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Teachers, Parents To Protest School Reopenings Without Adequate Funding

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Happy August because this month means it's back to school in many school districts across the country. But there is so much anxiety out there among parents, teachers and students about what that's going to look like, anxiety only made worse by the news we got recently out of Indiana where a student got a positive COVID-19 test result just hours after their school reopened its doors. And today, in more than 25 states, teacher unions are joining with parent groups to demonstrate against opening schools without adequate funding.

NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz is with us this morning to talk about all the things. Hi, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So let's start with the situation in Indiana. This was at a school in the city of Greenfield. What is important to take away from that situation?

KAMENETZ: Well, we don't want to overgeneralize, Rachel. Right? It's one case. It's not data. And actually, that is a problem in itself because we do not have a national database right now tracking these kinds of cases in schools. But you know, the story in Greenfield does illustrate the logistical issues that might come into play even after a school has already opened up.

MARTIN: So parents must be wondering, what if this happens at my kid's school, though, right? I mean, what if school reopens and then someone does test positive?

KAMENETZ: So districts have started to release details on what is supposed to happen. And first of all, I should say these plans rely entirely on testing actually being available with a reasonable turnaround time - within a few days - and a robust local public health department that can do contact tracing. And if you have those two things, the basic principle is if you find one case, you can possibly just test and quarantine the folks who came into close contact with that one person. That seems to be what happened in Indiana. Ideally, at the schools practicing distancing and breaking kids into small cohorts, it could just be a few people that have to quarantine or maybe just one classroom pod.

On the other hand, if you find more than one case across different cohorts or if cases tend to be rising in the broader community, then you might be shutting the whole school down. And so families are wrapping their head around the idea, oh, my gosh, it's not just that I only have school on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, it is also that on any given day, I have to brace for school being closed by the health department.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, I mean, we have - if you look across the ocean and you look at Europe, I mean, there are schools there that have reopened safely for the most part. And why are we not able to point to them and say, hey, Europe made it happen, why can't we?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. I mean, there's a variety of experiences in Europe, in Asia, a little bit of a mixed bag in Israel. I think the problem is, Rachel, it's almost not useful to get into the details of what they did because what public health experts are saying is that you just can't open schools safely unless a pandemic is well under control in the local area. And that's just a couple of places in the U.S. right now. You know, no face mask, no disinfectant is really going to work 100% against a rising caseload or a high positivity rate on tests.

MARTIN: Anya, what does the science say, the most up-to-date science, on how children are affected by the virus?

KAMENETZ: There have been a few new papers and case studies out in the past few days that do underline that children and teens, at times, they can get this virus. And they can potentially spread it pretty efficiently. At the same time, the overarching evidence has still been that children and even teens don't get sick as often or as severely with coronavirus as adults. But you know, that's cold comfort to the adults who are heading into school buildings to work closely with lots of children in a few weeks.

MARTIN: Right. So what about those adults? What are they - what are the teachers saying at this point?

KAMENETZ: So I spoke to Randi Weingarten. She's the president of the American Federation of Teachers. And she recently said publicly that her union has authorized local safety strikes across the country if teachers are forced to come back to work under unsafe conditions. And the AFT has set those conditions, its own updated school reopening guidelines and the definition of what they consider safe. And they include everything that epidemiologists say are most important to stop this virus - adequate ventilation, masks for everyone, the ability to properly distance at least 6 feet at all times, making sure there's hand-washing supplies, which is a basic that not all schools have. Weingarten told me that there are three big problems with this plan.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: I had hoped the only big problem would be the lack of federal money because then if we could get a package from McConnell, that would solve a lot of problems. One is the virus surge, and the second is credibility.

KAMENETZ: Credibility, she means, you know, Republican leaders who have pushed reopening the schools come what may.

WEINGARTEN: It sent a signal that safety didn't matter.

KAMENETZ: So leaders and, honestly, parents as well in the interviews I've been doing, Rachel, and in polls - they really echo this lack of trust in the leadership at all levels.

MARTIN: NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz, thank you.

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