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The past few weeks have represented a back-to-school period like no other in recent memory. How are students, teachers, parents and administrators adapting to an academic year reshaped by the pandemic? We hear directly from some of them, and Daniel Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the tough questions about reopening.
Roughly 300,000 students in New York City Public Schools are returning to small and socially distanced in-school classes this week.
But, like nearly two-thirds of the largest school districts, many still will be doing distance learning.
Amna Nawaz looks at how the experiences teaching and learning this year have varied greatly.
But, first, let's hear from parents, students, teachers and school board members about what the first month or so has been like for them.
My name is Devin Evans. I'm a 12th grade African American literary history instructor at a school in the Far South Side.
We are hardworking on weekends, nighttime, mornings, and it takes a lot more time to prepare an engaging lesson for remote instruction.
Hi, my name is Brianna Gonzales, and I'm a seventh grader.
School is a lot harder this year with remote learning, because it feels like we have a lot of schoolwork. It's really not that much, but it feels like a lot, because you have to keep track of everything by yourself.
My name is Amanda Prieto, and I live in Miami-Dade County. I have two children in the Miami-Dade County public school system.
The first day school started with the students logging into the same platform, and what happened was, they all experienced a whole bunch of errors, so they were not able to communicate with their teachers or their classmates.
My name is Trishia Bermudez, and I live in Rockaway. Queens.
And Matthew is a 7-year-old boy with a rare chromosomal deletion. He goes through the summer. He's in District 75, which is a specialized program in New York City for students with severe disabilities.
My name is Gabrielle Void. I'm 14 years old, and I attend Frederick Douglass High School.
Some positives to virtual learning are, I can get my work done a lot faster. I could be more creative when it comes to doing my work.
My name is Jennifer Valek. I live in Charleston, South Carolina, and I have children in the second grade and sixth grade.
A month before school started, they called a special board meeting and took the five-day face-to-face option away, and said kids would go in cohorts. So, half the students would go two days a week.
Rob Barron My name is Rob Barron. I'm born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. I'm a father, and I'm currently serving my second term on the Des Moines School Board.
The governor has said that, unless we reopen our buildings, we face a handful of sanctions, possible repetition of school days at the end of the year, accreditation for our district, sanction on our administrators licenses.
I am starting to master — it's a platform called — I think it's Nearpod, where you make interactive PowerPoints.
Now, I'm not 100 percent efficient with it, but I was able to begin last week the tutorials. And I made a couple of slides that kids can begin to mark. So, once I figured out how to get that one part done, I was so happy.
I'm excited to go back to school and see everybody again, even though we will be wearing a mask on.
Because of numerous difficulties, during week two, we actually had a big school board meeting, and they unanimously voted to change the system mid-semester.
So, now we have transitioned to other district-approved tools, like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and so teachers are transitioning to those tools right now.
We had a summer school teacher. And she had a strict, like, timeline and was interactive with the students.
At one point, they told me I could leave. I appreciate all his angels, because they are, that have helped him throughout this.
Virtual learning has been a very interesting experience, to say the least. But I do hope, in a couple of months we do get to go back into the classroom.
Our superintendent, when we originally were told that we were going hybrid, that, April 8, we were to be face-to-face.
Now she has backtracked to that date. We have got to push our board go to five days face-to-face. It's exhausting.
We're looking at their success in the virtual model and trying to ascertain who needs to be back in that — in those buildings.
This is all on a path to eventually having students back in buildings, but figuring out when and how is no small feat in a district like mine.
Let's look at some of these tough questions that educators and families are facing now and how decisions are made to reopen schools.
Dan Domenech is executive director of The School Superintendents Association, and he joins me now.
Mr. Domenech, welcome to the "NewsHour."
As you heard from all those folks there, schools, in terms of how they're carrying out their learning, are all over the place across the country.
When it comes to where schools landed, going hybrid or all remote are all in-person, how are most districts doing that? And how have we seen that unfold over these first few weeks of school?
You know, Amna, it changes almost on a daily basis.
At this stage of the game, the majority of schools are actually doing remote learning. Second to that are schools that are doing hybrid, and the smallest number are doing in-person learning.
But we see this changing constantly. A school that is doing remote today may be doing in-person tomorrow, or a school that is doing in-person today may have to go remote tomorrow because there is an infection in the student on the part of students or staff.
So, it's a very fluid situation that changes on a regular basis. And I suspect that this is going to be pretty much the course for the better part of this semester, if not the entire school year.
So, this hybrid model was supposed to be sort of the best of both worlds. It allows students some kind of in-person instruction, but it doesn't have them in school all the time and therefore increase the risk of infection, goes the argument.
In the places that you have seen it unfold, how has it been working? Are the pros outweighing the cons?
The pros are outweighing the conservative, because at least we're able to get the kids in school.
The problem, of course, is that they're only in school perhaps two days a week, and the rest of the time, they're doing remote learning. So this does not satisfy the need, for example, that parents that are working and need to have their children in school all of the time.
But it certainly is the best of the possible alternatives at this point in time.
And you mentioned very briefly that the minority of schools are doing full in-person learning.
Where, by and large, are we seeing that happening? And why is it allowed to happen there?
It's happening mostly in remote areas, places like New Hampshire, Maine, Wyoming, Montana, where you have remote areas, where they really don't have the infection rate that we have in other parts of the country.
The population is smaller. The number of students in school is smaller, so the social spacing issue is not there. They can wear their face mask.
So, that's where it's happening. And it's working in those areas, primarily because they are remote and because they have not been as affected by the pandemic as urban areas are.
That's why you see that most large urban school systems are doing remote and probably will be doing remote for a while.
We should mention you're in Florida right now. That's where we're talking to you.
And Florida, as we remember, was heavily criticized for really pushing schools en masse to reopen in-person. A lot of people worried that would lead to a huge spike in cases.
And, so far, one recent analysis found they haven't really seen that huge a spike. How is that informing how aggressively other schools are planning to reopen?
Well, the problem here in Florida — and I am here at this particular point in time — is that, at the same time that schools are being pushed to reopen in-person, the governor is also removing the edicts on restaurants and beaches and other places in terms of large grouping.
It's almost business as usual. And that almost guarantees that we're going to see a spike again and that a lot of these schools that are opening in-person may have to shut down, as we see an increase in the number of cases in terms of students and staff.
This has been the play in other places. We have seen it happen. Unfortunately, it probably will happen in Florida as well.
We should note, the kids who already struggled to learn, kids who don't have full-time parents overseeing their education, who don't have Internet access at home, kids who have special needs and require more attention, they're falling further behind as they're in hybrid or remote learning.
You mentioned you're going to see distance learning for a while. What does that mean, through the fall, through the spring?
Probably for the better part of this first semester. A lot of it, in terms of what happens after January, will be dependent on, is there a vaccine? Is there enough herd immunity? What — all of these factors, I think, will come into play.
But we have heard the director of the CDC say, for example, that, even with a vaccine, a mask and spacing will still be the best practice in terms of avoiding getting the disease.
And I know a lot of families out there are wanting to get back to school, but safely, to do it safely.
That is Dan Domenech, executive director of The School Superintendents Association.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you for having me.
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Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Courtney Norris is a deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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