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What It's Like To Be Back In School?

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

For months now, the big question has been, what will back to school possibly look like? And now we're starting to get some answers. In a handful of states, schools have already opened their doors to in-person classes. We're joined now by reporters in two of those states, Georgia and Indiana. Martha Dalton of WABE joins us now from Atlanta and Eric Weddle from WFYI in Indianapolis.

Welcome to you both.

MARTHA DALTON, BYLINE: Thank you.

ERIC WEDDLE, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

VANEK SMITH: Martha, I want to start with some viral photos that came out from a couple of school districts in Georgia. A student in Dallas, Ga., shared pictures of a packed hallway in between classes. Only some students were wearing masks. The student, named Hannah Watters, was suspended by the district for sharing the photos. The suspension was later reversed. Here she is on CNN last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HANNAH WATTERS: It's not only about me being safe. It's about everyone being safe because behind every teacher, student and staff member, there's a family. There's friends. And I just want to keep everyone safe.

VANEK SMITH: So, Martha, give us some context here. Are you seeing crowded schools like this around the state?

DALTON: So the districts where the pictures have originated from - both had given families the option to return in person. But there are several districts that have decided to start the year 100% virtually with no in-person option.

VANEK SMITH: What has the reaction been in Georgia to these photos?

DALTON: Well, the state superintendent issued a statement today urging schools to implement state recommendations on social distancing and face coverings, like you said. Now, neither of these districts - Cherokee or Paulding County, where the pictures were taken - have mandates for face coverings. But they could require that as part of their dress code, and that's something that the superintendent pointed out today.

VANEK SMITH: Eric, the school year traditionally starts very early in Indiana. Some districts there have already opened in person. Can you describe what's going on?

WEDDLE: I think we're seeing signs that it's rapidly changing. Earlier today parents in Elkhart - they were protesting a new county order for all schools to go virtual.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) We want school. We want school.

WEDDLE: In Indianapolis, the city school district will open virtually for least two months after saying they were going to give parents the option for in-person. And so right now there's about - more than 30 school districts in the state are going to do virtual-only.

VANEK SMITH: In the districts where students did return to class this week, what's happened?

WEDDLE: There have been multiple COVID cases reported throughout the state with staff and students. There's a junior-senior high school in the small city of Elmwood. It had cases and temporary closed this week. Avon Community School was the first in the state to close, and then they were the first to open for class last month. They've reported cases. Some schools are ending sports to slow the spread.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, do state leaders, do you think, see this as a cautionary tale right now for districts that are thinking about reopening in person?

WEDDLE: Yeah. Right now at the state level, there hasn't been. You are seeing local school boards continue to hold board meetings and tweak their opening plans. And there is just a growing call for the state to clearly report the cases in schools in a transparent way. The other day I was at Chapelwood Elementary School, and principal Terri Mathews was getting ready for the school year, which starts next week for her. She'll have 700 students. And I asked her how she was feeling about the COVID cases that are being reported in nearby school districts.

TERRI MATHEWS: I feel very comfortable right now that we have the things in place that we are going to do to support our kids and make sure that they safe. But obviously, that's always going to be on the - in the back of my mind. And then we will handle those situations as they arise in the appropriate manners that our guidance has given us.

VANEK SMITH: Martha, in Georgia, how are parents reacting to the different reopening plans?

DALTON: Well, I think it's really important to note that there are some parents and families here who want to return to school in person, so several local districts here will start school remotely in the coming weeks. And some parents have held protests urging the districts to give them an option to start in person.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Choice. Choice. Choice. Choice. Choice.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, wow.

DALTON: Yeah. Their concerns run the gamut. You know, some working parents don't know how they're going to also oversee remote learning.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, sure.

DALTON: Others are worried because they have children with special needs. And I spoke to one mom of a child with autism. She didn't want to give her name to protect her child's privacy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I think it's more unhealthy for them not to go to school. Screen time is horrible. And I think more kids are like that, on the autism spectrum or - screen time's not good. It's not good for their vision. It's not good for their brains.

VANEK SMITH: So both of your states are among the first to experiment with in-person school again. There have been so many open questions about this, about testing and cleaning and what to do if a student tests positive and how to keep kids socially distant and school busing. So what do you think is the biggest thing that's been learned this week from the experience in both of your states?

DALTON: Well, the biggest thing I've learned is that underneath everything, parents, teachers, even public health experts all agree that it's better for kids to be in school. They just disagree on whether it's safe to do that now, especially in a state like Georgia, where COVID cases are so high.

WEDDLE: Yeah. I think there's just a very fluid nature to all of this. You know, as cases happen, we're seeing schools have to react immediately, whether that's closing down the clean or going to online. And I think as more students get back, it's going to be interesting to see how they respond to wearing masks all day.

DALTON: And I'm watching to see how quickly some districts that start the year virtually will resume in-person learning. Some have said that they want to bring students back in some capacity by Labor Day.

VANEK SMITH: That is Martha Dalton of WABE in Georgia and Eric Weddle from WFYI in Indiana.

Thanks, guys.

DALTON: Thanks, Stacey.

WEDDLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.