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Teachers Weigh In On Whether Schools Should Reopen This Fall


The pandemic in the United States is spiraling further out of control. This morning, Florida reported 15,000 new coronavirus cases. That's the highest single-day jump for any state. More than 3 million Americans have been infected with the disease, and experts say that is an undercount. There's still not enough testing, not enough mitigation by some states and cities and not enough people taking the precautions that experts strongly recommend. Twenty-six states are now reversing or pausing their plans to reopen their economies. And yet last week, President Trump announced he thinks it's time for schools to open back up.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want to reopen the schools. Everybody wants it. The moms want it. The dads want it. The kids want it. It's time to do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos jumped into the debate and encouraged teachers to step into this moment and find new ways to educate kids.


BETSY DEVOS: This is the moment for American educators to rise to meet the needs of every student. Students can't afford to fall further behind. Even before the virus, too many were trapped in schools that don't meet their needs. So this is the time to reopen schools, to rethink school, to be more nimble, more agile, more responsive to students' needs in a 21st-century, changing world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is learning and teaching going to look like when school starts in just over a month? We asked educators to weigh in on social media. And more than a hundred of you responded.

We're joined now by three teachers. Lee S. Ferguson teaches high school biology in Allen, Texas. Welcome to you.

LEE S FERGUSON: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jori Krudler is an English teacher in Chico, Calif. Welcome to you.

JORI KRUDLER: Thank you - good to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And finally, from Denver, Colo., we're joined by language arts teacher and librarian Julia E. Torres. Welcome to you.

JULIA E TORRES: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to start by asking each of you what your reaction was to the president and secretary DeVos' comments about opening back up schools. Let's start with you, Julia.

TORRES: I'll say that I am disappointed that the leadership of this country is - what appears to me to be giving reckless information. I teach in a community that is 98% Black and Latinx students. And we know that health care disparities have hit us the hardest. So what we're going to face is a situation where if we do go back live - which I'm still hoping will be canceled - people are going to be in a community that has already been ravaged by COVID-19 and all of the ripple effects of that that are socioeconomic. And then we're also going to have to be in an environment that is not safe because we don't have protocols in place yet that are going to require every student all day of all ages to wear masks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jori, with the understanding that President Trump is unable to really force schools to reopen - that is counties' decisions, states' decisions - what did you feel about both what the president and Betsy DeVos had to say?

KRUDLER: Well, I think what I'm most disturbed about is the fact that everybody is saying that they have the student's best interests at heart. Right now, our board has voted for a five-day, face-to-face model to begin. And I'm hoping they'll reconsider that because I really do believe that our board and our superintendent has our students' best interests in mind. But as a teacher, I know if I have 24 kids in a class, even, it's going to be really hard not only to keep them safe physically from COVID but also to be able to attend to their needs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lee, your thoughts.

FERGUSON: So I'm going to echo a little bit of what Jori and Julia said. It - none of the plans that have been put forward by the federal government by my - you know, my particular state's government - I'm in Texas - have students' best interests at heart. They also don't have teachers' best interests in mind. My state has given, basically, an ultimatum to districts saying, you will offer face-to-face as an option. No hybrid option is allowed. My campus has 5,300 students on it. We're the largest high school in the state. And how we're going to be able to keep everyone safe - you know, it's mind-boggling.

KRUDLER: I mean, our district has said the same thing. We actually did consider a hybrid method. And they're saying that's a fallback. We actually had some problems in November of 2018, as well. The Camp Fire hit our town pretty hard and burned down about 90% of the buildings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Paradise - yeah.

KRUDLER: And so - yeah, in Paradise. And we had an experience with the online learning. And I really think that hybrid, even though it's not ideal, is the best because we can keep kids safer. We can keep, hopefully, COVID under control and still be able to see the kids face-to-face. I have not talked to one teacher that does not want to be back with our kids.

FERGUSON: Yes, definitely. And that's something I would like to impart to whoever's listening. It's not that your children's teachers don't want to go to school and work with your students. We do. We so want to go and work with your kid. But we want to be safe. We want it to be safe for your kids. We want it to be safe for us. We want it to be safe for our families.

KRUDLER: Well - and I'm concerned that we're going to go back five-day, face-to-face and then have to shut down entirely again and go back to where we were.

TORRES: And that's one of the concerns that I have, as well, because there were a lot of students who did not show up for the online learning at all. So if we do go back to a face-to-face model, what's going to happen to the students that fell through the cracks? Part of it might be because they didn't have an at-home environment that was safe or that was conducive to doing quote, unquote, "work." So that's a problem.

I do work with classes and with teachers. And we were starting to get into a group of online learning toward the end of last school year. So I personally feel like online learning should be the default. And then we can do the hybrid model for those who are being left behind and for those - if there was a student or a group of students that didn't report, we should do everything we can to bring those students into the in-person model so that they can be in the school building in smaller groups and get that instruction.

FERGUSON: I completely agree. One of the things that I've said to my colleagues is that the students who really need that face-to-face instruction - because I teach high school - are the students who are at most risk of not graduating, students who may have special needs. You know, one of the things that is noticeably absent from my state's plan is, how are we going to deliver special education services to students?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you're in Texas, to be clear.

FERGUSON: Yes. And so the hybrid model would be the way to go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that this is a particular issue here in the United States because the pandemic is out of control here. And we've seen other countries try and, with partial success, were able to sort of open their schools and bring kids back into learning environments. The situation here is different.

The other part of this puzzle is, of course, the parents who - and I can speak for myself here - are finding it extremely challenging to try and hold down a job while helping to homeschool a child while trying to keep everyone safe from getting sick. What advice would you give to parents at this time?

KRUDLER: The advice I would give to parents is work with your child's teachers. In high school, a lot of parents are hesitant to reach out to teachers. But I would say, don't be. We want the best for them. And I've had several parents reach out to me. And I've worked with them to come up with ways to help their kids focus more on getting organized, to help them motivate their kids. I realize that parents have not been trained to be teachers. And that's really hard.


TORRES: I would say that, at best, school ideally is a place where students can learn to be curious and learn to seek out new information about topics and subjects and content that interests them. We want to support people in being lifelong learners. So that doesn't necessarily have to happen in a classroom where everybody is doing the same thing at the same time. So I think that when we talk about reimagining what school can look like, I think this is an opportunity to move away from the compliance-based, sort of, like, obedience-based way that school has looked and toward a new model that has the student taking ownership over their learning.


FERGUSON: Yeah. I was going to say I'll kind of piggyback off of that. The one thing I do agree with Betsy DeVos on is that it does give us the chance to reimagine what school can look like. And even though it had to take a pandemic to get us there, I mean, I think, you know, Julia hit it on the head when she said school is a place where kids should go to learn to be curious, you know? And having a teacher as a mentor rather than, here - I'm going to just pour everything that I know into your head. Here. Let me kind of nurture this thing that you have that you're really interested in so that you want to learn more about it. We want kids that are curious. We want them to be problem solvers. We want them to be innovators. And maybe this will give us the opportunity to do that in a little better manner.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lee S. Ferguson from Allen, Texas, Julia E. Torres from Denver, Colo., and Jori Kudler from Chico, Calif. Thank you all very much.

FERGUSON: Thank you so much.

TORRES: Thank you very much for hearing us.

KRUDLER: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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