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A Few Schools Reopen, But Remote Learning Could Go On For Years In U.S.


School is actually coming back into session today for at least a few students in the state of Montana. The Democratic governor there, Steve Bullock, has declared that in a state with few coronavirus cases, it is safe to open up. But we should say this is happening on a very limited basis so far. Meanwhile, across the country, education leaders are putting out their plans forecasting some very big changes in what school looks like in the coming months and years. And Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Ed team has been following all of this and joins us. Hi, Anya.


GREENE: Let's start with Montana. I mean, I think a lot of parents across the country in their own communities have not even thought about the idea of school opening soon, but it sounds like it's happening there.

KAMENETZ: Yes, although on a pretty small level. So in Troy, which is a town of around 1,000 people, they are allowing special education students to come in for study halls. And they say they might hold outdoor activities as well. In Libby, which has just one middle/high school, they are allowing those older students to come in if they have a subject they've been struggling with. They can meet one on one with teachers and kind of have a little conference.

GREENE: OK, so very, very limited. How does this compare to what we're seeing elsewhere across the country?

KAMENETZ: We haven't seen any other states say that they're going to open public schools this year yet. But what we really have seen is a patchwork and a lot of times really big gaps between what's happening on the state governor level versus what the districts say that they're going to do. So, for example, in California, Governor Gavin Newsom had kind of floated the idea of opening up as soon as the summer for summer school. And then immediately the heads of schools in Palo Alto and Sacramento pushed back and said, actually, we think that it would be better to open up a few weeks later than the normal start to the school year. Similarly in Georgia, there's a disconnect. So Brian Kemp, the governor, as we've heard about, was opening up businesses early, and there are a few school districts that actually chose to end the school year early, stop doing remote learning and put a pause on that. Similarly in Washington state and Chicago Public Schools, we're hearing that remote learning might continue in some form even through the next school year or even possibly beyond that.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, it sounds like a real patchwork in different places. So, I mean, what are some of the factors that educators are thinking about as they consider when?

KAMENETZ: So there is a lot to consider. In the last few days alone, the American Federation of Teachers, the big teacher union, put out a detailed blueprint for reopening and so did the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank. And they consulted a lot of retired state superintendents and their school leaders. And as far as the basic science, these two plans have a lot in common. You know, rapid coronavirus testing would be necessary. We'd need to have some kind of contact tracing, hygiene measures, reducing class sizes to allow for social distancing. And all of this is taking place in a context where we know that many children are not getting sick. But we don't know whether or not they're spreading the disease.

GREENE: OK. So agreement on some of the things that need to be in place for this to all happen. But is there a game plan for actually how to carry this out in different communities and different districts?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, if you look at the example of Montana, you realize that the more you dig into the details, this is really going to be a very daunting effort. So, for example, the AFT says that remote learning is probably going to need to continue because if you're doing staggered schedules to limit the class sizes, that means that some of the kids are at home while other kids are at school. And so you need to have distance learning for those kids. And that means materials. It means equipment, training. It means devices and connectivity for a lot of our families. And, essentially, you're running two kinds of school at the same time. And then, you know, there's really big issues here as far as where our kids are going to be when they get back to school. So we know about learning loss; some kids are going to be farther behind others. And don't forget, this is a pandemic. It's a social crisis. It's an economic crisis. We are worried about our kids socially and emotionally and, of course, the impact on families out of work as well. And schools are the first responders for all of this.

GREENE: And how do they even begin to address some of those societal and economic pressures that we've seen?

KAMENETZ: The ideas are out there. The American Federation of Teachers is pointing to a model that's been around for a while called community schools where schools essentially are hubs for delivering social services to neighborhoods, which is really interesting, David, because what we've seen today when school shuts down, what is the one essential function that has remained in motion? It is distributing food, right? We have seen that schools across the country are really stepping up - and school food service workers - to feed kids. And so how could you then stack housing, mental health services, maybe on top of that? And then, you know, it goes even down to the really small details. Like, the AEI points out in their plan school buses. How do you do social distancing on the school bus? Do you run three times as many school buses? And where are the drivers going to come from and where is the time going to come from?

GREENE: All of this is going to add to layers of funding needed in the education system, no?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And that drives smack into the reality that state budgets everywhere are under severe, severe stress right now.

GREENE: All right. That is an idea of the challenge ahead in education in our country coming out of this pandemic. NPR's Anya Kamenetz from the Ed team, thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.