who haven't been showing up for online classes.

This week, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release new guidelines about how schools can reopen safely, three public school teachers weigh in: Mike Reinholdt of Davenport, Iowa; Maxie Hollingsworth of Houston, Texas; and Pam Gaddy of Baltimore, Md.

For more education coverage, follow NPR's Anya Kamentez on Twitter, and check out her recent story "Keep Schools Open All Summer, And Other Bold Ideas To Help Kids Catch Up."

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

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Public School Teachers Weigh In On Vaccines, Masks And Returning To The Classroom

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Rachel Buck is a teacher at Dirigo High School in western Maine. It's a small rural district. And part of her job is to check in on students.

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RACHEL BUCK: Today, I am delivering school materials, some food, canned goods.

CORNISH: It's been 11 months since school districts like Buck's closed their doors because of the pandemic. And a good chunk of them are still doing some form of remote teaching, which has school districts around the country concerned that students aren't showing up as much. Buck is trying to reach students that they haven't heard from in a while.

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BUCK: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How are you?

BUCK: There you go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter) Thank you.

BUCK: Thank you.

CORNISH: She drops off some supplies. And since she's there, standing on their doorstep, she can answer questions that families have, like one from a mom who's deciding whether to send her kids back to school or keep them at home. Buck says she'll follow up.

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BUCK: Let me double check. I'll be in touch later.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.

BUCK: OK?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you.

BUCK: Thank you.

PAM DOYEN: It's a battle for sure when they choose to be virtual and then don't Zoom into classes. And it's hard to find them sometimes.

CORNISH: Pam Doyen is the principal at Dirigo High School. Both she and Buck spoke with Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg. Doyen says dozens of students have just disappeared. Like, they stopped showing up to their Zoom classes or even responding to any attempts at communication.

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DOYEN: So we've done calls, texts, emails, home visits, home delivery of materials. We've scheduled multiple parent meetings, including evening hours that work best for parents to talk about, you know, your kid's not showing up for their Zooms.

CORNISH: All of this - the Herculean effort schools are making to keep in touch with students and keep them on track - it's not sustainable, and it's not clear it's working. One consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, estimates that with all these interruptions, students may lose five to nine months of learning this year. Because of this, some education advocacy groups, like the National Parents Union, are asking the Biden administration to implement an extended school year, something they're calling acceleration academies.

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KERI RODRIGUES: Learning academies, summer school - ending this idea that the school year ends in June this year.

CORNISH: Keri Rodrigues, the president of the National Parents Union, told NPR's Anya Kamenetz that this extra learning session could start when teachers get vaccinated.

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RODRIGUES: If June is when every K-12 educator get vaccinated, guess what? July 1 is the first day of school.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - back to school means something very different this year. But how are teachers feeling about returning to the classroom?

From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Wednesday, February 10.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The Biden administration has set a goal - a majority of public schools opened by Day 100 of his presidency. That would come at the end of April.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Could you help us understand what the White House is...

CORNISH: On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked to clarify what that goal actually means.

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JEN PSAKI: Have the majority of schools - so more than 50% - open by Day 100 of his presidency. And that means some teaching in classrooms, so at least one day a week. Hopefully, it's more. And obviously...

CORNISH: And then the same question came up on Wednesday, since by some estimates, we've already met that mark.

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PSAKI: That is not the ceiling. That is the bar we're trying to leap over and exceed. And as I said in response to questions...

CORNISH: It's one thing to have a federal goal, but the decisions about when to reopen in-person teaching largely fall to cities and school districts, where administrators and teachers rarely see eye to eye.

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RANDI WEINGARTEN: Look. They're scared. Think about what has happened to teachers over the last year. There's a lot of fear because there's been a lot of misinformation.

CORNISH: Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country. She spoke with NPR last week.

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WEINGARTEN: We have to meet fear with facts. And we have to find ways to create the environment so that it's safe. And frankly, once we do that in a few places, you know, just like New York has done that - we're starting to have phased reopenings in Boston. We have to have examples that can be lifted up.

CORNISH: Another major city, Chicago, has now reached an agreement with their teachers union to start a phased-in reopening. That district agreed to provide at least 1,500 first vaccine doses per week to employees, with second doses guaranteed. And no Chicago teacher would be required to resume in-person teaching before having the opportunity to be fully vaccinated.

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WEINGARTEN: All across the country, educators are clamoring for the vaccine. There is a reason why CDC has put teachers into the 1b prioritization, which we pushed for because we know that it is an added level of protection.

CORNISH: In the meantime, as this is getting all sorted out, students are still hurting, academically and psychologically. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that from April to October 2020, hospitals across the country saw a 24% increase in the proportion of mental health emergency visits for kids ages 5 to 11.

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WEINGARTEN: For educators, they understand what's going on with our kids. They're scared for our kids. They're scared for themselves. And that's why we're working double and triple time and have been for months to get the resources, to get the safeguards and to get a consistent message from government about what is needed.

CORNISH: One message coming from CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is that while it's ideal for teachers to get a vaccine before returning to in-person teaching, it's not necessary.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: The data suggests, the science suggests that there is not a lot of transmission happening in schools. And in fact, the case rates in schools are generally lower than they are in the population surrounding it.

CORNISH: Speaking to MSNBC, Walensky said that if schools follow the guidelines of hygiene, proper ventilation and social distancing, they pose a relatively low risk of spreading the virus.

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WALENSKY: If we have the funding to do the proper mitigation measures, as is put forth in the American Rescue Plan, that we can reopen schools safely even if all of the teachers are not vaccinated.

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MAXIE HOLLINGSWORTH: I was livid when I saw that. I was livid. I mean, how dare she?

CORNISH: OK, so this is a teacher, Maxie Hollingsworth (ph), in Houston. She just returned to her elementary school classroom. She told me the CDC director has the wrong approach.

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HOLLINGSWORTH: Everyone is saying that schools must reopen, but teachers are not a priority for vaccines. That is insane.

CORNISH: Well, she was essentially arguing that mask-wearing, social distancing - that there are mitigation efforts that make it possible for schools to be open. But I wanted to put that to you because you can't get higher than the CDC director, right?

HOLLINGSWORTH: The reality is this. We still have cases. My entire fifth grade was out last week. Half of the fourth-grade students were out last week. Half of the third-grade students were out last week. And one full kindergarten class was out last week.

CORNISH: That's because when a student gets sick, close contacts - their classmates - should also stay home.

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HOLLINGSWORTH: So you can't tell me that teachers don't need to be vaccinated. If we're shutting down half the school for cases like that, you can't tell me that it doesn't make sense for us to be priority. And we're not here in Texas. I live in Texas, where teachers are not priority. But the governor has been demanding that schools fully reopen.

CORNISH: I spoke with Hollingsworth, along with two other teachers, Pam Gaddy (ph) in Baltimore - she's teaching her high school social studies classes remotely for the time being - and also Mike Reinholdt (ph). He's a special education teacher at an elementary school in Davenport, Iowa. I wanted to hear what this debate about reopening and vaccines sounded like to them, the people living it.

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MIKE REINHOLDT: I can almost understand where the CDC director's coming from, but we cannot - with a hundred percent in-person learning, we cannot guarantee 6-foot distancing. We cannot guarantee the masks. I mean, if you've ever been in a kindergarten classroom, they don't know where to throw tissues - you know, to throw them in the trash can, much less keep a mask on their face a hundred percent of the time.

CORNISH: Pam, can I hear from you? - 'cause you teach older kids.

PAM GADDY: Yeah. That's - I mean, I wish the kids would just follow instructions. We have so many, you know, young adults who believe they're adults, so they're going to do what they want to do, regardless. But my school has over 1,400 students. So how do we navigate even just transitioning into hallways? Teachers have to stand in hallways to monitor behavior. Well, we can't be 6 feet apart in hallways in that manner. And in my state, the governor has even had the audacity to say, well, if teachers don't want to go back, we'll figure out a way to penalize them, like take some of their pay or something of that nature. You're threatening me now. You're not vaccinating me - 'cause that would help just, you know, ease my mind just a little. But then you threaten my pay or my certification. How do you justify that?

CORNISH: You know, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, took to the floor speech recently, and he said this - federal money is not the obstacle. The obstacle is lack of willpower. And he said, quote, "not among students, not among parents, just among the rich, powerful unions that donate large sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities." Do you see the conversation starting to come down to unions and teachers versus everyone else?

GADDY: That has been the argument for several years now - union busting - that the unions are putting money into...

CORNISH: Well, he's basically arguing that unions are getting in the way of school reopenings.

GADDY: Well, so are politicians. You're getting in the way of school opening, too, because, one, this rollout could've been a lot easier. The rollout should've been earlier. We should have done things differently in the very beginning of this that may have alleviated the return to school in the fall. So everyone is getting in the way of everyone, and we just want to blame everyone. And we are not going to take hold without (unintelligible) the union. How else are teachers getting their voices heard?

CORNISH: Mike, can I have you jump in here, the view from Davenport?

REINHOLDT: Yeah. So the unions are all about safety. We want to make sure that our members are safe. We want to make sure that our students are safe. So I really appreciate our union standing up for the rights and the safety of our membership to make sure that everybody stays safe or as safe as we possibly can because the loss of one single life, whether that be a student, a teacher, a staff member, a custodian, a secretary, is one too many.

CORNISH: But what's your response to Senator McConnell saying that this is about willpower and this is about unions exerting power?

HOLLINGSWORTH: There's no lack of willpower. I haven't heard anyone say we don't want to teach. That's not the issue. We want to teach, and we want to teach in a safe environment. And the thing is we've shown up. We've shown up virtually. We've shown up in person. And we've changed the way we teach with no foundation in this. People don't criticize inventors when they fail and fail and fail and fail and struggle, you know, when it takes them five, 10 years to get something right. But the teaching profession has been beat up in the last 11 months for the way that we have served our students. And we've served it with a tremendous amount of sacrifice, so it's offensive to me that people would say that this is a lack of willpower.

CORNISH: The other side of this is this ongoing conversation where experts are seeing learning gaps widen for low-income students and people who have the least resources to succeed in online school. How do you balance those things as you're thinking about this - that there's a learning and mental health emergency for kids? Pam?

GADDY: Those have been issues we've stressed well before COVID. Those things didn't just pop up because of COVID.

CORNISH: But some of them have gotten worse under COVID.

GADDY: They have. But had we been working on a true plan prior to, maybe it wouldn't be as bad. But now you're trying to run around and fix it. But yet, we - it's still funding. It's still about the funding. We have teachers - in my county, we have teachers who live in remote areas that they don't have access to Wi-Fi. But this didn't just pop up March 13 in the state of Maryland. This was already here.

REINHOLDT: I would kind of reiterate what Pam said. I mean, we've always known that there's a gap. And it's very challenging to see students struggle, to see students have these mental health emergencies. Just to see students on a safety perspective, not being able to see them on a daily basis, is a very scary circumstance for, I think, any teacher. So yeah, we definitely recognize the challenge here. But ultimately, we won't be able to make up those learning gaps if people don't come out of this pandemic.

CORNISH: That was Mike Reinholdt of Davenport, Iowa; Maxie Hollingsworth of Houston, Texas; and Pam Gaddy of Baltimore, Md.

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CORNISH: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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