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School Administrators Grapple With Reopening Decision

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Parents, teachers and school officials face an agonizing choice in the next few weeks - how, if at all, do they send their kids back to school? To them, it's a decision about public health and about the kids who are closest to them. The president alleges the decision is really about him. He's urging schools to open and criticizing his own administration's guidelines for opening safely and claiming without evidence that governors and school leaders want to keep schools shut to hurt him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They think it's going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed - no way. So we're very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open.

INSKEEP: District leaders in Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta and many other communities have announced they will keep teaching remotely when school resumes. NPR's Cory Turner has been covering this and joins us now.

Cory, good morning.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I want to mention that the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said behind the lectern yesterday, science should not stand in the way of reopening. Now, people mock that as if she was dismissing science. But in context, she appeared to be arguing that the science supports reopening. That's what she said. But what does the research actually say?

TURNER: Yeah, that's right. The science suggests that kids generally don't get very sick from COVID-19, so the administration is not far on that one. But it is less clear how easily kids spread it, especially if they're clustered in schools. But we have to remember that the real issue here is that many states are right now seeing substantial community spread of the disease, and the science is not clear that reopening schools in that context is smart or safe.

As for that CDC guidance you mentioned, Steve, our colleague Franco Ordoñez reported last night that the agency is going to delay some new school reopening documents, although it's a little confusing here because CDC has said these documents are not a revision or a softening of the old guidance that President Trump doesn't like, just sort of an elaboration.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's right - because the president criticized the guidelines as too tough. And the CDC essentially said, too bad - the science is what it is; these are the guidelines. So what would make the guidelines contentious?

TURNER: I mean, some of them are really tough - having kids wear face coverings, staggering school schedules. But maybe the hardest is keeping kids 6 feet apart in the classroom. You know, do the math. To do that, you, A, have to divide kids into smaller classroom groups; B, find more classroom space; and C, find more teachers. And that's tough. And that's why some places like New York City say they're going to have to do a hybrid schedule - bringing some kids in some of the time.

INSKEEP: What are various schools superintendents saying as they make these decisions?

TURNER: So they're saying that, you know, in spite of President Trump trying to sideline the CDC, they are still very much working with and listening to local, state and federal public health officials. Ann Levett - she heads the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools in Georgia - she told me she's constantly checking in with the head of her public health department and looking over daily infection data for her community.

ANN LEVETT: Every day I look at the numbers. And I'm, like, please, please let them go down. Please let them go down. And they're not going down.

TURNER: Which is why, Levett says, her hardest day in this pandemic was not when Georgia closed her schools back in March. It was just last week when, looking at the numbers, she decided there was just no way for her to fully reopen - at roughly the same time as when President Trump began his campaign to pressure school leaders into quickly reopening, accusing them of not doing what's best for kids.

LUVELLE BROWN: Anyone out there who's questioning whether or not educators are at home and not doing the work that our young people need us to be doing, they're wrong.

TURNER: That's Luvelle Brown. He's head of the Ithaca City School District in Ithaca, N.Y.

BROWN: We're working even more now, and we can't wait to get these babies back in our spaces.

TURNER: Superintendents do at least share President Trump's sense of urgency.

PAUL IMHOFF: It is better to have kids back in school every day.

BROWN: Paul Imhoff is the superintendent of Upper Arlington Schools near Columbus, Ohio.

IMHOFF: All of us want that. All of us are anxious for that...

BROWN: But then Imhoff pauses.

IMHOFF: ...As soon as it's safe.

BROWN: Michael Hinojosa, who runs the Dallas Independent School District, puts it this way.

MICHAEL HINOJOSA: Sometimes parents forgive us if we commit educational malpractice. They will never forgive us if we let something happen to their children.

TURNER: So what does it mean to open schools safely? Many school leaders are following CDC's recommendation to space desks 6 feet apart, and Brown says that's forcing him to get creative.

BROWN: We'll use every one of our spaces. We hope to be able to get outside and use those spaces, as well. But I still don't think we can get all of our young people in school at the same time.

TURNER: In Dallas, Michael Hinojosa says...

HINOJOSA: We think we can have a pretty safe learning environment, but we're going to have masks. We're going to have face shields. We're going to have plexiglass in the classroom.

TURNER: The plexiglass, he says, helps him fit more students into each classroom. Even with that, though, Dallas County is seeing substantial community spread of the disease. So, Hinojosa says, he wants to delay the start of school by several weeks.

Chad Gestson, the head of the Phoenix Union High School District, says this pandemic is forcing educators to become epidemiologists.

CHAD GESTSON: We were spending so much time studying respiratory droplets and measuring classrooms and how many kids fit on a bus and how to transition thousands of kids between periods that we lost track of the core of our work.

TURNER: And that core, Gestson says, is teaching and learning.

So Steve, with infection rates skyrocketing in Arizona, too, Gestson recently announced that for now at least, all of his students are going to keep learning remotely. And that way, he says, he and his staff can get back to focusing on, you know, how to be a great school.

INSKEEP: Well, it sounds like the bottom line is that many schools - maybe even most schools - will not open on time in August or the start of September.

TURNER: At least not fully, no. I think there's just too much uncertainty, especially with infection rates rising again in so many places. It's also worth noting, though, that several recent national polls show a majority of parents really oppose schools rushing to reopen, too. Parents are on the side of schools in many places. I even heard from the superintendent in Ithaca, where infection rates are pretty low. Superintendent Brown told me, you know, the key to everyone being able to return to school there really boils down to one word - vaccine.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And if you have different schools making different decisions in different areas, you have parents looking around and saying, wait a minute - what are we supposed to do here? - and wanting to be cautious with their own kids. Right?

TURNER: Absolutely. I mean, it gets back to the same old line I've heard every day since covering schools, which is, they're controlled locally.

INSKEEP: Cory, thanks for your work.

TURNER: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's education correspondent Cory Turner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMS AND SLEEPERS' "UNSHIELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.