07/17/2020

Can We Keep Coronavirus Out Of The Classroom?

17:28 minutes

a young asian boy with a face mask writes in a notebook in a classroom. two other students are in the class seated several desks away
Credit: Shutterstock

This story is a part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.


As we approach August, many of our young listeners and their parents are starting to think about going back to school. Usually, that might mean getting new notebooks and pencils, and the excitement of seeing classmates after a summer apart.

But COVID-19 makes this upcoming school year different. Big districts, including Los Angeles and San Diego public schools, will be completely remote this fall. Other districts are looking at hybrid programs, with some time in the classroom and some at home. Still others want kids to return to the classroom full-time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says schools should adjust plans based on how many coronavirus cases are in the community. Schools with little transmission may be able to go back to the classroom, but with more sanitation efforts and no sports events. For communities with high levels of spread, the CDC says stronger measures are needed, like staggered arrivals and dismissals, kids staying in one classroom, or all-remote education. However, Vice President Mike Pence said this week that CDC guidance should not dictate whether schools open for in-classroom instruction. 

Joining Ira to talk about what to consider in back-to-school plans are Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and Laura Fuchs, a high school history teacher and secretary of the Washington Teachers’ Union in Washington, D.C.

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What You Said

We asked parents, educators, and listeners to share how they would envision education during the pandemic and the return to classrooms on SciFri VoxPop. Listen below.

Diane from Utah:
“Hi my name is Diane from Utah. I’m a teacher here and our school is planning to go back entirely as normal, which I strongly disagree with. I think during this pandemic the only safe way to return to school is to do it online, especially the high schools which can do that, versus the elementary schools which find it a little tougher. But we need to protect our teachers and our community.”

“What I worry about most is students who are not willing to comply with social distancing guidelines.”

Jennifer from Michigan:
“I teach 11th and 12th grade students at a career tech center, where most of our work is hands on. So online education is tough. What I worry about most is students who are not willing to comply with social distancing guidelines, especially here in Michigan, and I would like to see staff and administration put forward a very clear policy on safety for all, and follow that up with clear decisive action if a student or parent chooses not to comply.”

John M. from Pleasant Hill, California:
“I’m a teacher and so is my wife. I’d say what we need is something like we had with SARS. I worked in China then and they used cameras to rapidly test huge groups of people. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was a gross indicator of whether somebody might be sick or not. Otherwise, I don’t know how we’re supposed to manage school with all the little kids.”


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Be a part of our conversations about COVID-19. We’re collecting your stories and questions about for future shows. Record your voice message on the SciFri VoxPop app

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Segment Guests

Pedro Noguera

Pedro Noguera is Dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Laura Fuchs

Laura Fuchs is a high school history teacher at Washington, D.C., Public Schools and secretary of the Washington Teachers’ Union. She’s based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re approaching August, which means for a lot of you, it’s time to think about going back to school.

Now of course, in a normal year, that might mean getting new notebooks and pencils and the excitement of seeing your classmates after a summer apart. But COVID-19 means K through 12 this year is going to be different, sort of a big experiment with different systems around the country. Big school districts, including Los Angeles and San Diego public schools, are going completely remote for the fall. Other districts are looking at hybrid programs, with some time in the classroom and some time at home. And some districts may return to the classroom full time.

A lot of people have strong opinions about what the right strategy is for school in the fall. And here’s what we heard from some of you on our Science Friday VoxPop app.

JENNIFER: I teach 11th and 12th grade students at a career tech center where most of our work is hands-on. So online education is tough. What I worry about most is students who are not willing to comply with social distancing guidelines, especially here in Michigan.

JUANITA: In terms of returning my high school students to school, I need the assurance that there’s going to be testing at the high school, so that they can tell immediately when there is an outbreak occurring.

DIANE: I’m a teacher, and our school is planning to go back entirely as normal, which I strongly disagree with. I think during this pandemic, the only safe way to return to school is to do it online.

IRA FLATOW: Those were our listeners Jennifer from Michigan, Juanita from Maryland, and Diane from Utah. So what needs to be considered for back to school plans? Joining us today to talk about this are Dr. Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and Laura Fuchs a high school history teacher in Washington, DC public schools and Secretary of the Washington Teachers Union. Welcome both of you to Science Friday.

PEDRO NOGUERA: Great, thank you.

LAURA FUCHS: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Laura, let me ask you first, how are you feeling about the possibility of returning in person in the fall?

LAURA FUCHS: Extremely apprehensive. We don’t feel safe returning.

IRA FLATOW: Are you hearing anything about a possible DC public school plan?

LAURA FUCHS: Yep. So it sounds like returning in a hybrid fashion, where teachers would be present for four days a week, teaching two different rotating groups of students who’d be on for two days, and then doing distance learning for three days, I suppose while also engaging in distance learning with the students that aren’t present.

IRA FLATOW: Well, tell me about your concern. What will you need to feel safe?

LAURA FUCHS: To feel safe, especially in DC public schools, we need to build trust. And the only way to build trust is for teachers through the Washington Teachers Union to be at the table with DC public schools, creating the plans for how to carry out something as complicated as hybrid instruction. And until that happens, we don’t feel safe returning.

IRA FLATOW: Pedro, let’s talk about that a bit. What approach would you like to see for K-12 in the fall?

PEDRO NOGUERA: Well, I think it would really help if the federal government, US Department of Education, put out clear guidelines rooted in science, what we know about the virus and the risk for how schools can reopen, and when they should not. We know now that Israel, that they reopened too soon. It became a site for which the virus spread. So there’s clear evidence you can do this wrong. And I think the teachers’ concerns are valid. But neither the federal government nor most states issued any of these guidelines, despite the political pressure to reopen.

IRA FLATOW: Pedro, what are these CDC guidelines for reopening?

PEDRO NOGUERA: The CDC has offered guidelines. They are not that clear. If you’re in a rural community where the infection rate is below 5%, it’s probably safe to reopen schools. But there are lots of rural communities where that’s not the case, here in California, where there are many agricultural workers who’ve been infected.

So you need to have a more nuanced set of guidelines that speak to the conditions in your community, and how to do this. In Los Angeles, where schools are already overcrowded, there’s no way you could open schools safely without risking infection to kids and to the adults.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. And Laura, do you need physical partitioning and materials that you don’t have?

LAURA FUCHS: I’m not going to claim to be an expert on what we would need in a classroom in order to be safe. What I do know is that these are all details that need to be discussed before students enter a building. And then we need to make sure that we have what we need in the buildings in advance of students arriving. So if it is decided that partitions are necessary, then we need to agree to those partitions and then have them in place before students come in.

IRA FLATOW: Pedro, let me follow up about the hybrid approach that Laura was talking about, that she’d expect some sort of form of. Should certain students be prioritized to come into school if there is a hybrid approach?

PEDRO NOGUERA: Yes. Because we know that during this pandemic, and during this long period of quarantine, there are many kids who have been really adversely affected, particularly kids with learning disabilities who require much more support, very difficult to provide that support online. But I would say there are a lot of young children who are learning to read who would benefit from being brought back into their classrooms so that they can get that support.

Same is true for kids who are learning English for the first time, and for children who are homeless or in foster care, whose living situation makes it difficult for them to learn at home. So I know these are tough choices. But there are clearly some kids whose needs are greater than others.

IRA FLATOW: Earlier this week, we talked to Stephen Pruitt, who is president of the Southern Regional Education Board, which makes recommendations for school policies in 16 states. And this is what he said.

STEPHEN PRUITT: Remote learning for a lot of our students is going to be very difficult. And this is an issue both in urban and rural settings. In rural, you may have the issue of actually not having broadband access. But in our urban areas, especially in our students in poverty, there may be one computer that three children have to share.

IRA FLATOW: Pedro, you do a lot of research about the digital divide, this idea that not all children have equitable access to the internet or computers. Is that a risk for not going back to the classroom?

PEDRO NOGUERA: Well, it’s certainly a huge problem with respect to access to learning. And we’ve known this for a long time, there are a lot of kids in urban and rural areas who don’t have internet access, it is not universal by any means. Which is ironic, given that we’re a tech giant in the world.

So if we go completely online, we need to figure out what we will do. There are districts, New York and Los Angeles, that have really gone out of the way to get hotspots to kids so that they can get online and make sure there are screens, that they’re not working on their parents’ phones. But I would say we have a long way to go. There are millions of kids across the country, literally, who have not had any formal education since the quarantine period began.

IRA FLATOW: Laura, you had to do some remote instructions in the spring for a little bit. How did that go?

LAURA FUCHS: Yep, so it was a difficult transition. So a lot of my students were accessing materials using their cell phones. We had not used a learning management system in my class, because we were mostly a pen and paper class. So trying to set up those systems when all the students had very suddenly stopped attending in-person class was challenging, is very time-consuming and very difficult for all the teachers that I know. And we weren’t satisfied with the results. I don’t know very many people who were satisfied with the results.

That being said, we’ve been pushing to get more training on the new learning management system, more supports for our families so that teachers don’t have to serve as the primary tech support when we don’t necessarily know how, and that our students can have better access to a higher quality distance learning instruction. Because the fact is that our schools are not yet safe to be reopened in August in the District of Columbia. And it’s not fair to put on the students who already probably have a lot of the greatest risk factors, and have seen a lot of the greatest impacts of COVID-19, to then have them have to come back into a school.

Because as a city, we’ve failed them in terms of their housing, in terms of their internet access, in terms of the financial supports that the district can afford. And so it shouldn’t fall on the schools and the teachers to put themselves at risk to solve structural inequities that we’ve been fighting to change in this city for a long time.

IRA FLATOW: This week, we also talked to middle school science teacher Megan Sorensen. She’s from Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, and it’s a remote area. But there has been a spike in COVID cases because of tourism to the county. People come there for the summertime. Her school is tentatively planning to go back to in-person instructions five days a week.

MEGAN SORENSEN: I’m very concerned about being around close to 100 students every day. It is a really small community. Everybody is related to everybody else. So one person in a family is infected, and you have aunties and uncles and cousins and everybody’s just altogether.

IRA FLATOW: Pedro, do rural schools face these different challenges for figuring out how to teach in the fall than urban schools? What are those conversations?

PEDRO NOGUERA: You know, again, the rural schools also face challenges with internet. Anybody who’s ever driven around in the rural areas knows you sometimes lose cell phone service. So that’s been a problem we’ve dealt with for a long time in this country. And so online learning in many rural areas is a huge challenge, and not really feasible.

At the same time, in many rural areas, though not all, it’s safer to bring kids back in, because there’s lower risk of contamination. However, there are counties like Imperial County in California where the infection rate from testing is over 25%. And this is because many of the residents are agricultural workers who are being infected and bringing it home to their families. So you can’t generalize about the rural areas. Each one faces its own distinct set of challenges and risks.

IRA FLATOW: We got a message from listener John from Pleasant Hill, California on our VoxPop App.

JOHN: I’m a teacher, so is my wife. I’d say what we need is something like we had with SARS. I worked in China then, and they used cameras to rapidly test huge groups of people. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was a gross indicator of whether somebody might be sick or not. Otherwise, I don’t see how we’re supposed to manage school with all the little kids.

IRA FLATOW: John is talking about thermal imaging cameras that can see heightened temperatures to see if you have a fever. And in New York, there are conversations about holding classes outside. So I’m thinking, what kind of other novel or creative solutions are you hearing about for getting back into the classroom?

PEDRO NOGUERA: I haven’t heard that many. California, we’re lucky we have good weather most of the year, so outside teaching could work in some places. Not Los Angeles, we simply have too many kids in the schools, and we don’t have enough physical space.

So it really depends a lot on the community. In places where you have a lot of land and where they won’t get kids too much exposure to the sun, I think outside teaching could be feasible. But that’s not going to work in many other places.

IRA FLATOW: Laura, do you have a reaction to that?

LAURA FUCHS: To me, really, any discussion of a quote unquote, “innovative” idea has to be vetted through teachers who would actually have to implement it. Like Pedro said, outdoor learning could be a potential option, but it might depend on the course, it might depend on the number of students. There’d still be a ton of contingencies that would need to be thought through and planned and prepared for, and then teachers would need to be trained on it and how to do it in a responsible manner.

So it’s not to say that there aren’t potentially some really great solutions out there. I’m sure there are. But anything that’s being driven by a district at the top and not being driven from the teachers themselves is not going to be effective.

IRA FLATOW: Just a quick note that I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. You’re basically saying you want the teachers to have a voice. As we say, you want the teachers to be in the room where it happens, meaning the negotiations going on.

LAURA FUCHS: Yes, I think teachers need to be a part of it. We’re the ones who will be doing the implementing, we’re the ones who know our students, we know our parents, we know our classrooms. We know the physical space, we know what supplies we’ve had in the past, possibly not having soap in our bathrooms for year after year. And we know what it’s going to take to be safe.

And so we need to be with the district, helping think through all the potential problems and contingencies and plans for when things do go wrong, because we’re teachers. We know how to problem-solve on the fly. But we need to think through all those details before we can talk about bringing students into classrooms, because we have to keep them safe if that’s what we’re going to do.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re very concerned that the teachers are not going to have the resources necessary to safely bring the kids and teachers back into the classroom.

LAURA FUCHS: In the District of Columbia, we have no reason to trust that when we’ve had to buy our own paper, and that there have been bathrooms without paper towels or working soap dispensers for years.

IRA FLATOW: Are teachers going to have to be nurses now, to be able to judge whether a kid is sick or not?

LAURA FUCHS: That’s not an acceptable position for us. We do believe that there should be a licensed nurse at every school site that is open for staff and students.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think finally, we could see teachers’ strikes across the country this fall?

LAURA FUCHS: I think a lot of what we’re talking about is that we’ve been doing distance learning since the spring. We wish that the district, and I think other districts as well wish that their leadership had worked with them from the spring till now, to be working on these plans together. But too many districts have chosen business as usual, where teachers are brushed to the side and ignored. And so now we’re having to make our voices heard.

We want to solve these problems, we want to get our students back in our classrooms. We miss them, we love them. Distance learning is not fun. But we can only do it if we’re doing it safely. Anything else is irresponsible to our students and our families and those we love.

IRA FLATOW: Pedro, what about on your side of the country, out west in California? Are teachers this upset, and do you think that they might go on strike also?

PEDRO NOGUERA: The teachers are very upset, both at the district level and the state level. They’ve made it clear that they will not support a reopening of schools unless they have assurances that it can be done safely. And this, I think speaks to why it’s so shameful that we’ve allowed this issue to become politicized. And I blame the Trump administration for doing this because, we should be using the science to guide our actions.

There are countries like Denmark and Germany that have shown you can do this well, you can do it safely, and you can do it without spreading the virus further. But we’re not learning from those countries. And we, I think have minimized the risk. We have a district here in California, Orange County, which recently voted to reopen schools and not require a mask.

And that’s strictly a political decision. That has nothing to do with the risk associated with bringing kids back. So this, I think is a real lesson in the failure of leadership to provide the kind of guidance that’s needed at this critical moment in our country’s history.

IRA FLATOW: Unfortunately, we have run out of time. Please, let me thank my guests, Dr. Pedro Noguera, Dean of the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and Laura Fuchs a high school history teacher in Washington, DC public schools, and Secretary of the Washington Teachers Union.

LAURA FUCHS: Thank you.

PEDRO NOGUERA: Thanks.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break. And when we come back, a trip to Mars sounds kind of nice right now, doesn’t it? We’ll check in with NASA’s Perseverance rover, soon to be launched. That’s coming up after this short break.

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