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Austin Beutner, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District: I believe one of the lasting legacies of this will not be the jobless rate or the unemployment or how quickly restaurants can be reopened or we can have a Major League Baseball season. It will be the health of our public education system.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: That was Austin Beutner. He’s the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest public school system in the country. And now, he’s wrestling with the same issue that all educators are facing: Because of this coronavirus pandemic, what will school look like in the future?
In Taiwan, for example, there are now plastic partitions around the desks of elementary school students during lunch. The Australian government has asked more vulnerable staffers in their schools to work from home if possible. In Denmark, cafeterias are disappearing and students now eat in their classrooms to avoid large gatherings.
Now, it’s the United States’ turn to determine what must be done to open schools safely.
My colleague Evan McMorris-Santoro has been covering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the United States educational system. I talked with him about how and when students — from pre-K to college — might go back to classrooms.
Gupta: What have you sort of seen? Are people processing this the way that you would expect? Or are they not believing that this is necessary? What are you hearing?
Evan McMorris-Santoro, CNN correspondent: Well, you know, one of the wildest things about this whole time has been just how quickly the change had to happen. So, you know, you think back to March, we’re having a normal school year.
But everything changed just so quickly. The best way I can think about describing it actually came from Lily Eskelsen García, who’s the president of the NEA [National Education Association], which is the largest teachers’ union in the United States.
Lily Eskelsen-García, NEA president: We’re in the middle of trying to find the right metaphor. A lot of teachers have said we’re building the airplane while it’s going down the runway. Another teacher said, “Oh, it’s bigger than that. We’re Apollo 13. We’re Houston. And we have a problem. And our kids are on that spaceship with their parents, isolated.”
McMorris-Santoro: The efforts that go into a successful school year are already massive. Right? Like the moon shot. We’ve got to get a crew to the moon and get them back. But what happened in this case was something went wrong along the way, and it actually made the job harder.
Because all of a sudden, it’s not Apollo 11 now, it’s Apollo 13, in which everything breaks down. And then you have to use only the tools inside people’s lives and their home lives to get education done. You know, we think about that scene in the movie where they dumped that stuff on the conference table, it’s like OK, here’s all the tubes and stuff they have on the ship.
Apollo 13 clip: OK, people listen up. We’ve got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.
McMorris-Santoro: Well, this is what they’re talking about when it comes to education. All you have is the technology inside people’s houses, it’s a very different kind of teaching. It’s a very different kind of education. But the schools themselves, in terms of doing what we count on schools to do. They were not prepared for this.
Gupta: Do you get any sense, Evan, that they’re starting to think about the fall? I mean, right now we hear about states reopening, obviously all over the country. And at the same time, we hear maybe there is going to be another wave or this isn’t going to really go away. Is the general sort of idea that schools will be back open in the fall, or what are you hearing?
McMorris-Santoro: Well, the difficulty for schools is the same difficulty facing a lot of people, which is that they have to take a long time to plan where they’re going to do next. But we don’t know what’s going to happen next.
So at a baseline level, I can say this. There will be schools open in the fall from the K through 12 level into the college level. What that looks like, we’re not totally clear on.
Gupta: A few years ago for “60 Minutes,” I did this piece about the Khan Academy. And they were making the case, I remember this years ago, that there could be advantages to online learning. Are there advantages that this type of learning offers over bricks and mortar?
McMorris-Santoro: When we went to a full online system, what we learned was that we had problems with things like the education gap. The education gap that already existed became much, much more broad. I spoke to a teacher in LA named Janin Spoor, you know, she can’t even take attendance, absence rates are high.
Janin Spoor: We’re dealing with a few things. We’re dealing with some students whose parents still have to go to work. And so being the oldest, because I teach high school. So a lot of them are having to take care of younger siblings.
We do everything we can. We send e-mails and make phone calls and things like that. So I think that we are definitely going to have a learning gap. We’re gonna see it in the next few years. We’re going to have lower test scores. I think it’s inevitable.
Gupta: As part of your reporting, have you been talking to the students themselves? I mean, I’m wondering what, how are they reacting to this, adapting to this?
McMorris-Santoro: The students are stressed out. We’re hearing that from teachers. We’re hearing that from parents. And I think in my own conversation with the students themselves, I felt that same thing. There is an excitement, I think, about something new at first.
And as we’ve gone along with this thing, you’ve found that the stress is just, they want to go back to traditional school. I have not yet met a student who is like, man, I would love to do school from my parents basement for the rest of my life. That’s not something that I’ve heard.
You’re going to get up, you’re going to shower, you’re gonna brush your teeth, you know, the basic stuff. And now if they can roll out of bed and get to their laptop in time, it’s sometimes asking too much.
McMorris-Santoro: Listen, if we’re all going to work in our sweatpants, they can definitely go to school in sweatpants, right, Sanjay?
Gupta: One thing that we are seeing is that some schools are reopening, you know, in Montana, for example. And I’m wondering, you know, how are they approaching that? What are they doing there? And are there lessons, I guess, for the rest of the country?
McMorris-Santoro: Because Montana is a state very different from more populous states, they have these really small schools and these really small school districts. One of them is Willow Creek School, which has 60 kids in it. It’s in a town of 250 people, about, and 60 kids. The superintendent and the principal of Willow Creek is named Bonnie Lower. And what she described was a school day very different than what we’re used to.
Bonnie Lower, Willow Creek School superintendent/principal: We have 6-foot distant marks on the playground, so they can play games at recess and stay 6 feet away from each other. We will alternate our bell schedule, so kids are not in the hallways at the same time; common areas are being disinfected regularly, every classroom has hand sanitizer, wipes; teachers have masks, so if they’re in a student’s bubble, they put the masks on. They’ll, they’ll — a lot of precautions. Bathrooms will be used one at a time. We’re ready to get back to normal. As normal as we can.
McMorris-Santoro: And even the arrival to school is very different. So they’ve had to reduce bus schedule. So a lot of parents are dropping their kids off. And then once the kids get to school, they are led into the building by an adult, one by one. And before they go in, their temperature is taken. There’s no more lunch in cafeterias. So they are in the building.
But the school day looks very, very different. And these are the kind of things that we may see in schools across the country when they reopen. This is the challenge. The challenge is how to try to do social distancing in something that was never designed for that.
Gupta: We’ve all been forced to evaluate risk differently. I mean, the truth is that we all take risks on a daily basis. You know, getting in a car and driving is one of the riskiest things that we typically do.
And there’s a lot of people who say, well, a kickball and then somebody touched that. I touched it with my hands and then I touch my eyes, my nose, my mouth, something like that. What are the chances of me really getting infected?
And it’s still very hard, I think, for public health officials to answer that question. But I think what they’ll typically come back to is that the answer is that the risk is low, but it’s not zero.
McMorris-Santoro: I spoke with a rising college freshman from Minnesota. We’re trying to plan on what schools he was going to go to. And, you know, the college campuses are out there right now, advertising, look, we’re going to reopen. We don’t know how we’re going to try to make it safe. We’re gonna change maybe the way dorms, work classes, whatever. What they really have to do is try to convince people that they can create a safe environment.
I asked this kid, this is an 18-year-old kid. And I said, look, if they open a college campus right now, would you go? And he said, no. Right now, I would not. Maybe in August, maybe I could be convinced that things were safe. But right now I’m not ready to go. So there’s a difference in how people take that risk and feel about the risk factors and feel about how things are going on that maybe you have a situation where these elementary school students in Montana.
Their parents are feeling like, look, this is a worthy risk. We’ll take, you know, we’ll see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, we’ll just shut things down again. And it’s not that big a deal. And on the other hand, you have, you know, this student who is trying to choose a college and who is not yet convinced that the college can create a safe enough environment for him.
Gupta: If school doesn’t return to some sense of normalcy at the beginning of next school year, how big of an impact is that financially on these colleges? I mean, are they worried about being able to actually continue providing the level of education that they do?
McMorris-Santoro: I think they’re worried about their finances. And there’s definitely concern — that’s widespread — that students might not enroll in the same numbers come fall. I spoke to Wayne Frederick about this, he’s the president of Howard University.
Wayne Frederick, Howard University president: Intent to come, I want to be clear, may not translate in students showing up. So the intent is good. It’s stronger than we would expect.
But we are being realistic about the fact that continuing students may struggle to come back because their family’s economic circumstance may have changed very differently over the next three to four months. And the fact that incoming students may find themselves in a circumstance in which they can’t afford it.
McMorris-Santoro: So he’s concerned about students committing to attend, which seems to be a valid fear. One student I spoke with is named Sam Zellmer. He is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He talked to me from his bedroom at his parents’ house in Minnesota, where he’s currently taking all of his classes. And he told me if this is how college is going to be in the fall, he just might not go back.
Sam Zellmer: So I haven’t made any actual decisions yet, but I am considering either taking a gap semester or maybe transitioning to something like an online community college that’s closer to me in order to minimize the cost of going, especially if I’m getting relatively the same amount out of it.
Gupta: One of the things that really sparks some fear in my own kids’ hearts was when they heard [California] Governor Gavin Newsom talk about the fact that maybe one solution would be to reopen early, start in July, I think is what he even suggested. Anything, I mean, what do you, what did you think of that? Is that a potentially good solution or at least avenue?
McMorris-Santoro: What the California idea about is really just, I think, illustrates the challenges that come ahead with all of this, because what happens in a place like California is you have a massive, massive education system. So many students in school. And they’re trying to figure out ways to sort of get these kids back up to speed as quickly as they possibly can.
And one of these ways we look, let’s get him in school and do months and months of school during the summer and just try to get everything back going. But again, that requires facilities being ready, which is an expense and a time-consuming thing. It requires buy-in from the teachers. And we’ve already seen teachers’ unions be a little reticent to some of these ideas. And it requires students who are ready to do this and ready to learn and be a part of this. And it’s not clear where their heads are going to be at when this thing is over. They’re still living through a very, very stressful time. I mean, and if you and I are stressed out going to work from our house, imagine what it’s like for a 15-year-old kid. I mean, this is, this is, this is a heavy thing.
Gupta: As we figure out whether to bring students back to classrooms or to continue school virtually, one thing is clear: Schools have already become a critical support system for students and their families during this pandemic.
They have continued to provide a level of education, but also some sense of schedule, some sense of normalcy, some sense of socialization, all of which is so important. If we continue to work together, if we listen to the data and have some patience, we can get students back to school — as safely as possible.
We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.