No other country has sent students back to school with cases surging as they are here in the United States.

No other country has sent students back to school with cases surging as they are here in the United States.

How will schools reopen this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic?

In the Washington region, the picture is just beginning to become clear. For some districts, the aim is an eventual combination of in-person and remote instruction. For others, it’s fully online.

So, what’s factoring into these decisions? How much of a say do parents, students and teachers get? And what do public health experts recommend when it comes to keeping everyone safe?

No other country has sent students back to school with cases surging as they are here in the United States. So, what examples should we look to? And what effect might the president’s threat to defund institutions refusing in-person instruction have?

This show is the first in our series on Education in a Pandemic, airing every Thursday from 12-1.

Produced by Julie Depenbrock


  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo Epidemiologist and Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; @JenniferNuzzo
  • Diane Morris Area Associate Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools
  • Debbie Truong Education Reporter, WAMU; @debbietruong
  • Lewis Ferebee Chancellor, D.C. Public Schools; @DCPSChancellor

School District Plans

Here's The Status Of School District Reopenings In The D.C. Region | DCist

School districts around the D.C. region are in the process of announcing plans for the upcoming school year.


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. How will schools open this fall amid the pandemic? In the Washington region the picture is just becoming to come into focus. For some districts the goal is a combination of in-person and remote instruction. For others, it's fully online. In the first in our series on Education amid a Pandemic we look at what's factoring into these decisions, how much of a say to parents, students and teachers get, and what do public health experts recommend when it comes to keeping everyone safe? Joining me now is Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an Epidemiologist and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Jennifer Nuzzo, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:45

    JENNIFER NUZZOThanks so much for having me.

  • 12:00:47

    NNAMDIWhat are your biggest concerns when it comes to schools reopening this fall?

  • 12:00:51

    NUZZOWell, I think the largest issue we need to figure out is how we keep transmission in the community low enough to allow schools to safely reopen. I think it is absolutely possible that schools can safely reopen, but it's going to be really difficult if we have rising disease rates in the community that lives around a school.

  • 12:01:11

    NNAMDIDr. Nuzzo, is it possible to create a safe school experience during a pandemic? What would that look like?

  • 12:01:17

    NUZZOI do think it's possible. We have some good evidence from other countries that have been able to reopen schools. Of course, it starts with having low levels of infection in the community generally. But once you achieve that then thinking about how to reopen schools involves the things that we know are important for limiting and reducing transmission. So trying to keep distance between people, investing in, you know, hygiene and measures like masks and trying to limit the amount of interactions we have. So keeping class sizes small if possible. And the more time outdoors the better.

  • 12:01:55

    NNAMDIAre there examples that you think we should be looking to in other places?

  • 12:01:59

    NUZZOYeah. So it's interesting. A number of countries have taken really creative approaches. One in particular is the use of outdoor classrooms. I think a lot of people hear about that and think that's probably not possible for the U.S. But other more colder countries have been able to use outdoor classrooms. So I think we should think about if that's possible, and, you know, maybe in terms of using tents or other covered structures to allow that to continue until the weather obviously get to a point where it's really problematic.

  • 12:02:27

    NUZZOWe've also seen schools try to increase the distance and sometimes they do that by staggering when they start students or sometimes they first start by reconvening the children that we know are most likely to benefit from in-person instruction and that's, you know the younger. So starting first with those grades and then as we go on think about bringing in the older kids.

  • 12:02:52

    NNAMDIDr. Nuzzo, what do we know so far about children and the coronavirus? How likely are they to become infected and spread the virus to others?

  • 12:03:01

    NUZZOWell, what we know so far is that children can in fact get the virus. But they seem to be much less likely to become severely ill and certainly things like hospitalizations. Adults over 50 are 74 more times to be hospitalized than school age kids. So that is quite reassuring that if kids do get the virus, it is less likely to harm them in the same way that it could adults. That said, low risk is not no risk. And there are, of course, some reports of severe illness in kids that are very much a concern. But on balance a number of expert groups have looked at what the rest of the kids are and have concluded that the benefits of in-person education if done safely -- and that's a big if there, but if done safely would exceed the potential harm to kids in bringing them back to schools.

  • 12:03:54

    NNAMDIWell, no country has tried to send children back to school with the virus surging at the levels we're seeing here in this country, but there's also enormous pressure to bring students back to the classroom to make sure they're not falling behind academically. So how are school districts supposed to make those decisions? Is there a way to make everyone happy?

  • 12:04:13

    NUZZOWell, this is a really contentious issue, and I don't think it's going to be possible to make everyone happy. That said, I think you're absolutely right. All of our really positive examples of safely reopening schools come from countries where disease levels have been lower. So I think there are some parts of the U.S. where the disease trends are very much headed in the wrong direction and it's going to be very difficult I think to bring back kids to schools in a way that makes people feel safe. But in other communities where disease rates are lower, I think it's worth thinking about how it can be done and what measures can be put in place to further reduce the risks.

  • 12:04:53

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Debbie Truong, WAMU's Education Reporter. Debbie, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:04:58

    DEBBIE TRUONGThank you for having me.

  • 12:05:00

    NNAMDIDebbie, a lot of school districts are coming forward now with their tentative plans for the fall. These are very difficult decisions with no right answers. What are you noticing?

  • 12:05:08

    TRUONGYeah, so like you mentioned earlier, the plans for reopening in the fall really sort of vary depending on where in the region you live. So the school systems in Fairfax County and Loudoun County are offering students an option between virtual only instruction in the fall or a plan that would bring students back to school for part of the week and then they would spend a few days, you know, learning from home remotely. On the other hand some schools systems have decided to go entirely virtual in the fall. And those school systems include Prince George's County and Prince William County.

  • 12:05:46

    TRUONGI think school leaders are also really quick to note that, you know, no plans are really concrete, nothing is set in stone and could shift depending on the public health situation and the guidance from experts. For example, in Arlington County school leaders initially gave families the option of sending their students to school for part of the week. The superintendent there, Francisco Duran, backtracked this week and says that he wants the school systems to start entirely virtual in the fall.

  • 12:06:25

    NNAMDIHave any of these proposals been particularly divisive?

  • 12:06:29

    TRUONGYeah, I mean, I think that, you know, all of these conversations that are happening in communities have been contentious and really sort of understandably so. School systems are having to balance sometimes competing desires between parents and teachers. You know, I've heard from parents, who really are concerned about the lack of socialization that their children are getting during the pandemic and they say that remote instruction doesn't provide the same quality as in-person instruction. And on the other end I've heard from teachers who have these very real concerns about their health and the health of their families. And they also have really practical concerns about how these sort of safety recommendations are going to be implemented in classrooms.

  • 12:07:16

    NNAMDIEducation Secretary Betsy DeVos weighed in on Fairfax County's plan for the fall saying parents will be given a quote "false paradigm of either two days a week of in-classroom learning or five days a week of distance learning." How did Fairfax County respond to that criticism?

  • 12:07:33

    TRUONGSo Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand issued a statement to local media essentially saying that, you know, everyone wants to return to school normally. But that's just not possible given the recommendations from the CDC and other health experts. And, you know, they've proceeded with their plan to offer either instruction part-time in-person or a full virtual model.

  • 12:07:59

    NNAMDII should note that we reached out to Fairfax County Public Schools, but they were unable to make someone available. Debbie, the Education Department's criticism is in line with the president's own insistence that schools bring students back this fall of face the possibility of federal funding cuts. Have these threats affected any school district decisions as far as you know?

  • 12:08:21

    TRUONGNo. I'm not aware of school district in the region who have changed their plans because of Trump's threat. I think most of the school systems are following local and state guidelines for reopening. And those guidelines are informed by public health experts. I think it's also important to note that federal money is really a relatively small fraction of school budgets in most school budgets, and most school budgets are paid for through local dollars.

  • 12:08:51

    NNAMDIJennifer Nuzzo, you have your own concerns about these issues becoming less about public health and more about politics. What is especially troubling to you about the reopen schools debate and the way it's unfolding?

  • 12:09:03

    NUZZOYeah. I'm very concerned of how much of a political issue this has become. I mean, it's clearly a contentious issue and it's clearly an important issue. But I think we have now devolved into camps where it's either you're in favor of opening or you're in favor of keeping closed. And the reality I think of what we need to be talking about is much more nuanced than that. I think there are some places where reopening is probably not possible. But there are other places where may be possible. But we have to really do the hard work in planning to make it possible. This will likely require additional resources for school districts. It will require fairly creative solutions. But I think the need to get kids back into in-person education is important enough that we should kind of roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of figuring out how it can be done in the places where it is possible to do so. But if we just simply kind of make it a political issue where it's just kind of a litmus test, you know, of your politics, then I don't think we're going to be able to have those tough meaningful conversations.

  • 12:10:05

    NNAMDIDebbie Truong, I'm wondering if you've noticed this in your own reporting. Do you find students, parents and teachers separating into what's essentially camp reopen and camp keep it closed? What are you hearing from parents, students and teachers?

  • 12:10:16

    TRUONGYeah, I think, there are some folks who are firmly in one camp or the other, but I think there are also many other people who are really torn about whether or not they should send their children back to school in the fall if their school system is giving them that option. You know, many family's parents have had to juggle childcare with teaching and work, and that's unsustainable for many families. And so the prospect of, you know, having school there for their children is understandably really appealing. You know, there are also a lot of research about the negative effects on mental health that the time away from school is ...

  • 12:11:00

    NNAMDIUh, oh, seem to be having a problem getting Debbie. But let's go to Laura in Alexandria. Laura, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:11:05

    LAURAI'm a special ed teacher in Fairfax County. And I have a lot of concerns about returning to school because we'll be required to wear full PPE, meaning a mask, a face shield, a gown, possibly gloves and a lot of our kids that are medically fragile have a lot of doctor fears. And I just don't know if it will be good for our relationship with students to be wearing all of that equipment while we're trying to work with them. And I also feel like they have not answered enough of our questions about what it's going to look like.

  • 12:11:41

    NNAMDIWe only have about 30 seconds left in this segment, but Star, go ahead and say what you would like to say.

  • 12:11:46

    STAROh, thank you for taking my call. I also had a question about the impact, the safety of teachers on the job. While the contagion rates for children may be far less than for adults, I'd like to know if the children can be carriers whether they are ill or not. And I'd also wonder if you could break that down according to the age of the children, because many children ...

  • 12:12:15

    NNAMDIHold that thought. We've got to take a short break. When we come back we'll ask Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo to answer that. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:39

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about schools reopening. We got an email from Chris who says, "I am a rising 12th grader in Howard County Public Schools in Maryland. Although I recognize that my peers are losing out on a lot of essential services and contact with influential adults by foregoing in-person schooling, it seems like the general consensus among my peers is that we would rather be safe from the pandemic. In particular, my school and many neighboring schools are over capacity making it nearly impossible to social distance with large class sizes and hallways that are jam packed during class change. The Howard County Board of Education is still debating how to move forward considering the large budgetary commitments that need to go to safety." That was from Chris. Joining us now is Diane Morris, an Area Associate Superintendent in Montgomery County Public Schools. Diane Morris, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:13:32

    DIANE MORRISThank you so much.

  • 12:13:34

    NNAMDIWhat are Montgomery County's current plans for reopening this fall?

  • 12:13:37

    MORRISOur current plan involves a blended model. We've planned for what could be our optimal state. And we could get to a point where it is safe for students to come back to school and staff with some provisions in place. Knowing that, we also have to be prepared for an online only. And so similar to other districts we're going to be asking parents to share their desire for their children, so that we can plan appropriately.

  • 12:14:12

    MORRISAnd the options would be either this model where students come to the school for, you know, X amount of time. And then they're virtual the other time or just a virtual model. We know that in order to stand up our plan there are two main variables. And those two variables are the desires of the families as well as the desire of our staff, because we know that this is a difficult time for them as well. And so that's the data that we're collecting now. But we feel like we need to be planned for any possible scenario. And so that's really what we're trying to do.

  • 12:14:49

    NNAMDIHow are these decisions ultimately being made?

  • 12:14:53

    MORRISSo we like other counties are really looking at -- I heard earlier from one of your other guests, we're looking at other countries that have already opened. We're looking at other states, other districts as well as we've sent several surveys to staff and to families to get their initial thinking. We also follow the MSDE guidelines. There are several non-negotiable in the state recovery plan that we need to include in our plan. And so we use a variety of different resources and data sources to create a plan that as you shared before, you know, is it going to make everyone happy? No. But we feel like has the most information possible. We also have teams that are working on different deliverables and aspects of the plan that include internal and external stakeholders so that multiple perspectives are there and evident in the plan.

  • 12:15:50

    NNAMDIHere is Leah in Rockville, Maryland. Leah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:55

    LEAHHi. I'm a high school teacher in MCPS and I just wanted to throw out there something I feel like not many people are saying anything about, which is that I totally understand. I have three kids of my own all in MCPS the want, the desire for socialization and to get your kids back around other kids. But I really feel like the way it's going to be where they can't play together in normal ways, the classroom are going to be at reduced capacity. Everyone is going to be wearing masks or PPE. Some of the benefits that I think people feel like they're going to get from having their kids back in school, the social ones for their own kids, they're not really going to get.

  • 12:16:28

    LEAHIt's going to be very unusual at school if kids do get to go back. And I just feel like that's something that nobody's really brought up. I desperately want to go back to school and be with my students. So don't get me wrong. As a teacher -- teachers are mostly eager to see their students in-person again.

  • 12:16:44

    NNAMDIWell, Leah, thank you very much for you call. Diane Morris, it's my understanding that there are going to be phases of instruction in Montgomery County Public Schools at least that's what you're considering at this point. In answer to Leah's question how would that work? Who would be heading back for in-person school first?

  • 12:17:01

    MORRISSo again we're going to do a registration to find out from our families what their desire is. That will be July 27th through August 7th is the window. And then what we were thinking about was to stage it. Again one of your other guests talked about how you would stage it and stagger it with the younger students returning first and those students in discreet programs and our discreet special education programs. And so the first two weeks would be virtual for everyone. And then if it's deemed safe, we would working with Dr. Travis Gills from the Department of Health and Human Services, we would then start phasing them back in with the earlier grades.

  • 12:17:46

    MORRISEach phase lasts roughly two to four weeks. And so we would start with the earlier grades and then slowly move up to the higher grades with the focus on the transition years. So, you know, grade 6, grade 9 because the research again shows that those are really critical points for students, because they're learning new routines and norms and new, you know, ways to engage. And so that would be how we would stagger it.

  • 12:18:14

    MORRISTo Leah's point, the caller, we definitely are acknowledging that it's not business as usual. We have to think about this differently. And we have to create those opportunities for kids to be able to engage in a safe way.

  • 12:18:28

    NNAMDILeslie tweets, "What about families, who don't have access to computers and reliable internet? How can we support them?" Diane Morris.

  • 12:18:34

    MORRISSo in Montgomery County one of the things that we're most proud of is the work that we did last fall to get technology out to families and students. To date we have distributed over 68,000 Chromebooks to students, over 16,000 to staff and an additional 6,000 Wi-Fi devices. And so we've done a really good job. We are almost at a point where we're one to one. And so we feel great about those efforts. If the Chromebooks break or families need another they're able to go to West Goodie and pick that up. And we've even done it so it's not one device per family, because we recognize that families have more than one child. They have many children and so we're able to give those devices one to one.

  • 12:19:25

    NNAMDIHere is Jacqueline in Takoma Park, Maryland. Jacqueline, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:31

    JACQUELINEHi. Thank you, Kojo. So I have been teaching in Montgomery County for 30 years. And I ...

  • 12:19:39

    NNAMDIAnd now Jacqueline has dropped off. Diane Morris, we know that for younger kids virtual instruction can be tough. What's the county doing to engage students virtually and to give them necessary breaks from their screens?

  • 12:19:51

    MORRISSo it's a great point. And I get to wear both hats in Montgomery County. I serve in the executive staff and I'm also a parent of a rising third grader and a rising 11th grader. So I know firsthand what's it's like to put an eight year old in front of a screen and try to keep him engaged. We're really working with our staff this summer to provide professional learning opportunities around how do you, again, deliver content in a way that's engaging over, you know, using technology that allows for those breaks that makes room. We don't want our students to be fatigued.

  • 12:20:28

    MORRISParents are clearly concerned about screen time. So are really working with staff using our central office staff to provide professional learning around that to determine those best practices to do those things, to keep our younger children engaged, giving them frequent breaks, having them stretch. You know, social emotional learning is a huge component of our plan, and morning meetings so that we're checking in to see the wellbeing of our students as well as the wellbeing of our staff. So that is a component that we're addressing through the summer.

  • 12:21:05

    NNAMDIIn the minute or so we have left in this segment, how many families so far has selected a combination of in-person and online instruction?

  • 12:21:13

    MORRISWe have not given our survey yet. That will be going out July 27th. So we did do preliminary surveys and roughly 42 percent of the parents surveyed and I believe we surveyed around 30,000 parents said they would send their children back to school. And then we had about 30 percent who just weren't sure. And the remainder said absolutely not. So I think our parents rightfully so are waiting for the developed plan and the information that they need in order to make an informed decision.

  • 12:21:45

    NNAMDIBut parents can opt out of in-person instruction for their children. But how much of a say do teachers get here in the 30 seconds or so we have left.

  • 12:21:53

    MORRISSo that's something we're certainly working through. You know, what does the law say? What are the concerns of our teachers? Are we able to mitigate them? You know, we're being very honest that this is about reduction and not elimination. Safety is important. At the end of the day, what I'll say is it seems like it is a personal choice. It's beyond politics are values, and so we're working with our associations right now.

  • 12:22:19

    NNAMDIOkay. Got to take a short break, we'll be right back. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:22:41

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about schools reopening and how they're going to do that. Debbie Truong, we know that some teachers are saying that in-person classes just won't work. What concerns have you been hearing from teachers who are hesitant to return to the classroom?

  • 12:22:53

    TRUONGYeah, I've heard concerns from teachers especially elementary school teachers, who say that it's going to be really challenging to keep a distance of six feet between their students and themselves in between students. I talked with a third grade teacher yesterday who said that, you know, she doesn't think that she'll be able masks on her students throughout the school day. And, you know, I've also just heard concerns about instruction. Teachers, for example, won't be able to work closely with students in small groups. And students won't be going to lunchrooms and mixing with people in that way. And so they feel like the socialization in that respect will be lost.

  • 12:23:40

    NNAMDIDiane Morris, I wonder how you would respond to those concerns from teachers who feel going back to school this fall puts them right in the line of fire for this virus? What would you say in particular to the Maryland State Education Association and the Maryland PTA, who are requesting remote instruction for the start of the school year?

  • 12:23:59

    MORRISI would say that we absolutely understand their concerns, and that we're working through to create conditions that, again, put their safety in the forefront. You know, we're talking about PPE equipment, what are we going to be able to offer, having masks for students, having gloves, having sanitized stations available when you enter the building. Ensuring that kids are washing frequently. Thinking about how kids move around a building to eliminate or to rather reduce those risks.

  • 12:24:35

    MORRISWe also know that there are some students that just will not keep that mask on. So, for those staff members, you know, do we look at shields? So, we're looking at all the possible scenarios and the best ways to be able to protect our staff.

  • 12:24:53

    NNAMDIDr. Jennifer Nuzzo, these highbred approaches to education are becoming fairly common. What are your thoughts on this model?

  • 12:25:00

    NUZZOWell, I mean, I think the key here is to allow some flexibility . And if that's a way that we can, you know, allow some in-person education then that seems preferable. You know, I think some of the earlier comments pointed to the fact that there will just be some that do not feel comfortable. And, you know, even if we do all that we can to try to mitigate risks, there will still be some degree of risk, just like there is anywhere else in the community.

  • 12:25:28

    NUZZOAnd one of the challenges in dealing with this is that how we prioritize the benefits and risks differ among us. So, I think allowing flexibility and allowing families to opt out if they need to and, in some cases, teachers that don't feel comfortable, you know, perhaps giving them alternatives is helpful. But the key here is, you know, let's think of some creative solutions and figure out how it can be done, rather than just, I'm afraid put this in the too hard box and it'll stay there for a long time.

  • 12:25:58

    NNAMDIHere's Lois in Sykesville. Lois, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:26:02

    LOISHi. I have heard nothing about the experiences of the daycare center open right now for essential workers. How were they -- what are their results? Are they having a lot of disease? It seems like that would be a wonderful source of data, and I haven't heard a thing about it.

  • 12:26:27

    NNAMDIDiane Morris, have you been looking at daycare centers at all?

  • 12:26:31

    MORRISSo, Essie McGuire is our associate over operations, and she has been really working with the county and their daycares, because the caller raises a good point. They have been doing this. They are thinking about this work differently. They're strategizing, and so we are leaning to them, even about what's the classroom setup like? What are the routines that are established?

  • 12:26:56

    MORRISYou know, we can't have stations, per se, where kids are gathering, learning stations like we have so what are things that they're doing differently? So, Essie has really made it her point to spend some time with those individuals, to then apply the learnings to our plan.

  • 12:27:17

    NNAMDIWell, we are supposed to be joined at some point by Lewis Ferebee, Chancellor of D.C. Public School, but he is in a press conference right now with Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has apparently announced that D.C. Public School will not be making a decision on this issue yet until July 31st. But we do have Elizabeth Davis, the president of the Washington Teacher's Union, on the line. Liz Davis, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:27:42

    LIZ DAVISGood afternoon, Kojo, and thank you for inviting me.

  • 12:27:45

    NNAMDISo, what are your concerns about D.C. schools reopening? How has the union been involved, if at all, with this planning?

  • 12:27:53

    DAVISWell, of course, we have not been as involved as we'd like to be. The teacher's union and students are eager to get back to in-person teaching. Educators miss their students and students are missing their teachers, but we certainly want to ensure that the return to in-person teaching is going to be safe. And that has been our position, and 93 percent of our teachers agree with that.

  • 12:28:15

    DAVISWe have basically developed a reopen plan for D.C. Public Schools. We've shared it with the chancellor and, of course, he and his team are looking at that. We want to also ensure that throughout the summer -- and I'm happy to hear that the mayor is delaying her decision, because we had some serious concerns about reopening without having clear information as to how that was going to happen, given if we have limited funding. But teachers agree that we want in-person teaching. They're simply saying we want it done safely.

  • 12:28:45

    NNAMDIWell, I remember earlier when the mayor had put together a special commission on education, it was only after you protested about not being included that you were eventually included. Are you concerned that teachers in general and the Washington teachers union in particular are not as intensely involved in this planning as you would like?

  • 12:29:06

    DAVISI have been concerned with that issue for the last decade, Kojo. And, of course, we're trying to change that mindset within the school leadership. However, it's a challenge, redirecting, but we are on the right path. Chancellor Ferebee understands that a plan that does not include the voice of teachers, first and foremost, and parents, is a plan for disaster. Parents want to trust the system, but they simply have not been given any reason to do so. And they want to see details as how soon they're going to reopen, where will the funding come from in order to ensure that the proper PPE, that the technology issue is going to be resolved, which it has not, at this point.

  • 12:29:47

    DAVISAnd, of course, we are also hoping that Chancellor Ferebee is going to allow his leadership team to work alongside our (unintelligible) ReOpen taskforce members. Over 200 teachers have been working on this report, Kojo, for over six weeks. And, of course, they have specific details, unlike the recommendations coming from the mayor's reopen taskforce. These teachers provided specific details for how schools should reopen safely. And they align those details with CDC guidelines and the state superintendent's guidelines for safety.

  • 12:30:17

    NNAMDIBefore we let you go, let's hear from Sydney in Washington, D.C., who I think is a teacher in D.C. Public Schools. Sydney, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:30:24

    SYDNEYThank you. I am a teacher, and I don't want to repeat things that other people have said. I teach English as a second language in elementary school. Teaching online is not the same as teaching in person. But, for me, teaching in-person means sitting at the small table with five or six kids up very close to me. We're looking at what's going on in each other's mouths. We're spraying droplets everywhere. And that's not what it's going to have to look like when we go back.

  • 12:30:55

    SYDNEYMy big, big overall concern is being able to trust the safety of the environment. I understand that the risk factor -- there's a risk factor everywhere. And there must be an acceptable level of risk that, for each individual, may be different, but public policy-wise there has to be an acceptable level of risk. And I'm going to put this out here. I do not trust that the environment will be made as safe as it possibly could be. And I'll give you an example.

  • 12:31:29

    SYDNEYWe've had flickering lights in our building, and we put in work orders and work orders and work orders in our classroom, in the art classrooms. And it took a year-and-a-half to get someone to come out and change the lights for us. I don't see how they're going to have ventilation systems set up. I don't see how they're going to deal with behavior. And just take this as an example, or as a question. If you have a pod of children, a little cohort of children and a teacher trying to minimize contact and spread -- broad contact, by contacting that group, what happens when a teacher calls in sick? Where do you get the substitutes from?

  • 12:32:17


  • 12:32:17

    SYDNEYYou can't double up classrooms anymore.

  • 12:32:20

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you for raising those issues. Sydney identifies as a teacher at Whittier Education Campus in D.C. Public Schools. Liz Davis, what would you say to Sydney?

  • 12:32:31

    DAVISI understand Sydney's mistrust, and teachers who were in those schools before the pandemic reported issues of, you know, cleaning issues, a lack of sanitizing. So, they have reason to be concerned about whether or not DCPS is going to be able to have the safety guidelines in place by August 31st. I'm strongly opposed to reopening in-person at the time. However, I do believe that a very good return to in-person teaching can be hammered out in collaboration with teachers.

  • 12:33:00

    DAVISAnd, of course, we appreciate the insight of the student's schedules that the chancellor and the mayor have provided, but how specifically will DCPS protect the health of our teachers and our students if we return to schools before we're ready? Even on a staggered schedule, that would be risky. And we've heard a lot about guidance from the CDC and (unintelligible) and DCPS, how they're going to provide PPE. However, there's no public spending plan on local budgets for PPE.

  • 12:33:25

    DAVISWe've long had issues of having the basic. So, tissues, what Sydney eluded to, having the basics in schools before the pandemic. And so what we want to know, what is going to be different in reopening schools in person after this -- after we reopen this fall?

  • 12:33:43

    NNAMDIAnd finally this, Liz Davis. A listener tweets: Many of our DCPS teachers with school-age children live outside of D.C. They're going to be the hardest hit by the hybrid model. Furthermore, many teachers who live in D.C. with children under three, like myself, are struggling to find adequate and affordable childcare in five weeks. That's going to be an issue, isn't it, Liz Davis, finding childcare?

  • 12:34:05

    DAVISThat is absolutely going to be an issue, Kojo. We have over 40 percent of our teachers who live outside of the district. And the majority of them live in PG County, who has just announced that they are opening in January. Now, that creates problems, because those teachers who live in PG County, but now with school-age children, or living with members of families who have underlying health conditions, that is going to create problems for them. And we need to have some detailed plan worked out that would allow teachers such as that to opt out of in-person teaching.

  • 12:34:35

    DAVISAnd until we have that -- and that can only happen in collaboration. We cannot do it in isolation the way DCPS is doing it now. We're hoping that they're going to redirect, in the next few days, and begin working with teachers and the teachers union on hammering out a plan that is actually going to work for all teachers, but also provide the options for those teachers who have students -- school-age children at home. And also those teachers who have underlying health conditions themselves or living with a member of their family with underlying health conditions.

  • 12:35:04

    DAVISWe just need to see more details as Miss Diane Morris stated in her interview. I listed to that. Basically, parents and teachers who are in the District are still waiting for a detailed plan of how schools are going to reopen. Not just trust us, we'll do the right thing. That will not work.

  • 12:35:22

    NNAMDIElizabeth Davis is president of the Washington Teachers Union. Thank you so much for joining us, Liz.

  • 12:35:27

    DAVISThank you, and have a good day.

  • 12:35:29

    NNAMDIDr. Jennifer Nuzzo, when we were talking earlier about this tension that many families are experiencing, I'm wondering what you would tell parents of guardians who want to do what's best for the kids, but they're buckling under the pressure at home. What should they do this school year? You're an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins and you're also a parent. How are you making these decisions in your own family?

  • 12:35:50

    NUZZOYeah, it's really hard. That's, I guess, one of the first things I would say to other parents, is it's really hard. You know, I feel that our circumstances are such that if schools were to reopen in the fall, I would feel comfortable sending my children. But I very much want the teachers there to feel comfortable, as well. I don't think it's going to serve my kids or any kids well if teachers feel like they're being held hostage in the schools, unwillingly.

  • 12:36:17

    NUZZOSo, I think it is possible to do, and to do so without too much fear. I mean, I think one of the earlier callers made an important point about daycares and other things that have been open this whole time. My four-year-old's in daycare and my son's in camp right now. And so, you know, they have made arrangements, and they have made modifications. And they're actually working better than I think we would've expected them to work. So, just want to say that I understand the concerns, but I also think that this is important enough that we should try to work through these concerns.

  • 12:36:54

    NNAMDIHere is Austin in Montgomery County. Austin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:36:59

    AUSTINHi. How are you, Kojo? A longtime listener, first-time caller. So, I want to say one of the benefits -- I'm in Montgomery County and they did an excellent job this year starting this whole program from scratch with distance learning. My daughter is diagnosed ADHD, and she also has other issues. The positive was, she was able to sit in her room, it was quiet, they commute the other students over Zoom. So, she was able to concentrate a little easier.

  • 12:37:28

    AUSTINBut my wife, she was COVID positive about 90 days ago. She's in the hospital, and it was very scary at that time. It was very touch and go. We were not sure what was going on. She was very sick. And the fear of my child bringing home COVID again, because we don't know how long the immunity will last, if it lasts at all, is a very big concern for us.

  • 12:37:49

    AUSTINSo, I would definitely be for having distance learning remain, and I don't think there could be any -- like, I understand there are students, there's parents out there that aren't in a situation where they can stay at home with their kids, and I get that. But my personal opinion is that we should do only distance learning until we can get COVID under control.

  • 12:38:12

    NNAMDIDr. Jennifer Nuzzo, how about those concerns about people who have had COVID-19 and have recovered and concerned about getting it again?

  • 12:38:23

    NUZZOYeah, I think this is an open question. We're still learning more about this virus, and I think the prevailing thought is still that there may be some level of protection for some time, but there are also still questions about that. And particularly, if people have been infected and -- mildly infected, that may particularly mean some waning antibodies.

  • 12:38:46

    NUZZOBut, you know, again, this is one of these unknowns, and this is why it's important for schools to -- if they're going to reopen, to think about these precautions, because these are very valid concerns that parents and staff have about whether it's -- you know, how we can make these environments as safe as possible.

  • 12:39:05

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Lewis Ferebee, the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Dr. Ferebee, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:39:12

    LEWIS FEREBEEThank you, Kojo. I apologize I'm joining a little late here, but wanted to have an opportunity to respond and join the conversation.

  • 12:39:21

    NNAMDIWell, you're joining us late because you were at a press conference with Mayor Bowser. So, can you give us the latest on what the planning outlook is for D.C. Public Schools?

  • 12:39:31

    FEREBEEYes, happy to do so. So, the mayor announced today that the decision about the school year for '20/'21 would now be made on Friday, July 31st. And the reason being is we continue to prioritize health and safety. And given that the top priority in conditions are shifting somewhat in the District of Columbia, we believe it's in our best interest to postpone that decision until the 31st.

  • 12:40:02

    FEREBEEWe also did share, or had the opportunity to share with families our schedules for hybrid instruction should we move to a learning in the school building structure. And we also shared with families that there'll be choices. And just so listening to a portion of the conversation, it's important to understand and reiterate for our families that DCPS will provide choice. And at the request of our families, we'll offer an all-virtual option. And then we'll also offer a hybrid option, which includes the ability to have in-person instruction.

  • 12:40:44

    FEREBEEAnd we heard from over 17,000 students, families and staff which helped inform our proposal that was discussed today. And there's three key principles that are driving this work, Kojo. And that is, we know that learning in person is optimal. And we know that our students learn best when there's in-person instruction. But we're also, secondly, prioritizing safety. And we want to ensure that there are robust health and safe protocols, and families can choose virtual only if they would like to do so. And then, finally, we'll continue to operate with equity in mind, knowing that students may need additional access to supplies, materials and support, accordingly.

  • 12:41:34

    NNAMDIWhat plans, if any, have you looked to as models for what you're trying to do?

  • 12:41:39

    FEREBEESo we have really relied, Kojo, a lot on the guidance from D.C. Health, which is also grounded in the guidance from the CDC. And what's important there is this notion around maintaining a commitment to six feet distancing, and also face coverings, which have been proven in the science and research to reduce the contraction of COVID. And so that will be a part of our hybrid learning model, in addition to ensuring that there's cleaning, sanitizing, minimal interaction of large groups of students.

  • 12:42:25

    FEREBEEAnd, finally, this principle of cohorting students, ensuring that we're able to appropriately contact trace. And if there's a case of COVID, we can easily communicate it with those individuals that are in close contact with that person involved with the case.

  • 12:42:46

    NNAMDIHere is Nasreen in Washington, D.C. Nasreen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:51

    NASREENHi. I wanted to address an issue that I feel that's very important, that's actually on the CDC website. And that is the infrastructure, the actual buildings in the public school systems in the United States is not known to be the best. And, therefore, we know that COVID can actually be circulated from the ventilation system. How is that being addressed for the protection of the teachers?

  • 12:43:19

    NASREENSo, we focus on the fact that kids can actually survive this and they can recover quickly, but we're not focused on the fact that these kids can transmit it to other people within their own families, the teachers' safety. So, we need to look at the buildings. The second part is I have two university students in my household that will be going to New York in the fall. And we've chosen not to go, obviously, because the young -- that age group has been the most careless in their social distancing and their partying. And living in the dorms obviously is not the best scenario and, therefore, they will stay at home.

  • 12:44:04

    NNAMDIOkay. Lewis Ferebee, how about the ventilation of buildings? Have you been looking at your buildings?

  • 12:44:10

    FEREBEEAbsolutely. We have done analyses of the ventilation, the operation of our HVAC systems to ensure that there's appropriate filtering, and the air in the building will be safe for students and staff. In terms of what was referenced earlier around, you know, can young people appropriately social distance, we believe there is precedent for that. We have had numbers of daycare that have been opened since March and have successfully supported students and provided care throughout the day.

  • 12:44:50

    FEREBEEAnd so we believe, in great confidence, that it can be done. However, we know that it should be done with small groups of students. And we are prepared to limit classrooms to no more than 12 people in a room. And we're prepared to maintain social distancing. We also will maximize our campuses and utilize, in different ways, spaces like our gymnasiums, and also maximize outdoor space, as well. We'll also have a staggered entry and dismissal. We'll serve meals primarily in the classroom in a grab-and-go fashion. So, what you're hearing is lots of practices and procedures that would limit mass gatherings, and also help us maintain successful social distancing, and also cohorting.

  • 12:45:41

    NNAMDISome teachers have said they don't trust the District to meet these health guidelines. What would you say to assure them? We only have about 30 seconds left.

  • 12:45:50

    FEREBEEYeah, I think it's a conversation that we need to keep having. It's a conversation that we're having with the Washington Teachers Union who represent our teachers. And I think it's important that we continue that conversation, so they understand all the work that DCPS has done and will continue to do to keep staff and students safe.

  • 12:46:07

    NNAMDILewis Ferebee is the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Lewis Ferebee, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:46:13

    FEREBEEThank you. Safety of our students and staff will remain a priority. I appreciate you allowing me to speak today.

  • 12:46:20

    NNAMDIDebbie Truong is WAMU's education reporter. Debbie, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:46:25

    TRUONGThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:46:27

    NNAMDIDiane Morris is an area associate superintendent in Montgomery County Public Schools. Diane Morris, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:46:34

    MORRISThank you so much. I wish you well.

  • 12:46:37

    NNAMDIAnd Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo is an epidemiologist and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Again, thank you all for joining us. Today's show was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up Friday on The Politics Hour, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh is not happy with Governor Larry Hogan's decision to host regular in-person elections this fall.

  • 12:47:00

    NNAMDIAnd we hear from Loudoun County Chair Phyllis Randall on removing a Confederate monument in Leesburg and how the county is coping with the coronavirus. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows