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What Would It Take For Teachers To Go Back To The Classroom This Fall


How and where to educate America's schoolchildren in the middle of a pandemic is the question vexing much of the country right now. President Trump says students must return to school in the fall. He made that point in a White House roundtable this afternoon.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So what we want to do is we want to get our schools open. We want to get them open quickly, beautifully in the fall.

CHANG: The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging educators and policymakers to do everything they can to get students physically into schools. And parents, in poll after poll, say they're worried about their children's safety. But at the same time, they are overwhelmed by the demands of distance learning. So what are teachers saying?

Well, to answer that question, we're joined now by Lily Eskelsen Garcia. She's president of the National Education Association, the country's biggest union. Welcome.

LILY ESKELSEN GARCIA: Thank you so much, and thank you for doing this important story.

CHANG: Well, it - I know that you testified before Congress this afternoon and participated in the discussion at the White House. So let's just start with, what does your union say about how or even whether schools should reopen this fall?

ESKELSEN GARCIA: I have to start because I have never been so upset with Donald Trump before, and I'm upset with him almost every day. Let me just tell folks - under no circumstances take medical advice from Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos, especially on the health and safety of your children. I had 39 sixth-graders one year. That was not healthy before a pandemic. But I need to say, yes, parents want their kids back in school. And yes, teachers want their kids back in school. We miss our kids. We hate doing these Zoom classes. We have got to open schools, and we've got to open them safely. That's the...

CHANG: OK. So what would that take?

ESKELSEN GARCIA: ...The No. 1 thing on our wish list. Well, first of all, you have to follow the CDC guidance. When you have someone going - oh, please don't follow the CDC guidance - that's our guidance. Oh, my God. OK. So here's what we need. First of all - and even the Academy of Pediatrics - nobody, like, read the first page of that report. It said when it's safe and where it's safe. This is going to look really different if you're in a little rural town in Montana that doesn't have one COVID...

CHANG: Right, right.

ESKELSEN GARCIA: ...Or if you're in the suburbs of Salt Lake City where there's a spike or if you're in Orlando. So first thing - 14 days of decline of infections in your area. You have to have good data. So first of all, don't listen to, we need to stop testing. No, you need to test, and you need to have good data. And here's what they said to a restaurant. They've given more guidance to restaurants on how to open safely than Orchard Elementary School. Distancing, disinfecting - where's those mask and gloves? And you have got to do testing for the virus and constant wellness checks throughout the school so you know if someone there is infecting students and staff.

CHANG: Right. Well, let me ask you, though - you know, the recession means that school budgets are facing their biggest cuts in decades. So is there enough money, you think, to retrofit schools for smaller classrooms for this social distancing that you're describing?

ESKELSEN GARCIA: Absolutely not. Now...


ESKELSEN GARCIA: ...Here's what we're asking. And I know it's - see how I'm keeping all of the four-letter words in side? Why was it so easy when it was Shake Shack that needed extra money? When it was Shake Shack and small businesses and big businesses, it was holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" across the aisle. And now it's a public school at a time when our funding sources, the taxes that fund us, have fallen off a cliff. We are looking at upwards of a million teachers and support staff being laid off; pink slips are being written right now. And something that was going to be very difficult to do is now impossible.

And here is Mitch McConnell sitting on the HEROES Act that was passed by the House that would give...

CHANG: The Senate majority leader.

ESKELSEN GARCIA: Exactly. Billions of dollars would go to public schools. And let me tell you, it would go to our Title I schools in poverty first and foremost. And they're sitting on it like they have no idea how we could have more money. We're asking for the same consideration they gave Shake Shack.

CHANG: OK. Lily Eskelsen Garcia is the president of the National Education Association.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

ESKELSEN GARCIA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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