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Across the U.S., teachers and administrators scramble to adapt school plans

Editor's Note: The original video has been modified to remove two photographs that included students.

U.S. schools are still struggling with questions about how to open for the new academic year. In some cases, districts have reversed course in just the past few weeks, based on changing coronavirus circumstances. How are teachers enduring this uncertainty -- and their own fear? We hear from some of them, and William Brangham talks to Aleesia Johnson, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Many schools — speaking of schools — around the country are changing their plans, and they have decided to start the school year with distance learning. In some cases, school districts have reversed course in just the past few weeks.

    William Brangham is going to look at the dilemmas that school districts, teachers, parents and public officials are all facing in two states.

    But, first, let's hear from teachers, who have been grappling with their own tough choices.

    This was produced by our Student Reporting Labs teams.

  • Michelle Coro:

    Our school has really ambitious plans right now. They have decided to use a hybrid, in that there is a plan for us to go back in person and a plan for students to take classes online. It's ambitious and a little scary right now.

  • Nancy Ozon Moreno:

    I love my career. I want to go back to the classroom. I just want it to be a safe classroom.

    This is historic. We have never had a school year like this. So, the challenges are going to range from my own child care, to my own health, to my mental health, to the students' mental health, and just actually learning and engaging and feeling that this year is productive.

  • Leigh Walters:

    My husband has heart disease. I really worry about bringing the virus home to him. So, I have really had to think about what decision I will make if we do go back in person, because I might need to take a year off from teaching. And that's been — that's been tough.

  • Laura Negri:

    I have thyroid issues, which complicate everything. There's so many things you have to become conscious of in a situation now, like touching your face.

    And it's kind of frustrating for me, because I'm sure my students are the same way. And we get in the classroom, and that's a concern I have. Nobody's going to do anything wrong. We are just going to forget something.

  • Donna Griffin:

    There is a lot of people saying, we shouldn't go back to school or we should go back to school. And what I know is that education has needed some kind of an earthquake for a very long time.

    I think that we need to learn from this time, and fundamentally change, make it more equitable and make it better for everyone.

  • Krista McKim:

    Our county released a 16-page document to the teachers about a week ago, and then it was released to the community, and it was over 20 pages at that point in time.

    There's a lot of debate going between the county and the families and the teachers union.

  • Sarah Hamilton:

    Teaching in a remote world is hard. Like many educators, I have been working 10-12 hour days preparing classes for online.

  • Raef Williams:

    A point of difficulty is student engagement. When school is not in person, when you are not physically with the kids, it's really hard to build a relationship. It's really hard to get them connected and wanting to do more, do more.

  • Dennis Madrigal:

    The other big concern that I have is student accountability. Our district had this policy where no student was allowed to receive anything less than a D. We had countless students that would have applied themselves further.

  • Julie Tiedens:

    Sometimes, a lot of our students do have socioeconomic — are from a lower socioeconomic group, and that makes it difficult often for them to have access to the Internet.

  • Krista McKim:

    I don't know how it's going to look. And that is so hard to just say, I don't know. And I, as a teacher, and teachers in general are flexible, and they're adaptable, and we will make it work no matter what happens. And we just got to keep the students right in front of us.

  • Lisette Oler:

    I think the best possible thing to hope for is that my students know that I care for them and that I'm there for them, even if I'm not physically in the classroom, that I care that they have an education, even if that education is different in form.

  • Laura Negri:

    I don't know what else we can do, other than say, hey, this is the plan for right now, and when the plans change, I will let you know.

  • Margie Raper:

    This is a situation we can't control. And if we can give ourselves grace, and we can model to our students resiliency, we're going to be OK. It's not going to be perfect, but we're going to take care of each other.

  • Michelle Coro:

    I hope that we go back to school safe, sound, and healthy and that this just becomes part of our history that we are able to tell people about some day.

  • William Brangham:

    Some of those concerns that you just heard are part of the reason why school districts nationwide are changing course.

    In Indianapolis, families and students had been told that they would soon be returning to in-person teaching. That changed last Thursday, when officials announced that all classwork will be done virtually, at least until October.

    To help us understand more about that decision, I am joined by the superintendent of Indianapolis public schools, Aleesia Johnson.

    Superintendent, very nice to have you on the "NewsHour."

    Help us understand what it is that you saw going on in your community that made you want to say, whoa, we got to change course.

  • Aleesia Johnson:

    Sure. Thanks for having me.

    The decision really for us came down to what we saw happening in our community more broadly. We know and understand that schools are not in bubbles, we're not in isolation, we are a part of our greater community.

    And we were concerned that we saw the positivity rates in our community going up, and not coming down, and were really concerned about what that meant in terms of the impact it would have on our students and families returning to school with a pretty high rate of community spread at this point.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you see the virus spreading in your community at levels that you didn't like, and you say, OK, we're not going to be in person, we're going to go virtual.

    That obviously changes what the teachers have to do. How did they respond to this change of course?

  • Aleesia Johnson:

    I think that we said in June, as you said earlier, that we were going to return in person, and so our educators were getting ready for that.

    But we also said that we were going to always be responsive to what was happening in terms of the health data in our community. So, they were certainly ready to take that pivot, as they needed to do and they have been able to do.

    I also think there has been, overall, a feeling of relief of knowing that we are concerned about the safety of our staff and students foremost, and that they be in a situation where they can teach comfortably and safely for the time being.

  • William Brangham:

    And how was that received by the parents? I mean, obviously, as a parent myself, every parent wants their child to be safe when they go to school, but it's very hard to hold down a job if your kids are still at home.

    How did they take this decision?

  • Aleesia Johnson:

    I mean, you know, that's one of the things that is heaviest on my mind during this time.

    I knew that, in making a recommendation to go fully virtual to our board, and our board signing on and agreeing with that, that you can't deny the fact that that creates burden for working families, who now need to make (AUDIO GAP) decisions (AUDIO GAP) choices.

    So, I — on the one hand, we have had a number of parents, again, be very supportive of that decision and, again, feel good about the district's position on keeping students and staff safe.

    But I also know that there is a burden on a number of our working families who are having to make other accommodations for their children. And that is incredibly challenging and hard.

  • William Brangham:

    A lot of students and a lot of parents and I think a lot of teachers would acknowledge that the distance learning this last go-round was difficult. There was a lot of steep learning curve for everybody involved.

    What is your — how will you — how do you think that will improve when we try this again in the fall?

  • Aleesia Johnson:

    Well, I think we have had, first of all, more time during the last several weeks to plan for the possibility of being all virtual, which we knew was going to be a potential scenario, even as we were planning for the other ways in which our students might be learning.

    For us, for example, we were not a one-to-one school district, meaning one device per student, in March. And so we had a mixture of devices for high school students, paper and pencil for elementary students, which obviously makes it quite challenging to have live instruction, real-time instruction happening.

    We are now a one-to-one district. Every student will have a device. We have purchased a number of hot spots for our students who still need Internet access, so that at least we have those fundamental tools available.

    And then we have also been engaging with our teachers, who, obviously, were not trained to teach school in a virtual environment, and a lot of professional development to make sure that they are comfortable in thinking about the ways in which their instruction shifts from being in-person into that virtual environment.

    So, I know we will have bumps along the way, I fully expect that. We will all be navigating these new experiences together. But we feel much more prepared now, prior to, you know, March, when we had to sort of flip everything on a dime.

  • William Brangham:

    What will it take for you to feel confident that you can bring kids back into school?

  • Aleesia Johnson:

    So, we're talking regularly with the director of our local public health department and taking her guidance under consideration, obviously.

    We have also, as a district, set our metrics at looking at the 5 percent positivity rate over a 14-day period, seeing that average of 5 percent as being an important indicator for us to know that we can more safely return students into our classrooms, into our school buildings.

    So, we're really committed to making sure, until we get to that point, that we have a high-quality virtual experience and learning environment for our students to have during these first few weeks of the school year.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Aleesia Johnson, superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools, good luck and thank you very much for being here.

  • Aleesia Johnson:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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