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Schools face unprecedented pressure as they grapple with reopening

Parents across the U.S. are wondering what the next school year will hold for their children. While reopening decisions will ultimately be up to state and local officials, President Trump said Tuesday he'll pressure governors to resume in-person classes. Judy Woodruff talks to Noel Candelaria of the Texas State Teachers Association and Elliot Haspel, an education policy expert and former teacher.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Across the country, parents are wondering what the next school year will look like for their children. The decision of how to reopen, and when, will ultimately be up to state and local officials.

    But that is despite President Trump saying at a White House event today that he would pressure governors to reopen schools this fall.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We hope that most schools are going to be open.

    We don't want people to make political statements or do it for political reasons. They think it's going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed. No way.

    So we're very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open. And it's very important. It's very important for our country. It's very important for the well-being of the student and the parents.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, in a virtual hearing on Capitol Hill, the president of the National Education Association offered a different view.

    She said that America's educators are alarmed by what they are seeing from politicians.

  • Lily Eskelsen Garcia:

    They see people who are making decisions to race back into that school without the proper plan to distance, to disinfect, to have the PPE, to have the health checks and the COVID testing.

    They will be at risk or put their own families at risk, put their teachers and the lunch lady and the janitor at risk. And so we are scared.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a balance that policy-makers and educators across the country are weighing.

    To discuss the push to reopen schools, I'm joined by Noel Candeleria. He is the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, which represents about 60,000 educators in Texas. And Elliot Haspel, he's a former elementary school teacher and education policy expert from Richmond, Virginia.

    We welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Mr. Candeleria, let me start with you.

    At this point, what are Texas — what, five million public school students facing? Is it known yet what the plan is yet with regard to opening schools?

  • Noel Candeleria:

    No.

    The commissioner wants the schools to be reopened and educators want to start the school year up here in August. What we don't have yet clearly is a plan, a clearly outlined plan of not just from the state, but from school districts across the state, as to standards that we can all expect to go back into when it comes to our schools.

    And we have districts who are right now looking at doing only remote learning. Some districts are planning face-to-face. Some districts are planning some type of hybrid models, but there has been no consistency or clarity across the state.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Elliot Haspel, President Trump, as we know, is urging, urging school systems, educators to open up. He says, it's good for the students, it's good for the schools.

    What is known at this point about the argument for opening the schools in September?

  • Elliot Haspel:

    So, I think it's important to start by realizing the argument is nuanced, right?

    Opening schools in a place where there are spiking transmission levels, like Texas, like Florida, it should be a different conversation than opening schools in a place like Michigan, which yesterday recorded zero deaths from COVID and only 300 new cases.

    So, sometimes, the U.S. is one country. Sometimes, we're a lot of different states and localities. This is one of the latter.

    But the argument basically boils down to, we know that, for elementary school students in particular, the children themselves seem to be at pretty low risk for catching COVID. There's some evidence that hints to the fact that young children don't transmit to other kids or to adults at a particularly higher rate.

    And so where there isn't very high levels of community transmission, it may be relatively safe, if you have all the precautions in place, and if you are fully funded to be able to make sure you have the sanitation, the PPE, all those things, to send particularly the younger students back, and that the tradeoff of not sending them back is a tremendous amount of harm to their mental, socioemotional well-being, certainly, as well as their educational well-being.

    But, in some ways, that is secondary to the cost to their holistic well-being.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Noel Candeleria, I mean, from the perspective of educators in Texas, do you see a difference between what it's going to be — take to be safe for the younger children in the elementary grades, for example, vs. children in high school or middle school?

  • Noel Candeleria:

    Right.

    I mean, as part of the challenges that we have had is that not enough educators have been part of this conversation when it comes to putting plans together in place at the local level. Educators are the experts in knowing and understanding student movement across the campus, how students move from campus to the restroom, from the school bus to home.

    And with all of these that are that are critical pieces, I mean, putting a well-thought-out plan together, both at the elementary level, at the middle school level, and at the high school level — I mean, in Texas, we have schools with as few as 50 students, and we have schools with as many as 6,000 students in them.

    And so, obviously, those plans are going to differ from community to community, based on the school's needs. But what we are not seeing right now is clearly outlined plans to ensure all of the safety for the students, for the educators, and really the community as a whole, in how the community is going to engage and interact with their public — with the neighborhood public school.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's talk about the things, Elliot Haspel, that schools are going to have to have in place in order for schools — for the parents to feel safe, for the faculty, for teachers to feel safe.

    What are the essentials that schools are going to have to have?

  • Elliot Haspel:

    Well, there are a few things.

    First, we know that masks and PPE are going to be critically important. That is just — that is essential. The — with the new recommendations the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization have put out, saying it's basically just about as good to have three feet of distance between students, between the CDC saying six feet of distance.

    And if you're doing six feet, it's almost impossible to get a full classroom. So, the three feet is sort of the way into having full classrooms. But, importantly, that is three feet with a mask.

    So, particularly for middle elementary students up, being able to have that enough masks — masks, that's really important. We do need to make sure that we have a robust staffing plan. We want it to be so, if any teacher feels at all sick, they're able to stay home and know that their class will be taken care of.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as you listen to this, Noel Candeleria, is this the kind of thing that's going to make teachers in the state of Texas feel safe going back, this debate about three feet vs. six feet, the question about whether masks are required?

    What's going to make teachers feel safe about going back into the classroom?

  • Noel Candeleria:

    Right.

    I mean, it's not just talking about the mask. It's talking about social distancing. How do we ensure proper social distancing within the day-to-day movement of the classroom? But we also need to be talking about ventilation.

    A lot of teachers here in Texas are fearful because of — over the majority of our schools have 30 to 40 — are 30 to 40 years old. So, proper ventilation within our schools has always been an issue even prior to the pandemic.

    There's always a shortage of cleaning supplies. And we don't have enough staff. I mean, a lot of our schools are without a school nurse right now. A lot of our districts haven't been fully funded to be able to provide a school nurse on every campus, to provide for paper towels to dry your hands, handwashing stations.

    Even prior to the pandemic, most of our campuses had transitioned from paper towel to air dryers, which are advised to not be used during this pandemic, because it'll spray all over the campus.

    So, there are so many things that, right now, our campuses are struggling with when they're trying to plan out opening the school, not having the supplies and equipment that they need or the staffing that is going to be needed to properly clean and disinfect the school.

    I mean, our custodians right now are following a model that has been laid out, with one custodian for about 500, 700 square feet, which is not going to be manageable right now, when you have to do some thorough cleaning on surfaces that are going to be touched by various adults.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Elliot Haspel, I think everybody agrees, ideally, the good thing would be to get children back in the classroom.

    That would be the ideal for everyone. But the reality is, there are these concerns. When you have the White House saying, we really want this to happen, we know we can't require schools to open, how much — how much pressure do you think school systems will be under?

  • Elliot Haspel:

    I think they're going to be under an immense amount of pressure.

    And it's really unfortunate. This is not one of those issues that should become political and partisan, but it already has. We saw this with the Florida Department of Education commissioner of education basically requiring all of the schools in that state, as it is experiencing an enormous outbreak right now of community transition — transmission, to at least have a plan to open.

    There was — the conservative author Jonathan Last wrote in a piece recently that anyone who says that all schools should open or no schools should open is either foolish, hysterical are pushing an agenda.

    And I think that's fairly accurate. I think we have to take this community by community and by — really lean into the local context.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are certainly going to be keeping an eye on this and many decisions yet to be made.

    But we want to thank both of you for talking with us about it today.

    Elliot Haspel, Noel Candeleria, thank you very much.

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