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Listener Questions On School Reopenings Answered

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

What will school look like this year? What should it look like? This week, Chicago decided to have school online only. And in Georgia and Indiana, students returned to classrooms, even as kids tested positive for the coronavirus. To learn more about the decision-making across the country by families, schools and teachers, we're joined now by Cory Turner from NPR's education team and Allison Aubrey from our science desk. Hi, guys. Welcome back.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Stacey.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey, Stacy.

VANEK SMITH: So, Cory, let's start with you. In several states, schools are starting to reopen. At the same time, several big districts have actually reversed course, backing away from in-person learning for the time being. So what is the landscape right now?

TURNER: In two words, pretty messy.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

TURNER: Schools are starting to reopen, as you said, in a few states. But already in Georgia, Mississippi and Indiana, we've seen reports of COVID infections among students and-or staff. It's worth noting that, in some of these districts, like in Georgia's largest, Gwinnett County, they're trying to reopen at the same time that community spread of the disease is still really high. And that's also the reason we heard from the mayor of Chicago yesterday announcing that because that city's infection numbers are also rising, they're going to start the school year entirely online, which was a change of course.

And then one important exception to all of this is the nation's largest school district, New York City, where they've actually managed to bring their infection rates so far down that they are still on course, they say, to reopen schools using a hybrid model, which would have kids coming back in shifts a few days each week.

VANEK SMITH: And we have also heard from listeners with their questions.

NATALIE CANNON: My name is Natalie Cannon, and I live in Austin, Texas. My question is, how will we know when it's safe to go back? I'm the mother of two elementary-aged kids, and I also teach high school. So I was wondering if there was some level of community spread or things to look for that can kind of guide that decision in a medically sound way.

VANEK SMITH: Allison, this is the question on a lot of people's minds. So what does the science tell us?

AUBREY: You know, I'd say there are two guiding principles here. First, you need to weigh your personal risks. Do you have high-risk people in your household? Is your student at elevated risk of severe illness from COVID? And, second, what is the level of community spread in your area? So if you go to the site globalepidemics.org, you can actually see if your county is in a green, yellow, orange or red zone. And this is a good indicator. I mean, areas in green have the lowest level of spread so are presumably the safest. And another metric is to look at the positivity rate in your area, meaning the percent of tests that are coming back positive.

Now, the American Federation of Teachers has said it doesn't consider in-person school to be safe unless fewer than 5% of coronavirus tests in an area are positive. You know, Stacey, I'd say the bottom line here is there are going to be cases found in schools. We've already seen this in places that reopened, for instance in Indiana. But will the virus spread in schools? It's just not clear yet. And this will largely be determined by how well schools adopt practices, such as masking, social distancing. And, ideally, we would be in a situation where schools were screening and even testing kids.

TURNER: Though I will say, Stacey, you know, the problem with testing at the K-12 level is it's really an expensive and logistical nightmare at this point. You know, I've had school leaders laugh at me when I asked if they thought they'd be able to test kids when school resumes.

VANEK SMITH: They laughed at you?

TURNER: Yeah, because...

VANEK SMITH: They're just, like, nowhere near?

TURNER: No, I mean, look - I have had every administrator I've spoken to said, oh, my goodness, I would love to test. And then in the very next sentence, they'd say, but there's just no way. No. 1 - there aren't enough tests. I don't have access to them. I won't get the results nearly fast enough. And then, also, maybe the biggest question is cost - who's going to pay for it?

VANEK SMITH: So we have another listener question.

ALISON LUCAS: Hi my name is Alison Lucas, and I teach elementary art in Massachusetts. I now know that I'll be teaching remotely, but I'm still struggling to figure out the logistics of how to teach art via a live 30-minute Zoom.

VANEK SMITH: So, Cory, for schools not going back to the classroom full time, what does this mean?

TURNER: Well, Stacey, I think it's a good-news, bad-news situation, honestly. You know, we've seen lots of really populous districts, including Los Angeles, Atlanta and now Chicago, say they're going to be online only. And lots of these districts are also saying, look - we know we didn't do a good job of this in the spring, and we're going to do better. You know, the bad news is that even if remote learning is improved, there are still several big clusters of kids for whom remote learning just doesn't work well...

AUBREY: Right.

TURNER: ...Vulnerable kids who may be food insecure and may be home alone because their parents have to work. We're also talking about lots of students with disabilities. I spoke with one parent, Sarah McLaren, who lives outside Minneapolis. She says her daughter, who's going into the fourth grade, she gets extra help at school for reading and math, and she really struggles with auditory processing. And McLaren says her daughter's teachers, like, they were doing their very best when classes went online in the spring, but remote learning, she says, strips away the sort of physical language of the classroom. And it's all about verbal cues - do this, then this, but not that.

SARAH MCLAREN: That quickly overwhelmed her, just all the verbal directions. And she completely disengaged from learning and would literally run away from the iPad and hide in the closet or under the bed.

VANEK SMITH: Oh. (Laughter) I mean, it's interesting because I've seen some districts talking about resuming in-person classes only for their most vulnerable students or maybe just bringing back younger kids, like kindergarten through fifth-graders, even if that means - because of social distancing - that they potentially would have to host some kindergarten classes in the high school. I mean, would that make more sense, Allison, than an all-or-nothing approach for schools?

AUBREY: You know, I think there's a lot of debate about how to prioritize. And, you know, the case for bringing younger children back - say, K to 5 - is, really, twofold. I mean, many educators say that the younger children have more to gain by being in the classroom, overall, compared to older kids who, in theory, should be able to handle more of the online learning or work more independently. And, importantly, there's some evidence that younger kids are less likely to spread the virus to other kids or to the adults they come into close contact. So that's something to consider as well.

TURNER: And there's also a logistical consideration for that, Allison. You know, if you think about it, younger kids can much more easily spend an entire day in a small group - which makes contact tracing easier - and with one teacher, but the older kids get, the more they're going to be specialized in different classes with different teachers, and that's when it gets really hard to keep kids in one place, in one small group all day.

VANEK SMITH: All right, let's get to another listener question.

LINDSEY MULLEN: My name is Lindsey Mullen, and I live outside of Birmingham in Alabama. What I'm wondering is what exactly happens when someone in a class tests positive for the virus?

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Allison, so what is the correct procedure if a student tests positive?

AUBREY: So the best practice, really, according to many of the infectious disease experts that I speak to, is for schools to require anyone with symptoms to self-isolate, to stay home for at least 10 days after symptoms begin. And schools really should have a protocol for deciding whether others exposed to the student will need to quarantine and be tested.

VANEK SMITH: NPR's Allison Aubrey and Cory Turner. Thanks, guys.

TURNER: Thank you, Stacey.

AUBREY: Thanks, Stacey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.