S1E40: Back to School / Arne Duncan, Allison Slater Tate, Stephanie Gounder

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“The goal is not to reopen schools; it’s to keep schools open. And if we reopen too fast, just as we reopened States too fast, you saw what happened. States had to shut down and schools would have to shut down. And that for me would be just a travesty. You re-traumatize children and further endanger… their parents and teachers and bus drivers and custodians.” – Arne Duncan, former US Secretary of Education

Normally at this time of year, students would be gearing up for the back-to-school season. But this year, school will look very different for students across the nation. And an even bigger question remains: should schools be opening at all? On today’s episode, we hear from Arne Duncan, former US Secretary of Education from the Obama administration, Stephanie Gounder, a charter school principal in Houston, and journalist Allison Slater Tate. Together, they look back at the impact of remote learning on students, parents, and teachers, and discuss how schools could safely reopen — if at all. Nominations for the 2020 People’s Choice Podcast Awards are open through July 31st. To show your support, please go to podcastawards.com and nominate us in the People’s Choice and Health categories.

This podcast was created by Just Human Productions. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast. We’re supported, in part, by listeners like you.

Annabel Chen: Hi, I’m Annabel Chen. I’m an intern working on the “Epidemic” podcast. Nominations for the 2020 People’s Choice Podcast Awards close today, July 31st, but there is still time to show your support. Please go to podcastawards.com and nominate the
“Epidemic” podcast in the “People’s Choice” and “Health” categories. That’s podcastawards.com. Thank you!

Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. And this is “Epidemic.” Today is Friday, July 31st.

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance journalist who has been writing a lot about school and parenting during the pandemic. She’s also the mother of four kids. Allison and I have been friends since college.

Allison Tate: And I also am a high school college counselor. So I am in a school… a lot.

Celine Gounder: Back in March, the pandemic was raging in New York City. But where Allison lives, outside of Orlando, Florida, things felt… normal.

Allison Tate: We were very lucky early on in the pandemic to have really shockingly low numbers of virus. I think that we were a bit complacent and cocky.

Celine Gounder: Allison’s husband works for a big law firm. They had started closing their offices around the country because of COVID in early March. But like Allison said…

Allison Tate: I think that we were a bit complacent and cocky.

Celine Gounder: Spring break was just around the corner. She had a big trip to London planned for her and two of her kids.

Allison Tate: And, I asked my good friend Celine, should I go? And she said, “No.” And so I went anyway, cause you know, that’s me being an American. Right?

Celine Gounder: She knew there was a risk that she might get stuck there and need to quarantine. But she had a friend in London who offered to put them up if they had to stay. So… she went.

Allison Tate: I took all my eight-year-old’s hoard of Bath and Body Works hand sanitizer, which if you have an eight-year-old girl, you know, they love to stash the Bath and Body Works hand sanitizer. So we had plenty of that. You could smell us coming from a mile away.

Celine Gounder: But when they came back to the United States a week later, it felt like a very different place.

Allison Tate: When we came home, it was March 19th. We flew into an empty Miami airport, which was pretty eerie and dystopian. I’ve never seen the Miami airport without a jillion people in it. There was nobody, literally nobody.

Celine Gounder: While they were out of the country on spring break, her kids’ school decided to shut down.

Allison Tate: The end of the school year was pretty surreal. I had teachers saying to me, you really think we’re not going to have prom said, yeah, I really think we’re not going to have prom.

Celine Gounder: In the meantime, school continued… sort of. The school where Allison worked had started distance learning online. But she had a different name for it: crisis learning.

Allison Tate: It was definitely crisis learning. Our teachers were thrown into a situation where we did not have anything set up for this kind of teaching situation.

Celine Gounder: Right now, families across the United States are starting to find out what their school is going to look like in the fall. In this episode of “Epidemic,” we’re going to look at how parents, teachers, and students handled remote learning last spring… and we’ll take a look ahead at what school during a pandemic could look like in the fall.

While Allison was on spring break in London, my sister Stephanie Gounder was trying to figure out how she was going to keep her own school going.

Stephanie Gounder: I think, you know, we started to get a lot of questions from parents and staff around what we were doing in March as we were heading towards spring break.

Celine Gounder: Stephanie is the principal of a 6-12 charter school in Houston. Just before her school was about to go on spring break, there was a district-wide meeting about what to do. The decision was made to close the schools.

Stephanie Gounder: We canceled the Friday of school before spring break. And we haven’t been back in the building since.

Celine Gounder: There was a dash to get every student setup for virtual learning. Many students received laptops from the school because they didn’t have access to computers or the Internet to complete coursework at home. And once that was figured out, there was more work ahead. Stephanie told me some teachers were able to find ways of engaging their students, even through the computer screen.

Stephanie Gounder: You know, I had like my French teacher watched movies in French with the kids and they would have discussions over the chat bar and talk through some of their takeaways.

Celine Gounder: Online office hours, where students could connect with their teachers for extra help on an assignment or even just to talk, was a good option for some kids. And there were creative solutions to incentivize students to stay engaged with their work even if they had to stay home.

Stephanie Gounder: And so, you know, we had raffles going on every week or kids who participated the most were entered in a pizza raffle and we’d have pizzas delivered to their house. We use online, you know, meal delivery services, Uber eats, where, you know, students who completed the most assignments are students who, you know, mastered objectives are turned into something high quality or engaged in the discussion. We get Uber eats delivered to their house.

Celine Gounder: Allison’s daughter, who was in the second grade, had a great experience with remote learning. Her teacher had obviously done a lot of work. There was a clear outline for every day, with step-by-step instructions for the kids. Videos, links; the works.

Allison Tate: I did not have to be involved with my second grader’s work at all. She got on each morning on her own. She clicked through her stuff; it took her about two hours a day, all told. And then on Fridays they had an optional web chat where all the kids were in their pajamas, eating cereal and showing off their Guinea pigs, and kind of checking in with the teacher and feeling like they had some kind of connection. When school ended, she started feeling a lot lonelier and feeling a lot more isolated and bored. So that should tell you that the crisis learning was actually pretty effective for her.

Celine Gounder: But Allison’s son, who was in the 7th grade, was struggling.

Allison Tate: He was very overwhelmed because he’s dyslexic and reading everything online was overwhelming and intimidating to him, and he really relies on having a teacher and a classroom to interact with and bounce off of in order to basically get through school. So the first day of crisis learning, he looked at me and said, “I can not do school without school.” And it was a very, very long road for us.

Celine Gounder: They had to drop some of his classes. His teachers tried to reach out… but the strain of being stuck at home, away from friends, the lack of in-person support, and frustrations that came with his learning disability took their toll.

Allison Tate: The seventh grader pretty much peaced out and did not really want to do anything. He kind of acted as if school was not a thing anymore, which was not an uncommon reaction from what I heard, being a school administrator and also from other parents.

Celine Gounder: And kids aren’t the only ones with mixed feelings about virtual learning.

Stephanie Gounder: It was a mixed bag. I think no one loved virtual learning. Parents were glad that the school was contacting them a lot and following up. But, you know, we got feedback on these platforms are really hard to use and I’m as a parent and struggling to navigate, you know, if I have multiple kids, how to keep up with information for all of my kids.

Celine Gounder: Teachers also struggled with their new roles online.

Stephanie Gounder: I think again, a mixed bag. I think teachers miss the interaction with kids one-on-one. The role of a teacher changed a lot. A lot of the role of the teacher changed to let me keep up with the kids, let me figure out where kids are. Let me figure out why they’re not doing that work. And that felt a little bit draining.

Celine Gounder: Having students away from school this spring also interrupted a lot of other services that schools provide beyond education. Stephanie says that the shift online made it clear how important that one-on-one interaction is when it comes to supporting kids emotionally.

Stephanie Gounder: You know, in conversations and discussion groups, kids were having with teachers, they were definitely conveying, you know, stress, anxiety, a level of just, you know, depression around like lack of interactions and fear around what was happening in the world.

Celine Gounder: Then there’s access to food. Lots of students at Stephanie’s school rely on free and reduced-price lunches. Where Allison works in the Orlando area, upwards of 40% of the students qualify for reduced or free lunch.

Allison Tate: We also had to have food banks at our schools, and we handed out lunches and meals every day at our schools for weeks on end.

Celine Gounder: And there was another trend that Allison and Stephanie both saw. Kids taking on jobs.

Allison Tate: Our teenagers, a lot of them were working in some of these places that were open during the whole pandemic and they were taking 12 hour shifts. And then they were coming home and doing schoolwork. So we were trying to be very cognizant of the fact that these kids might not have time to do schoolwork until either late at night or on the weekends. So due dates could not be, you know, strict or mandated or anything else. It was, everything was greatly reduced because of the situation that our families were in.

Celine Gounder: So these kids were literally supporting their families and going to school?

Allison Tate: Yes. Yes. And a lot of them do that regularly, but during the pandemic they were picking up a lot of extra shifts.

Celine Gounder: All this contributes to something that’s been called the “COVID slide,” the idea that students might actually have lost ground academically during the pandemic.

Arne Duncan: Well, as unfortunately, it’s not just the COVID slide. That’s now coupled with a “summer slide,” obviously.

Celine Gounder: This is Arne Duncan. He was the U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration.

Arne Duncan: My very naive hope in April and May was that we could have a huge summer school starting now, starting in July and have kids come back early. But because we, as a nation, have lacked leadership and we have lack of discipline to do what we need to do, that obviously was impossible.

Celine Gounder: So, what are some of the things that can be done to mitigate or reverse these impacts?

Arne Duncan: Well, I’ve been pushing hard and so far not with a lot of success to have, you know, Congress invest $150 to $200 billion in school now.

Celine Gounder: Arne says there needs to be federal support to help local schools get the PPE and make other improvements so schools can continue during the pandemic. Things like more custodial staff, more teachers to accommodate smaller class sizes, and plexiglass dividers. He’s also hoping for funds for another project to help combat the COVID slide: tutors. A lot of tutors. Like, a couple hundred thousand tutors.

Arne Duncan: The sort of most effective highly researched strategy to help students who are behind you’ll catch up to grade level and accelerate is small group, individual intensive tutoring. It’s not going to be free. It’s not gonna be cheap, but it’s critically, critically important. And that’s the kind of investment we need to see now from the federal government.

Celine Gounder: Everyone agrees that school is the best place for kids… but it has to be done safely. COVID infections in Florida and Texas, where Allison and Stephanie are, have spiked in recent weeks. And it’s clear that the pandemic is not under control in the vast majority of the United States. But the Trump administration has been aggressively pushing schools to reopen. They’re demanding a traditional in-person schedule this fall. President Trump even tweeted a threat to withhold federal funding for schools that did not reopen fully.

Arne Duncan: Well, honestly, that’s a sick bluff. So to be clear, the President of the United States doesn’t fund any schools. Congress funds schools.

Celine Gounder: Most school funding doesn’t come from the federal government. It comes from state and local taxes. This system for funding schools creates inequities even in the best of times. But the loss of tax revenues from the shut down… and sluggish economic activity since… has been devastating for local education. This makes that extra federal support more important than ever. But even if schools have all the resources, staff, and PPE they need, it doesn’t change the fact that in much of the country the virus is still spreading out of control.

Arne Duncan: Yeah, I would say schools aren’t bubbles. They’re not islands. So where schools have opened well, those countries have actually beaten back the virus. Schools cannot do this by themselves. The best way, the best chance we have to give our children the opportunity to go back to a physical school and get all those academic but social, emotional benefits is, you know, reducing numbers of cases, communities, but as we’re talking now, basically 80% of the states in our country have increasing numbers of a of cases. So this thing is getting worse, not better.

Celine Gounder: There is some research that indicates kids under ten are less likely to transmit the virus to adults. This means that if coronavirus transmission has been controlled in a community, it would make sense to start by opening elementary schools first. But middle schoolers and high school students are more like adults when it comes to spreading the virus. Though these students may not be at risk of severe COVID themselves… their teachers, school staff, and older family members they come into contact with may be. Arne’s biggest concern is what will happen if schools reopen too quickly.

Arne Duncan: Well, the biggest point I keep trying to, to hit home is for me, the goal is not to reopen schools; it’s to keep schools open. And if we reopen too fast, just as we reopened states too fast, you saw what happened. States had to shut down and schools would have to shut down. And that for me would be just a travesty. You re-traumatize children and further endanger, you know, their parents and teachers and bus drivers and custodians. And so for me, let’s focus on opening slowly. See if we can get this right, learn some hard lessons, beat this stuff down, beat this virus down in our community, reduce these cases. And over time, enable more and more students to come to a physical school. But if we send children back to school, that’s the say, you know, mid, you know, mid August and by mid September everybody’s back home again and everything’s shut down, that would be just another manmade disaster.

Celine Gounder: This has a lot of schools opting for a hybrid model… a blend of remote learning and limited in-person schooling.

Arne Duncan: I would argue that a hybrid situation is better than nothing going back to a physical school and figuring out how best to do this is absolutely not ideal but we, again, we have to deal, we have to deal with reality.

Celine Gounder: My sister Stephanie is one of the school administrators who’s trying to figure out what that reality looks like… balancing virtual learning with teaching in person.

Stephanie Gounder: We spent a lot of time in the beginning of June at the district level and at campus levels, thinking about what it might mean to reopen certain students and not for others or to have, you know, back and forth days where some kids come in and some kids don’t come in. We have to be really creative with our staffing model and you know, there, there are worries that I have about what does coverage mean over the course of the year in particular? And do we have enough adults to help with the supervision and the support that we’ll need to be able to make sure that our staff members, when they get sick can be sick and can take care of themselves and the needs of their families without sacrificing student supervision.

Celine Gounder: Stephanie says roughly 70% of her students have signed up for virtual learning this fall. That means the other 30% are going to be in the school building in some capacity. And those students are going to be attending a very different school.

Stephanie Gounder: We want to maintain social distance as much as possible. Um, we’re committed to requiring that students wear masks, requiring the staff, have access to masks and face shields, and are required to wear them. You know, we’re committed to taking temperature checks every single morning for everyone who enters the building. For having a policy if someone displays symptoms needing to go home right away. You know, I’ve heard about investing in sort of like plexiglass shields that separate students between tables to provide that level of buffer, having cleaning supplies at every table.

Celine Gounder: And that doesn’t even start to address how kids and staff will safely move inside the school.

Stephanie Gounder: So then we needed to think through what would it mean to be running both simultaneously in all grade levels? We spent a lot of time thinking about what would be the procedures we would need. What does the parent pickup line look like? What do stairwells look like? What does it look like to take temperature every single morning?

Celine Gounder: So I don’t mean to sound negative, but that sounds like a really complicated, logistical nightmare. I mean, how does that make you feel to try to navigate that?

Stephanie Gounder: I think, it’s just, it is a lot of stress. And the last couple of weeks have been really nonstop. You know, I think a lot of school leaders will say this across the summer, we didn’t take a summer. You know, we may have taken a day off here or there, but a lot of the summer has been creating plans that may or may not be implemented. So knowing sometimes that the quality we hold ourselves to or we want to be able to see just may not be feasible by the level of change that happens.

Celine Gounder: Allison’s family is also going for a hybrid approach. Her son, who will be a junior in high school, will stay home.

Allison Tate: We do have a large population of kids who need to be at school to eat and to receive services. And I feel like those kids have to be the priority right now to be at school. And that my child, even though he does have accommodations of his own, that we can handle them at home so we are going to keep him at home.

Celine Gounder: But her two youngest kids are going back to school in person this fall. They’re leaving public school to attend a private one where the class sizes are smaller. Allison is moving too. She’ll be the director of college counseling at the same school. Her new school is taking COVID seriously. One positive COVID case will trigger a shut down. But until that happens there will be masks, hand sanitizer, and spaced out desks in the classroom.

Allison Tate: They’re going to eat lunch outside as much as possible, although this is Florida and hurricane season, so we’ll see how that goes.

Celine Gounder: Her soon-to-be 3rd grader, the one who had all the Bath and Body Works hand sanitizer; she’ll go back first. Her son in middle school—the one who struggled with at-home learning—will follow later in the fall.

Allison Tate: My 12-year-old, who is about to turn 13 and going into eighth grade, I’m a little more nervous about that. However, given his dyslexia and given the fact that he will be in very small classes and given his extenuating circumstances with his special learning issues, we’re going to give it a shot.

Celine Gounder: But Allison’s other child is about to go into a whole other environment: college.

Allison Tate: My freshmen in college is going to college, apparently, as far as we know here on July 24th, things are changing by the day. And as a college counselor, I felt a little bit like a Debbie Downer for the past few months, because I, I do not feel great about colleges bringing kids back to campus this fall, honestly. And I was very skeptical that it was going to be able to happen.

Celine Gounder: In our next episode, we’re going to college too. We’re going to see what colleges and universities are doing to get ready for the fall semester in the time of COVID. That’s next time on “Epidemic.”

“Epidemic” is brought to you by Just Human Productions. We’re funded in part by listeners like you. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast.

Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our music is by the Blue Dot Sessions. Our interns are Sonya Bharadwa, Annabel Chen, and Julie Levey.

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And check out our sister podcast “American Diagnosis.” You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or at americandiagnosis.fm. On “American Diagnosis,” we cover some of the biggest public health challenges affecting the nation today. In Season 1, we covered youth and mental health; in season 2, the opioid overdose crisis; and in season 3, gun violence in America.

I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. Thanks for listening to “Epidemic.”

Allison Slater-Tate Allison Slater-Tate
Arne Duncan Arne Duncan
Stephanie Gounder Stephanie Gounder
Dr. Celine Gounder Dr. Celine Gounder