Jeanne Norris is a teacher, the wife of a teacher and the mother of an 8-year-old in St. Louis. She'd love to send her son back to school in August. But, she says, "I feel like my government and my fellow citizens have put me in a position where it's not really in the best interests of our family."
Norris has a long list of reasons why. She says she has taught in buildings where ventilation systems are outdated and malfunctioning, and even soap for hand-washing is in short supply.
In June, Missouri cut K-12 education funding by more than $100 million amid the pandemic-induced recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities anticipates state budget shortfalls of 25% this fiscal year as a result of that recession. Education leaders have said schools may need more than $200 billion in new federal education funding to stop these gaps and meet the new need. The House passed a bill in May with $58 billion for school districts, and the Republican-controlled Senate has not yet acted on it, though the president has recently weighed in heavily in favor of reopening schools.
Norris says she's disappointed by her state's response to the virus, and she's worried about the risk to her son's teachers, too.
"You know, a third of teachers are over the age of 50, I believe. ... You want to talk about social-emotional impacts? Thinking about my child experiencing somebody die because of coronavirus? Sounds like a pretty heavy burden to bear."
Dozens of teachers, parents and district leaders around the country told NPR that the back-to-school season — that beloved annual ritual — has fogged over with confusion. States, districts and the federal government are pushing and pulling in different directions. Scientists are updating their advice to reflect emerging research and the changing course of the pandemic. And parents and educators are finding it hard to make decisions in the murk.
What's at stake: An unknown number of lives, the futures of tens of millions of children, the livelihoods of their caregivers, the working conditions of millions of educators and people's trust in a fundamental American institution.
Thomas Jefferson, the scribe of the Declaration of Independence, was among the first Americans to propose a system of universal, publicly funded education in 1779. Since then, besides providing an education, public schools became by far the physically safest places for the nation's more than 50 million schoolchildren. They fed about 30 million children meals they might have missed otherwise, and offered crucial assistance with housing, health care and mental health.
Until this past spring.
Schools closed abruptly amid the coronavirus pandemic, in the U.S. and almost everywhere. At one point, 90% of the world's schoolchildren were out of class. Now, across Europe and Asia, dozens of school systems have already reopened, with precautions in place, and few virus spikes have been seen as a result. But in the U.S., where the pandemic continues to rage, that version of normal is not being contemplated in most places.
"To be perfectly honest, it's terrifying," says Kirk Hansen, a middle school social studies teacher in Lakeland, Fla. "We've worked with very little before. 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."
Back to school, not back to normal
Many parents and teachers echoed Hansen's anxiety. Across the United States, each district is making its own decisions based on guidance — not directives — from the federal government, states, experts, educators, parents and local health authorities.
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for social distancing, and grouping kids into small pods, to limit the spread of a potential infection. That means a drastic reduction in class sizes everywhere. In the absence of funds for more space and more staff, that's driving schools to cut back on in-person class time. The state of California, for example, recommends splitting up students into smaller cohorts that attend two days a week, every other week, or mornings and afternoons, while offering remote instruction the rest of the time. We're hearing versions of this limited-time plan everywhere from New York City — the nation's largest school district — to Omaha, Neb., Seattle and West Bloomfield, Mich.
At the same time, districts are surveying parents and teachers to find out if they are willing to go back at all. One national survey by the American Federation of Teachers found about 1 in 4 educators were not willing to come back even with precautions, and a survey of parents found two-thirds were nervous about the prospect. That means many districts are offering remote learning at the same time, which is essentially a whole other job for schools and teachers.
Meanwhile, the pandemic is spiking in some parts of the country, while other places like New York are vigilant based on past experience.
Districts are taking time to sort through all the information. The delays in communication, in turn, make it harder for families to make plans.
This convoluted, decentralized process around reopening schools is also pitting stakeholders against each other. In San Mateo, in the Bay Area, some teachers want to start the year remote-only, while parents and administrators are pushing for more face time. Jinna Hwang, who teaches math at San Mateo High School, says she can't create a warm, accepting classroom culture when everyone is wearing masks and she must enforce physical distancing. Face masks will also be an obstacle for English language learners, Hwang says. She's not sure how she'll find time to teach her in-person lessons — multiple times over, to different cohorts of students — while also planning and executing remote teaching at the same time.
On the other hand, she says, if schools stick with remote-only, "What do you do with kids who have difficulty learning online? What do you do about kids who are entering depression and need their wellness counselor?"
Questions like these abound. After New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy released that state's "Restart and Recovery Plan for Education," educators crowdsourced a list of nearly 400 unanswered questions and concerns. Among them: How can we safely toilet train students with autism? How can students in band play a trumpet with a mask on? Will substitute teachers get paid more since their job is now high risk, and who pays for their health insurance if they get sick on the job?
"The devil's in the details," sums up Hwang.
Reopening followed by re-closing?
As difficult as reopening plans are, they are just the beginning. As Dr. Anthony Fauci emphasized in recent Senate testimony, local coronavirus infection rates are a key factor driving schools' ability to not just open up, but to stay open.
Mike Looney, the superintendent of Fulton County Schools, a large district in the Atlanta area, has been grappling with the uncertainty around reopening. His schools are set to open Aug. 17, and he says he's been letting parents know: The rest is in their hands.
"I have been doing my very best to communicate to our families that they really are in control of whether or not the school district opens up as planned — because the school district has to respond to the community spread."
Looney's district is unusual in having already released not just a reopening plan but a detailed re-closing decision matrix. It gives 12 options for how long to close a school if someone at the school tests positive for the coronavirus. For example, explains Looney, if there is low community spread and one person at a school tests positive, that school will close for up to 24 hours for cleaning and contact tracing. But if there are more or rising cases throughout the community, the closure for that single case will last for 72 hours. Conversely, even with few cases in the broader community, if there are five or more positive tests in a single school, that closure could last at least two weeks to give people time to isolate and recover.
The math around contact tracing and risk reduction can be head-spinning. And that's exactly why Michelle Hoffmann in High Bridge, N.J., is planning to home-school her 6-year-old son this year.
Hoffmann has been working as a contact tracer, following up with people who test positive for the coronavirus so that their close contacts can be notified to try to stop the spread of the virus. She anticipates schools closing down quickly and repeatedly after they open. And she doesn't see the utility of rotating cohorts of students as long as they share the same teacher.
"If a teacher came in and said, 'Hey, I just found out my sister tested positive for COVID and we saw her over the weekend,' both groups of students are going to have to stay home."
It might work better if each tiny group of students had a different teacher, she says. "But again, who has the resources for that? There is no unlimited supply of substitute teachers. That's just not a thing."
Hoffmann feels prepared to take on home-schooling. For one thing, her wife is an educator who may be laid off — New Jersey, too, is cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from education this year. Hoffmann's mother has been teaching her son Korean. And she has friends who work in technical fields who are willing to pitch in, guiding her son with science projects over Skype. All of which seems preferable to the disruptions of repeated openings and re-closings, she says. "I don't want to scramble. I'm very much a planner, so I want to have a plan in place."
But many families don't have the resources to make a plan like this. And online-only learning, the fallback option, isn't making many folks happy either.
"We're all horrible teachers," Ashley Ruiz, a mother of two in south Florida, says of her and her friends' experiences with remote learning. Her 7-year-old son is on the autism spectrum, and relies on her school for speech and social skills therapy, and help with reading, none of which are really replicable online.
"We now all recognize that teachers need to be paid a million dollars in cash, tax-free, because of what they do," Ruiz says.
Nicol Turner Lee, an expert on educational technology and digital divides at the Brookings Institution, is in frequent consultation with districts around the country. She calls this past spring's attempt at emergency remote learning "an abject failure for our children."
Research shows students who struggle tend to do even worse with distance learning. Some districts are investing in training teachers to raise the quality of remote teaching, and working to get special education students and English language learners the support they need. Yet simple access is still a big problem. Turner Lee says an estimated 12 to 15 million students still do not have broadband Internet at home. And an estimated one-third of low-income students have to share devices with family members.
Can schools do better this coming year? "I think we have run out of time," says Turner Lee.
Some localities, such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Maryland, are working, sometimes with private donors, to get equipment and connectivity to students at a larger scale. And public libraries are boosting their Wi-Fi signals to allow students to gather and do their homework in the parking lot. But, she says, these are ultimately stopgaps, and they won't go far without massive federal aid. She says overall, efforts to meet the challenges facing public schools are "a day late and a dollar short."
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.