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Remember years ago, GuIer and the military secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said famously, the things we know, the things we don't know and the things that we don't even know, we don't know.

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The last kind of spooky category he called the unknown unknowns. And I guess maybe talking about known unknowns and unknown unknowns might have been appropriate for the thing he was talking about, which was Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. But who knew that somebody was going to be a good way to describe the chaos swirling this year, around two of which should be the most pedestrian, predictable things the government does counting votes in an election and starting the school year?

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OK, let's save the election for another day, can we talk right now about the demolition derby, multicar pileup of known unknowns and unknown unknowns, that is the opening of this school year.

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Matt teaches at a big high school in the suburbs of South Carolina.

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And all summer he's been doing what parents and teachers everywhere have been doing this year, wondering if there's going to be in-person instruction this fall, watching state and local officials give out information that seemed incomplete and contradictory and confusing.

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And it was sort of like hot potato of responsibility, too.

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It was like everybody kind of passing, you know, like when you hear from your district, when you hear from the state superintendent, when we hear from our government, you know, or they were saying, like somebody else is going to set the course and then you'll know.

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Yeah, it felt very deflective, I guess, when they got to the first day the teachers reported back to school. No kids are yet just teachers. That says things still seemed very unclear, thinking surely when we get in the building, we're going to get the answers.

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The answer is in the building where my bosses are. They're going to know and.

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Over the course of the week, sort of having the veil lifted and realizing my bosses don't know anything more than I do about the start of school, like my principal and I know the exact same amount of information at that point, teachers have received an email with a tentative plan, but the emphasis was very much on tentative.

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His principal noted, quote, Things change daily.

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The plan was called the AB plan, and it was the hybrid plan that lots of schools are doing.

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Students will be divided into two groups, A and B, half would come to school for two days, while the other half would stay home and join online using Zoome then that switch.

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But if you wanna see a high school spinning through the maelstrom of known unknowns and unknown unknowns, OK, here is what happened that first day the teachers came back.

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The first meeting that I go to is at 10 and it's a department meeting.

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So we have just 15 people spread out and you are sitting there essentially distanced from each other wearing masks.

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Yep. This is a good atmosphere in the room where, all things considered, we're we're happy to be there and happy to see each other a very glass half full, whatever may come sort of vibe and in the room.

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And our department head, who's a teacher, has written up these two plans on the board, the Abdeh sort of hybrid plan, and then an all virtual start versus two students in the building.

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You're teaching everybody online.

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Got it. Yeah. We get a little into this meeting and we have an administrator, one of our assistant principals is in the room and he's been mostly quiet. But when we get to a conversation about how we get back into teaching, he sort of pipes in and he says, hang on, is like the Abdeh plan is out. Apparently, they had received word from the district that our school needed to cancel that plan.

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So.

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All right, everybody, like first change Curveball, come in at 11:00 a.m., like change of plans. Let's plan on all virtual.

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So summarize, 10:00, it's B eleven o'clock. It's all virtual. Anyway, that's how Matt took it. This department told us he had no idea what would happen. So meeting ends then around 2:00 in the afternoon, word sort of spreads that there is this there's this bomb drop of an announcement.

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And that administrator who had been in our meeting caught my colleague in the hall and he was kind of flustered and he said plans are changing again.

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We just got word from the district. So so it's just like wait for the staff meeting. Let's see what happens, you know? The staff meeting is the big welcome to the new school year all-staff meeting for the whole faculty.

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It starts at three o'clock at two hundred and fifty teachers are on this Zoome call. We're all in our own rooms.

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You're on the building, but you're in your own rooms. Yes. Yep. And then like nothing happens at this meeting. The whole meeting is trivial information. They introduce new faculty members. They share positive news from teachers. Sommer's like new babies or engagements. They talk about our SAT scores from last year, all the things that we hear annually when they finally do talk about the restart plan, he says.

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It's a lot of we can do it positivity, but no concrete details about whether they be going on virtual or what the plan is going to be.

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So the meeting ends and we're all sort of sitting there thinking like, what was it? And my colleague and I are determined to figure this out. So it's for now we're like, we're going to go down to the administrators offices and just see what we can see.

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And we we go to one of the administrators offices and there are two other assistant principals in there. It's pretty it's pretty jammed. And it's sort of like the Situation Room and any White House action drama.

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You know, there's papers all over the table and everybody's on their computer. And even for as few people are in the room, they're sort of talking past each other. And there are multiple conversations going on. And my friend and I kind of got that vibe of like, we're just going to stand at the door. You know, we're not even going to come in, wade into the water. But what we find out is that in the afternoon, the district apparently came back to the schools and was like, OK, new plan.

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You need students in the building on the first day of school, five days a week at twenty five percent capacity. That's all we're giving. You figure it out.

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And so what we on the table are all these rosters of students and and scheduling. And so there's some logistical nightmare.

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Logistics are nightmarish because South Carolina mandates that every parent should have the option to send their kid to school for in-person instruction if they want, or keep them at home for virtual learning, if that's what they want, which is the kind of trying to please everybody solution that in practice is just enormously difficult to execute.

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It means that there have to be some students in school five days a week. But of course, there's only so much space in the school for students with proper social distancing. So how do you figure out who gets to attend and who does not get to attend?

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And what happens when you cannot give every family what it wants?

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Meanwhile, in the classrooms, as South Carolina heads towards the first day of classes September 8th, teachers have to figure out how to do something that they did not do last spring when schools went on quarantine that figure out how do you teach a class that is partly at home, partly in the room with you, which is a particularly it's particularly funny to think for choir.

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It's a very difficult subject to teach virtually.

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Oh, Matt, he's a choir teacher trying to sing in a Zoome with other people is is just a nightmare because you can't even if you say, like, let's clap at the same time, you know, it will you'll hear like a bunch of different claps because everybody scores.

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There's a little delay. And that delay makes it impossible to sing together. Yeah, not to mention that usually the software is built to to identify who is speaking and amplify their voice and silence other people.

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So the only way to sing together is with everybody on mute. And you know what kind of rehearsal that and the one fourth of the class is going to be in the room with them.

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They can't sing together in the room because singing in a chorus can be a super spreader event for the virus.

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Remember that choir near Seattle at the beginning of the pandemic where 52 people got sick? Even with mass, it's not safe, which means singing together is the one thing you cannot do in chorus. Maths classes are 90 minutes long, and right now he figures he'll teach the kids on Zoome and the kids in the classroom together for half an hour at the beginning of it, lecture style, give out singing assignments to do at home and then at the 30 minute mark or something, I would probably dismiss those Zoome students say like, OK, you've got your assignments.

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I'll see you soon. Take the students that are in the room somewhere outside where we can be spaced out and actually practice singing with them, weather permitting.

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Yeah, whether we just we're going to have to just McGyver the whole semester basically, you know.

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So you're reengineering every part of your job, like every single part of it.

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Exactly. Other teachers said this to me to the virtual teaching is making them rethink and reengineer the most basic things they do in their jobs to get through to kids. A second grade teacher in Chicago told me that she was still struggling to figure out how she was going to hold the attention of a bunch of seven year olds over video for the mandated three hours a day of live real time instruction. Just like I don't even know if developmentally that's even possible for them to focus on the screen for that long.

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Not to mention what activities which you're going to give these little kids to do on their own, unsupervised by her for the hours, they would not be on video with her. She was spending weeks before school started every day on her own time, unpaid to figure this out. It's been a few days since I recorded that conversation with Matt, and since then his high school surveyed the teachers and realized that so many of them wanted to stay home and teach from home that there was no way they could actually have.

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Twenty five percent of the students come back for in-person instruction. Right now, it seems like they're only going to have enough instructors for fewer than 10 percent of the students. But administrators are still figuring it out. Of course, who knows how everything is going to unfold in September when kids actually arrive, when they get covered with things, be fine. Matt knows some teachers in states where school has already started.

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What it feels like right now is going cliff jumping with your friends and our friends next to us. I like Georgia and Alabama and we're like, one, two, three.

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We're like, I'll see you in four weeks as their jumping off because we want to we want to see what happens to to the other districts. Like I'm starting to see I have friends in Louisiana that are teaching entirely, virtually.

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I have friends in Georgia and Alabama that are like posting their Instagram stories of Plexiglas in front of their desk. And like, here we go.

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Are you the weird situation where, like, you actually don't know what's going to happen and you're kind of worried, but you have to deal with like parents and students and with them. Do you let them know your apprehensions or do you just keep like a big smiley face and they're like, it's going to be great? Do you just do you feel like you're lying?

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Yeah, it sort of feels it feels a little contorted. Like I have teachers that are posting first day of school pictures, as always, and they sound bright and cheery and it's like, I can't wait to see my students despite the challenges.

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Really excited to show them a great new year. But underneath the surface, these teachers are my friends. And I know these teachers are terrified and it feels it feels twisted this year because we really don't know what our safety looks like and what our student safety looks like. But you still have to be the boss in front of the class and be like, what's up, y'all? So excited you're here. Let's go. I am going to put my best foot forward because I can't wait to teach kids and I love doing that.

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But I'm scared shitless about what the year looks like, you know. Of NBC Chicago, it's this American Life. Today on our program, teachers, students, parents launch themselves into a school year that is beginning like none that any of us have ever experienced since the spring. Everybody has been anticipating the school opening like this. I know this asteroid that we've all been watching head towards earth, floating towards us, tumbling towards us in space, in slow motion.

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And now it is finally hitting and we are finding out if it is just as bad as we thought it was going to be a way better than we hoped. We have stories from around the country of it going badly. And I'm going to tell you in some places going surprisingly well, at least for now anyway. Stay with us. Acquired mass crusaders.

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So I prefer school started in Utah this month, our producer Mickey Me caught up with two high school teachers, Carcas, 33, babies, 26, the married, and we agreed not to use the last names. They joked that their pillow talk is reviewing each other's lessons for the next day.

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Clark teaches art and photography this year, his sixth year as a teacher. Bailey's a newbie about to have her own classroom for the very first time, teaching sophomore English.

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The two of them teach at different public high schools in Utah County, south of Salt Lake City, and they found themselves thrown into this really heated and ugly fight in the county right before schools opened back up. Here's Mikki.

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Clark and Bailey are still these fresh faced, enthusiastic teachers, but they spent the summer stressing about their schools reopening because covid cases had started surging in Utah. Both of them would have classes with as many as 40 students in them. The classrooms are too small to space six feet apart and the windows they don't open. Governor Gary Herbert issued a mask mandate for all K through 12 schools, which made them feel a little better until a county commissioner, a guy named Billy, he started lobbying against it.

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He thought it should be up to parents whether their kids wear a mask. He called it a, quote, compassionate exemption to try to drum up support. He invited parents to the commission's next meeting. Suddenly, you were either pro mask or anti mask. Clark and Billy decided to go in support of masks.

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But going into it, I was like, is anyone really going to be there? Like, who's going to go to, like, protest masks? Like, I just thought, like, are there going to be 10 people there? I have no idea.

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There were actually around 100 people there.

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The meeting was held at the county building in Provo. And when Clark and Billy got there, they saw mostly moms gathered outside, some with kids.

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Hardly anyone was wearing a mask, but one family who was wearing masks stopped being there, like you should go in because there's like no one really in support of masks. And so I was like, OK, I'm going in. And I just kind of ran in the building. It was packed.

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There were chairs set up with tape across them for social distancing. But that didn't work so well.

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People were just peeling off the tape and sitting down and people were just riled up. You could, like, feel this energy that was really intense and just wearing a mask in that space.

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Put a target on your head immediately.

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The room was hot and crowded and a bunch of people without masks were fanning their faces.

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And we're good to go. All right.

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That's a county commissioner named Tanner Áng. He was not happy about this meeting.

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Hello, everyone. This is going to be this is going to be brief, I think. This is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing.

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We are supposed to be physically distancing, wearing masks, and so all of our medical system, all of our medical experts from our Department of Health, everyone is encouraging us to do that. This room is not complying with these health guidelines.

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This creates a health concern for this meeting. So in a little over a minute, the whole meeting was over, OK?

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The meeting is adjourned. He stands up and walks out of the building. People in the crowd call McCoughtry Power and then. Áng later tweeted, This is not a Parks and Rec episode, it's Utah County government. To him, this whole thing was just a political stunt. The county commission has no jurisdiction over school districts. They don't make decisions for them. It'd be like the sheriff's department holding a meeting to go on the school budget. It didn't make any sense.

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But Billy, the guy who wanted the governor to give the county a compassionate exemption from wearing masks and another commissioner, they agreed to stay behind to listen to any parent who wanted to make a comment. Again, here's Bailey.

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At that point, when I realized that people were going to be making comments that kind of pushed my way into the room because I wanted to make a comment.

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She got in line for the podium there, around 12 people ahead of her, even more behind her, mostly moms. One of them had a baby carrier strapped her chest. I watched this meeting on a Facebook livestream. Most of the speakers accepted that covid is real. They didn't think it's a hoax. They supported handwashing and staying at home if you're sick. But they didn't trust the CDC.

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And in general, all the precautions seemed overblown. Some sounded like libertarians. There were tons of conspiracy theories like that.

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Mom, with the baby, she said this thing. I heard a lot of parents there say that CO2 and germs can get trapped in your mask and make you sick, which is totally false.

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You want our kids to breathe. They're all let's bring in our own bathroom for hours.

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She's saying, do you really think it's good to breathe in your own germs for hours?

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This myth has taken off in parent groups all over the country. The American Academy of Pediatrics even put out a statement to try and dispel it.

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And another conspiracy theory at this meeting that mask mandates will lead to more kids getting abducted and sex trafficked.

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Also not true. The fear is that kids are wearing masks. They'll be harder to identify and rescue.

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Those numbers will continue to rise because of a world, are at home and online all day and being masked. It's a pedophile's dream come true.

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Thomas Jefferson also kept coming up.

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And it's pretty ironic way I got on my Facebook page. Thomas Jefferson said, I prefer a dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery. I will never be a slave no matter what it takes. Give me liberty or give me death. I need not. I will do whatever it takes to have liberty. Thank you.

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Listening to all these parents, Bailey and Clark were alarmed, worried that they might have to face classes of 40 kids who were going to fight with them about wearing masks. So, Bailey, she got up to the mic.

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She was sweaty and nervous, but fired up literally and experiencing fear and anxiety about money. She tells the crowd she's a First-Year teacher who's already juggling a lot of anxiety and she's scared that she'll get covered in her classroom.

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The crowd turns on her. Wearing a mask is a minor inconvenience and you can even call it who says. That's Cark doing some very teacher like Sessions Hey, wanna town right now by your experience? I'm praying with some songs that so many people are not part of your time. Be quiet. Shut up. Listen.

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It's like this for five minutes. And then Bailey finally and speech and takes a little bow.

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On their way out of the meeting, Clark, feeling sheepish, apologizes to the people that he told to shut up. My wife speaks like I've never been viewed before.

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It was it was it was just wild to be surrounded by so many grown adults who were shouting at me, calling me names like, whoa, I'm also watching the video.

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I I realized that I kind of did like a little bow after my after my comments, which is kind of embarrassing now. But it was just like it felt like such an outrageous experience that it was like almost comical.

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But Bailey was also sympathetic to the parents in that room.

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She thought a lot of their hostility was coming from a place of fear, you know, like not wanting kids to have to be in schools where things feel like very dystopian and like this fear that having to be masked is like going to scare their children or something like that or impact them negatively.

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I feel like those are reasonable points in some ways, but also not at the same time.

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I grew up in Utah County, I still have a lot of friends and family there, so I feel pretty safe betting that most of the people in that meeting were Mormon. The majority of the county belongs to the church.

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But watching that meeting, I saw something I didn't recognize, Mormons yelling at other Mormons with total vitriol. Balian Clark said they felt the same.

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They're from the area, too.

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By the way, I know we're not supposed to say Mormon anymore or sources say Latter-Day Saints, but I just don't actually know that many Mormons who use that with each other.

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Anyway, right after Utah's Republican governor Gary Herbert issued his mask mandate, church leadership in the state backed them up. They asked Mormons to wear face coverings in public, calling it a sign of good citizenship.

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Immediately, there was pushback. I saw comments online about corruption and false prophets in the church that was mind blowing. It's not like members never speak out against the church. It's just that I haven't seen it done so casually. Promus People were called maskers. And Maskell's Governor Herbert called the parents who went to that county meeting foolish and refused to back down from his mask mandate, which just enraged the anti mass movement in Utah County even more. They held another rally and told parents to tell their kids to fight back against their teachers.

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And Clark wondered how widespread the feeling was and worry that some of the parents or fellow teachers at her new school would recognize Bailey from the county meeting and think she was a crazy radical video had hit local news and it was a big deal. Have you thought about what you're going to say in your classes on the first day, anticipating you might have kids who come from families that share some of the same beliefs of the people who are at the county meeting?

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I really don't know what I'm going to say or how I'm going to approach that conversation. We really don't know what this is going to look like when the school year actually starts. And so we'll see what happens then.

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But if you get what if you get booed? I will out and walk out.

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On the first day of school, Balian Clarke got in their cars and headed in opposite directions. Their schools are about a half hour apart. They both recorded voice memos for me while they were driving.

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OK, I am driving to school for my first day of teaching ever in my whole life as an actual teacher. So there's kind of a mix of feeling excited and also nervous. Um, hopefully I can remember students faces through their masks.

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Um, the time is now six thirty six and I didn't sleep very well last night. I kind of tossed and turned. Worst case scenario today. Oh, my gosh, I think I had a nightmare about that last night where everybody came in and just was touching each other and hugging each other and not wearing masks. And I think there is a couple of those, like making out the corner of my classroom, just so much touching. And so I'm hoping students will wear masks today.

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I'm hoping I won't have any major conflicts with students as they come in, judging on the A.M. hearing that Bailey and I went to. I mean, all bets are off. As students walk into his classroom, Clark stands at the door to greet them and squeeze his hand sanitizer into their hands. Hey, guys, hand sanitizer coming in hot. Here you go. I did hand sanitizer.

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Clark describes his teaching persona as dorky dad. OK, once everyone is seated, he gives his warm up.

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OK, hello, everyone. Welcome. How are you guys feeling today? Are you feeling excited to be here? Raise your hand if you're excited.

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This is awkward. In a class of 36 kids, only a few of them raise their hands. So he never taught a class that was so quiet and somber.

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Raise your hand if you're just kind of like stressed and sad here. Is anybody feeling, like, anxious about wearing masks or feeling like covering masks a little bit? Yeah. Tell me more. You're bummed about wearing masks. It sucks. Tell me more. Why does it. So the student says, I don't know.

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I just don't feel like it sometimes. And then my dad talks about it all the time. It's just to make people feel better. Clark responds deftly by first trying to validate the student.

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Yeah. I mean, from a medical standpoint, masks are definitely not perfect. There's no like if we really wanted to prevent every single germ, we'd have to wear full hazmat suits. We'd have to be in a controlled environment. So masks are not 100 percent effective. However, they are effective in stopping the spread or slowing the spread of them. And so I know a lot of people are really, really frustrated about wearing masks because, you know, they're uncomfortable and they're like breathing hard and blah, blah, blah.

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I know. Even though they're not perfect, I think it's worth doing as a as a gesture of of kindness for people who might have more sensitive immune systems or more might be more at risk. I was just talking with a student who lives with her grandma and also works at a nursing home. And so she's trying to take every precaution to make sure that she doesn't get sick. So there are a lot of situations like that.

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Little by little, his class starts to open up. Clark keeps lobbing questions at them. Anybody here play sports?

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The football player tells the room that his whole team wears masks for games and practice. A girl says she hates it.

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They make glasses, fog up. About 15 minutes into this conversation, Clark uses the tactic that didn't work with the parents at the county meeting. He tells them about his own anxiety.

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But that's been one of my anxiety. Coming back to school is I don't want to tell somebody to wear a mask, you know, like that. That feels stressful to me and the kids they seem to get it from.

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Clark has two other periods that day and he starts each class with the same saltbox spiel. He never gets any pushback. The kids all wear their masks and nobody makes out. After school, Clark and Bailey crash exhausted on their living room couch with their dog and debrief about how their first days went, the hallways were just kind of the wild, wild west.

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Yeah, like anything went. And so many students, as soon as they left their classrooms were just peel their masks off and put it on their chin or like it or just like rip it off their faces. And then as they like, walk closer to me and say, like, hey, masks. And they would like say, oh yeah, sorry, I forgot. And I was like, hurry and put it back on. And they put it back on as they walked into my classroom.

[00:29:06]

I mean, there's just no way that the hall monitors can see everything that's going on. Yeah. When you talk about masks, how do you approach the mask conversation?

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They walk in the door and they just like you're like, hi. And they're just like, look at you. Or they're just like, hi. I'm just like, um, do you hate makeup?

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She told Cark she started class by showing them slides of Billy Eilish wearing a mask and Beyonce wearing a mask upside down.

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And in my first class, everyone was totally fine. In my second third classes, there were kids who, like, kept wearing them under their nose.

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And I just had to keep being like, if you're not wearing your mask over your mouth and nose, wear your mask over your mouth and else.

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I had to call it a couple of kids today because they just kept on letting the, you know, stick out and. Yeah, hey, Cody, Josh was up, Cody and.

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Oh, so there is a kid who was wearing a full yellow hazmat suit with like a gas mask looking thing.

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And I think it was like a joke. But it also was hard to tell.

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Like, my friend who was his teacher said that it looked like he was just dying in there, like, so hot. And there is another girl wearing a mask and one of my classes. Apparently, this is a thing that I didn't know about. But she's wearing a mask that said virginity rocks. So I don't know what that's about. But it was funny to see that on the mask. That's the extent of Utah's sex education. Um, and it was a wild thing.

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I don't know.

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I was thinking about it after school today, and I was just comparing, like, these sweet sophomore students to the parents who were in that meeting and like, oh, my gosh, this cutie cutie high school students are just like so nice and so willing to, like, just do this thing so they can be in school. And like all those parents are just like losing their minds and being, like, so childish and unreasonable and not just as really nice.

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Tearing up a little bit. Yeah, a little bit. I don't know, I. Just really nice students who want to be at school. The reality is that more than half a million people live in Utah County and only 100 people were at that meeting. The consensus among most parents is that they'll make their kids wear masks if it gets them out of the house.

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Miki Meek is one of the producers of our show. Act to screen Times at Ridgemont High, so across the country right now, kids are facing the weird experience of getting to know new classes and new teachers all through Zoome.

[00:32:45]

It's especially intense for kids who are jumping to a new school. Producer Aviva de Kornfeld talked to some students who are making the jump to high school this fall. And it is a big job, right? It's one that causes a lot of anxiety and excitement in normal times. Now all of it happening online.

[00:33:01]

One girl told Aviva that she'd already thought through how to make friends at her new school.

[00:33:04]

She said she had a plan to email kids to discuss homework and then she would try to kind of shift the conversation to other topics and see if they went there and have even talked to this 15 year old in Los Angeles, Alex Hyman, at the end of his very first day of high school about how he's prepped for remote learning with a bunch of kids that he has.

[00:33:22]

And now this week, I'm painting my room, actually just finished this morning.

[00:33:27]

Why are you painting your room? Well, last year in the spring when, you know, online school started in March or April, believe it or not, a lot of kids made comments on my bright, vibrant baby blue and orange room that have had since when I was very young. And I thought it'd be cool to have a multi multicolored room. Very bright. What did kids say?

[00:33:55]

They're just like, nice room.

[00:33:57]

Like, oh, that's that's a very neutral color. Just, you know, sarcastic comments like that. I mean, this like it's a very first world problem, you know, that my room's not the right color.

[00:34:08]

How old were you when you first painted the bright colors?

[00:34:11]

Oh, I believe I was like seven, eight. Like, yes, it's going to be so cool and awesome. And now, you know, here I'm 15 and now I just want to a white room now. Actually, I just finished this morning. Now it's all the light gray I picked out and I actually like it a lot. My mom was a little sad because, you know, I was growing up and she was upset about that.

[00:34:31]

But what did she say? I mean, she was like, I'm going to miss this room. Like, you remember when you picked up the colors.

[00:34:39]

And yeah, it's funny, your mom your mom is upset that you're growing up and you're like, that's the point.

[00:34:46]

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So you were on Zoome calls today. Did you look at your little box on Zoome yet? Check out how it looked. Yeah I did. I did. How did it feel seeing your room in the camera?

[00:35:00]

It looked very good, I will say. It looked and looked really cool.

[00:35:04]

It was, you know, I was happy about it.

[00:35:07]

Did the other kids have childhood stuff in their bedrooms?

[00:35:12]

I, I don't really pay much attention to it along with them. Not really paying attention to me, which is weird because, you know, even though we both know that it still makes us feel self-conscious about it to make any sense, I'm trying to say is that I look at some of them, but don't really, you know, like analyze the rooms.

[00:35:31]

Look, you didn't really pay much attention. Yeah, exactly. Looking at the other kids rooms and realizing you don't actually really care about how they look. Did it make you feel like it didn't matter if you'd switched up your room or not? Yeah, it actually did.

[00:35:44]

Sort of. What's the first thing you saw today at school? I logged on and it was our whole grade, so around a little less than two hundred, I'm not sure the exact number, but yeah, there's a bunch of boxes. Most of the kids, I guess half the kids have their cameras on half a mile off. I started with my daughter and then turned it off, to be honest.

[00:36:11]

Really. Why? I guess it's just a lot of other kids headed off, like most of them towards the end. And I don't want to be like the one kid that had it on, if that makes sense.

[00:36:22]

And you sort of take your cue from the other kids. Yeah, exactly.

[00:36:25]

Peer pressure, I guess if you were to Cornfeld talking to Alex Hyman in Los Angeles, if he was one of the producers of our show coming out an elementary school that carefully did everything you could possibly do to prepare for students coming back and then first day and I'll go south in a way nobody ever expected.

[00:36:50]

That's in a minute. Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

[00:36:55]

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[00:37:51]

And there are no long term contracts for a special offer visit. Indeed, dotcom in American terms and conditions apply offer valid through September 30th. This American Life, I'm IRA Glass.

[00:38:05]

Today's program is about schools reopening this fall, and can I say of all the cataclysmic things that happened this past week around our country, wildfires, hurricane or the shootings in Kenosha, school reopenings was like on the calendar.

[00:38:22]

You know, it's the one thing out of all those things that we knew would happen and had time to prepare for.

[00:38:27]

And still, it's not. It was like the whole summer has been an all nighter for a test that we're having this fall. And lots of parents and educators are feeling very shaky about how the test is going to go.

[00:38:38]

How it is going is what we're documenting on today's show. And we have arrived at Act three of our program, Act three, Future Imperfect.

[00:38:45]

This next story is from a high school in Tennessee, Maryville High School. This is one of the first in the country to open up. And it opened as cases were rising in the area of the covid map that Harvard Global Health Institute maintains the county is currently red.

[00:38:59]

As we get Today show on the air read, the institute says it means that they are at a tipping point for uncontrolled spread. That's exactly the kind of situation that lots of teachers around the country have been saying would keep them from returning to their classrooms. Merryville, however, has been at it for a month now.

[00:39:15]

So. What's it like, you know, how are they holding up for a glimpse of the future that awaits many educators elsewhere? David Kestenbaum talked with a teacher named Stacy Travis.

[00:39:26]

Stacy is the kind of teacher people go to when they have problems. A lot of the time they're math problems. That's what she teaches. One of the days we talked, she got a call in the middle of the day from a kid who wasn't even in school that year. He'd graduated. He was in his dorm room in college.

[00:39:42]

And so I call him back and he was like, I don't know how to solve this. And he shows me this paper. And I said, What class are you in? And he goes, freshman engineering. And I said, I taught you how to solve that.

[00:39:54]

And he goes, I know that's why I called you the decision to go back to school in the middle of a pandemic. It's a different kind of problem. Even before school opened, there were cases some kids couldn't come in on the first day because they tested positive. And she says a couple of teachers have taken these extra precautions in their classrooms.

[00:40:13]

Like one has this. It almost looks like the old fashioned bathtubs with the ring around it, with the curtain where and it goes all the way around their desk.

[00:40:21]

Wait, wait. So the teacher's desk is basically surrounded with like like a like a clear I'm on PVC pipe.

[00:40:29]

Even with all the masks and social distancing, Stacy says school feels kind of normal. Once the day gets started, though, there's always this menace that feels just offstage. Since the high school opened, several students have tested positive. She gets an email every time. When we talked, she had one student out awaiting test results. It doesn't look like any of the students got the virus from school. But there has been one case in the district where it looks like a maintenance worker may have gotten covid from a colleague.

[00:40:55]

There are moments that it worries me. And I can give you a specific example. I, I had a student ask for help and I had my math on. I have my mask on every time I walk up close to a student to offer help. And he had his mask on that had blow his nose. And I, I was riding on his desk and we are talking to this problem and I could feel his breath on my arm. And that kind of made me have a moment of, oh, my gosh, he's breathing on me.

[00:41:27]

Like I can feel the breath coming out of his nose onto my arm. And after I finished helping him, which I do this after I help any kid at their best, I sanitize my hands. But then I also have some spray sanitizer and I just sprayed it down my arm. And I know it probably looked weird and I wasn't trying to make him feel uncomfortable, but it made me feel a little bit better. Do you think about it, the question of risk with math ever?

[00:41:57]

Now, since you're a math person, as the risk of of me catching covid, yeah, I don't know, doing my job. Yeah, yeah.

[00:42:08]

There's this many cases, this many positive cases in the community where this many people in school over this period of time, I'm in contact with this number of them. Like you could do the numbers, you know.

[00:42:17]

Oh yeah. I could definitely do the numbers. I don't let myself do the numbers because I think I've just kind of realized that I'm probably I'm probably going to get it either I'm going to get it from a student or I'm going to get it from my kid who got it from another kid. Yeah. Or I'm going to get it from my husband who got it from one of the workers on his job site. What do you think about that?

[00:42:41]

Like it might be OK, but it might not. You know. I know. I know it might be OK and it might not. And it's again, it's one of those like the what ifs that I can't just let myself think about.

[00:42:54]

That's a kind of amazing degree of fatalism. Somehow we're at a place where simply by doing her job, she feels sure she's going to get sick.

[00:43:01]

There are moments that I'm super scared about getting it. There are moments that I wonder if I do get it, what what's going to happen to my kids? You know, there are of course, there's moments like that. But I don't know. It's all of the conversations are hard.

[00:43:21]

No matter what way you look at it, it's like the virus is this thing that you think about, then don't think about it. Then you worry that you're not thinking about it. I wanted to see what a class was actually like given all this. Here's how things work, if your last name begins with a letter between A and K, you come in Monday and Wednesday, on Tuesday and Thursday, you join the class by Zoome from home. If your last name begins with a letter between LNC, it's the reverse Friday.

[00:43:57]

Everybody is remote.

[00:43:59]

I watched on Zoom as Stacy taught some juniors had a graph polynomials, this is X going to positive infinity and this is why going to positive infinity, does that make sense to you?

[00:44:10]

It seemed to go pretty well, even for the kids who weren't in the room. Let me get a brave person from at home who wants to talk it. Who's going to end me up? All make me call on you, aren't you? I'll try it. Thank you for being a brave soul. OK, what do you got? OK, so given how well it went.

[00:44:33]

I asked her. Yes. Why not have everybody be remote? Why take the risk of doing anything in person. She said teaching online you miss a lot. It's much easier for kids to get lost if they're in the room. She can keep tabs, walk around, look over their shoulders, and lots of kids do way better if they're there in person, interacting with other kids and with the teacher. There are kids who need extra attention, just that day, she'd help the student get through a test that he'd failed before, despite trying really hard.

[00:45:04]

I got to tell him face to face that I was proud of him. That's different. Like, he looked at me and and I said, way to go, man. And we fist bumped. And he had a huge grin on his face, like, he knows that I've got his back. He had that victory moment. And that's the stuff that like that's why I feel a little bit on like a high like these are the moments that I just live for.

[00:45:30]

She was so happy. Happy she was in school that day. She's there because the kids need her. I think it's also true that she needs that. David Kestenbaum is one of the producers of our show. For the case of the well-prepared elementary school, students will go to a school that was remarkably ready for the first day, Tindley Summit Academy in Indianapolis, it's an elementary school, a charter school, pretty small, fewer than 300 students.

[00:46:07]

And it was set up especially well to roll out all the new covid safety precautions and procedures, because, like I said, charter schools, the whole philosophy of the school from the kids all the way up to the principal is is very regimented. Kids walk silently in the hallways. There's a strict dress code, super involved teacher trainings.

[00:46:26]

But even a place that can prepare so well, something big happened that first day that nobody saw coming.

[00:46:32]

Stephanie Wang reports for a website that covers education that I am a fan of. It's called Chuck Beat. And for a month, she watched Tindley Summer prepare for the reopening and then was there when the kids finally showed up.

[00:46:43]

Tenley summit started the year with two weeks of online learning, but this is the moment everyone's been waiting for.

[00:46:50]

The first day, children are allowed back into the building for in-person instruction at seven thirty in the morning and parents are already lining up in the parking lot to drop off has been shortened to a frenzied 30 minute window to keep kids from gathering before classes start.

[00:47:08]

I do.

[00:47:08]

What I like is a tiny first grader in a Spider-Man backpack named Carlo walks from the car to the front door where a teacher leans down, aiming a handheld infrared thermometer at his forehead.

[00:47:21]

Good morning, buddy. I'm going to take your temperature, OK? It's one little quick. All right. You're good to go.

[00:47:29]

I'm standing with the principal of Tenley Summit, David McGuire, who's been planning for this moment for months to get more than 200 children out of their cars and into the classrooms and half an hour, all while keeping a safe distance. But Mr. McGuire is one of the most optimistic people I've ever interviewed. He doesn't like to worry or even use the word worry. At one point when we're talking, he calls it the W word. I feel confident with our plan, you know, and again, maybe they want you know, we see how the plan goes.

[00:48:00]

But I feel confident with the plan we have in place, though he does admit to being a little worried about the fact that they can't let parents into the building anymore and is concerned they'll get upset when they can't walk their little kids in. And as we're standing there, we watch how a mom named Pam Lee navigates that new reality. She's walking her sixth grader Nicaea and kindergartner Najia up to the door. It's nature's first in person. Day of kindergarten.

[00:48:27]

The kindergarten. Right. All right. No good for Miss Johnson. Right. All right. I will see you ladies later.

[00:48:38]

Just come in Najaf, please, with her mom.

[00:48:40]

OK, come in. I can't come in. Love you because you're OK.

[00:48:47]

As soon as she walks in the door, Najaf turns around and she's just tall enough to peek out the bottom corner of the window.

[00:48:52]

In the door, she smiles big and waves to her mom, all her little face in the window way.

[00:49:01]

Other parents also follow the new rules and drop off goes without a hitch.

[00:49:11]

The kids settle into their classrooms pretty quickly, all that planning is paying off. Mr. McGuire and I speed walk through the school and we see kids patiently waiting to use the bathroom where they're only allowed to use every other stall to maintain space. We're figuring that out. He points out a sixth grade class reading the outsiders at their desks that have shields set up on them like little cubicles. The kids don't even face that much about wearing their masks.

[00:49:35]

When I sat down to the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie, it seems like a smooth start to being back in school.

[00:49:42]

Except for one thing, as we pass by a second grade classroom, we both noticed that there's only a single kid in it. Mr. McGuire kind of breezes by continuing to walk and point out other classrooms, but I stop and make him come back. The second graders sitting in the middle of the room, looking lonely and small, behind rows of cubicle desks.

[00:50:01]

Just one to first grade these two. No, but she's just got one. Yeah, that's great. Yes, that's that again.

[00:50:08]

We continue down the hall. Other classrooms also have way too many empty desks on the first day back. A lot of kids are missing.

[00:50:24]

Two hundred and twenty six kids were supposed to show up for school today. Another forty five signed up to stay virtual. Just after 9:00 a.m., David and the two assistant principals get the actual attendance number from the school counselor in the hallway.

[00:50:40]

You're not going to treat us online so far, which makes one hundred and five students out of two hundred and twenty six just three days before this on Friday. Most of those students were in class virtually now. Over hundred of them had disappeared. Mr. McGuire talked to one of his assistant principals about what happened.

[00:51:01]

I said, did we miss something this summer? She said, What do you mean? I said, do we miss something that we why are there so many kids missing? And she was like, you know, I don't know. We just we got to find the right we just got to find out. And I was just like, yes, but that's it. We communicated right. Like, we had it on the website. We put on our social media.

[00:51:17]

We said class danger. We use the parables. Right? We did Mellors. We did those things right.

[00:51:22]

Those things weren't enough. Mr. McGuire, the dean, the school counselor, the office manager, and a few teachers start calling parents, trying to figure out why their children didn't show up, I tried to figure it out, too. I talked to several parents whose kids were not in school that first day, including Kiara Leonard, the reason she didn't take her kids in.

[00:51:43]

I just wanted to make sure that there were going to be no cases.

[00:51:46]

Kiara actually really wanted to send her two children back to school. Things were getting kind of wild at home, like her seven year old daughter was sneaking out of bed and staying up all night. And she's up snacking and eating whatever she can find. She didn't go to sleep until the sun was coming up.

[00:52:03]

She has a kitchen set in her room. I open the freezer and there are the sprinkles to the cupcakes. Why don't I send in the oven? What are you doing with it? I couldn't wait. That's why I would go for them on to school, because it was just like the schedule was broke. It was like they were just doing whatever they wanted to do. They needed to get back on a normal routine. At first I thought it seemed OK to send her kids to school.

[00:52:36]

She went to a school orientation and thought the precautions seem pretty sensible, like the DeShields in separate supplies for each student.

[00:52:44]

But then after I went home from orientation, I went to get the kids for my mom, and that's when I explained to her that what they had in place and she just wasn't too sure about it, like not on my grandbabies.

[00:53:00]

So, I mean, she sits up and watched the news either. So you can just imagine what she's like because she has to pick them up from school there with her after school.

[00:53:13]

So, I mean, I couldn't argue with her not wanting to be playing Russian roulette with Colby. So that's when I started questioning it. And I was like, well, let's just see how it goes the Thursday, see if we hear anything.

[00:53:32]

So after the first two weeks of virtual learning, Care kept her kids at home instead of sending them into school for the first day back in person, I was torn.

[00:53:41]

I knew they needed to be in class. It would help them more. But I wasn't sure if I wanted them to be with the first wave of kids that went back.

[00:53:51]

She thought they could keep doing virtual learning, but then they couldn't get into the online classroom. When the school called to check where the kids were, she explained why she didn't send them in. They reassured her that things were going well so far, and they asked if there is anything they could do to help get the kids into school. When she told them it was hard to pick them up on Fridays, they said that was fine. They could keep the kids an extra half hour until their grandma got off work.

[00:54:16]

This plus the fact that there were no covid cases those first few days, one over both Kiara and her mother.

[00:54:22]

And I guess you just seen how much they were willing to work with you. She knows as well that they need they need they need to be in school.

[00:54:31]

The school was doing tons of calls like these, including to another mother, Jamila Williams, who also kept her son Trey home that first day. She had a lot of worries that would have seemed small, but suddenly seemed big.

[00:54:43]

I thought the more than one person I of the three or four people, actually. So what were the types of things you wanted to know from them? I wanted to know about more about bathroom breaks, because I know they go in groups and and now some kids don't wash their hands and my child sometimes doesn't wash his hands. So I was wondering how would they take care of that sort of thing? And they tell me that there would be frequent restroom breaks, the restrooms are cleaned.

[00:55:18]

And I think it's after every inspection a though they thoroughly it. But that made me feel very good.

[00:55:25]

She also worried about her seven year old feeling comfortable and safe in a classroom with plastic shields on the desks and everyone in face masks.

[00:55:32]

I didn't want him to be scared and they reassured me and I think pictures and it looked fine to me. She was touched that so many people trace teacher, the school counselor and Mr. McGuire were willing to talk through her concerns, even the tone of their voices that they were confident and jovial signaled to her that they felt good about reopening. So maybe she didn't have as much to be worried about.

[00:55:57]

It's a stunning amount of extra work for the school, convincing parents one by one for their kids to attend the school they're already enrolled in. But this is what it took in so many cases. By the end of that first week, the school tracked down all but three of the missing students. They convinced around 70 more kids to come in person and another 40 or so decided to stay online. Son Trey went back to school that Tuesday, Kyra, the mom who had to convince her mother she sent her kids on Thursday.

[00:56:26]

I just feel like you are having to make this decision that so many parents across the country are having to deal with right now. Yes, I was hoping that the other parents would make the decision for me so that I can ride their call to see how it was working for them and then see if it would work for us.

[00:56:48]

So, I mean, if it has to be the other way around, so be it, everything's fine.

[00:56:56]

No cases, no sick children, no problems, but still just week to week one for us.

[00:57:12]

This difficult decision of how kids should return to school in so many places has played out like this.

[00:57:19]

The federal government left it to the states, the states left it to the schools, and the schools left it to the parents. And how are the parents supposed to know what the right answer is to any of this? No wonder it played out the way it did at Tenley. Stephanie Wong, she's the bureau chief of Chalke, beat Indiana to read their education coverage from around the country. Good to talk, Beat Dog. Five, the leftovers, of course, the big fear at every school right now is that they're going to start up classes in person in the fall and then the virus will arrive and spread through the student and teacher population, endangering everybody and of course, forcing them to shut down again.

[00:58:11]

Go back to mostly virtual learning that happened in the University of North Carolina this month, exactly one week after classes began with 177 confirmed cases at the time the school ended in person, undergraduate instruction and all students to start moving out of the residence halls and go home. Kids have taken a while to clear out as they have clusters of coronavirus cases keep popping up around campus in dorms and fraternities and a sorority house. NPR staffers Lauren Migaki and Elissa Nadworny when UNC campus last Saturday and happened to be at the school paper, the Daily Tar Heel, on one of the paper's editors, Brandon Standley, got a text about the latest cluster, the school's eighth at that point before the school announced it was in the dorm called Craig.

[00:58:55]

Craig just reported that it's about to have a cluster. So we got notification from a housing employee. I think that's all the high rises and most of the first year residence halls. And Craig Craig is where I live. So that's really not exciting to know via a text message. This is not good. That was this past Saturday.

[00:59:19]

One of our producers, Robyn Semion, called Brandon four days later to see what happened after Brandon hurt his dorm.

[00:59:26]

Craig had a cluster his mom called who wanted him to leave school. He said, no, mom. Then he and some of his friends started texting on a group chat.

[00:59:36]

One of my co-workers said, what in all caps? One of them said to me, one of them said, What if we've come into contact with those people and they're going home and potentially spread it to their communities? One of them called us Cluster Craig. One of them was scared about getting tested. So she said, if you see me having a panic attack, getting tested. No, you didn't. I talked about how I was scared to get the covid test, too.

[01:00:03]

I said, if you see me cry because that covid test poked my brain. No, you didn't.

[01:00:07]

Ultimately, in the evening, he went back to his dorm. The parking lot outside the building was just completely full. And there was, you know, families moving out, their students moving all their stuff. It was it was a lot of people in one tiny little area. And they were kind of like walking up and down the breezeway with, like fridges and boxes and things like that. And, you know, I had to walk straight into that because it's really the clearest entrance to get to the building.

[01:00:32]

So I had to walk straight through that and straight into the main area where people were taking the elevators up and down.

[01:00:38]

And it sounds pretty crowded. I would say it was you know, I felt nervous.

[01:00:43]

He beelined to his room on the third floor, talk to nobody. By Sunday, all four of his suite mates had left. Brandon does not want to leave, USC has said basically, we know we invited you back, but please leave.

[01:00:58]

Brandon is technically allowed to stay. He's paid to manage the dorm Ara's resident assistants who clearly have fewer and fewer residents to assist.

[01:01:08]

Brandon has a bathroom to himself now. Kind of nice. Yeah, I'm hoping to stay and I'm hoping to keep my job because this is my livelihood right now. This is how I make ends meet. This is how I put gas in my car and how I feed myself. And I'm really hoping that that doesn't disappear.

[01:01:24]

As of now, Brandon and the 15 remaining hours can stay, but he sees the problem. If the resident count gets too low, the university will terminate them and kick them out.

[01:01:42]

So, Craig, a big, fairly empty, dormant for about 650 people, a six story building shaped like an X with an ABC and doing lounges in an elevator tower in the center.

[01:01:54]

Brendan estimated on Wednesday there may be 90 residents left.

[01:01:59]

I talked to Brendan in his dorm room. At a certain point. I asked him to please just walk into the hall for me and then give me one second.

[01:02:06]

OK, I'm so curious if there's people out there.

[01:02:11]

Yeah, I mean, it constitutes about, all right, here we go, he leaves his room on the third floor.

[01:02:22]

All the hallways are outdoors, breezeways, but like looking out, like I can see up to the sixth floor and down to the ground, there is literally nobody in the breezeway, not a single person on the volleyball court. I thought I just heard a door open, but maybe I'm crazy. What about the lounge? Are you close to the lounge?

[01:02:41]

Yeah. Let me go to the toilet.

[01:02:42]

OK, let's go see nobody. It sounds so quiet. It is quiet there. The light is on. There's not a single person here. I'm walking into the basketball side now.

[01:02:56]

OK, well, there's a person. Oh, there's actually a person. A student who is late and can't talk your good one student.

[01:03:04]

And I'm like looking out now at the basketball side, kind of doing the same thing that I was doing on the volleyball side. And I can see up to the sixth floor and down to the ground and there's not a single person. She doesn't even look like the light is on in the rooms. Then there's kind of just nobody. He goes to the kitchen. Nobody does the entire fourth floor to nobody.

[01:03:35]

In August, just before the school went online, the Daily Tar Heel ran a piece with the frustrated headline, We all saw this coming, but not Brandon. He wasn't as skeptical of UNC reopening plan.

[01:03:48]

And I thought that if there was an outbreak on campus, that the university would lock down the buildings, lock down the campus, force everyone to quarantine, kind of like a snowstorm.

[01:04:01]

I just thought it was going to be just like that. It was going to be like two weeks worth of a snow day for everybody. And we were all going to be sick and it was going to suck, but it was going to be OK enough, you know what I mean?

[01:04:12]

You really had confidence in their plan. I just two weeks of quarantine, that was Brandon's backup plan for the university, the university had no such backup plan for Brandon.

[01:04:24]

They didn't listen. I was I was I was stunned. I was shocked. I was like, are you serious?

[01:04:29]

Like, what was the point of touting the safety plans that you had in place? If you if you had any sort of inkling that if there's an outbreak that you're going to send people home? I would love to be in the room where that happened and sit down and listen to them say, well, if there's three hundred cases, we're just going to send everybody home, because that's what they ended up doing, is there was a little over three hundred cases reported within a week and a half, two weeks, and they sent everyone home.

[01:04:59]

You can see did a survey over the summer asking students if they'd go to parties this year over a quarter said yes, maybe that's the only thing the university needed to know.

[01:05:16]

Robin Samman is one of the producers of our show School Day How We Used to run and Play. Now, those days are gone, but we keep on going on. What program was produced today by Emmanuel, Barry and Diane, will people put together today's show and could be Matawan me on a baker?

[01:05:56]

Dana Chevis give it to Kornfeld markelle Damián Grave, Michelle Harris Settlin, Mike McLelland Keats's, Don Nelson, Katherine Raimondo, Nathi Raymond, Robyn Semiannually, Sullivan, Christopher Satava, Matt Tierney and Julie Whitaker as managing editor. Sarah Abdurrahman, Executive Editor David Kestenbaum, special thanks. Today to Cheryl CofI requirement. Andrea Mitchell, Sally Gosa, Peggy Fredrikstad, Patrick Wajeha Wiki for Lisa Pollak, Vincent Cobargo, John Rabe, Karen Soto, Kerry and George Bresnik.

[01:06:21]

We Sonando you know you need Andy Kenney America, Billie Elizabeth, Friary WFYI in Indianapolis. And thanks to the many, many students, parents and educators we called, as we put together today, show this American life is delivered to public radio stations by PUREX, the Public Radio Exchange, our website, This American Life Dog, where you can listen to any of our over 700 programs for absolutely free support for this American life comes from Hakem. He has a new take on email allowing you to screen emails just like you can screen calls, give someone the thumbs up, Nuruddin thumbs down and you never have to hear from them again.

[01:06:57]

Try it for free at h e y dot com. Thanks as always. The program's co-founder, Mr. Toy Malatya. You know, he has really been cracking himself up all this week with his prank. He came up with.

[01:07:09]

Every single time I sit down in the studio to record anything, he swings the door open and yells, Hey, I'm IRA Glass.

[01:07:18]

Back next week with more stories of this American life, I want to remind. Next week on the podcast of This American Life, I don't know why we're here. Sarah Palin, her sister, retraced the trail of tears throughout their Cherokee ancestors took when the Cherokee Nation was forced west.

[01:07:45]

Like I know it's an interesting story. And yes, we are always interested in our past, but I don't know. Sometimes I wonder what good comes in that. I feel worse, I feel worse. What's history good for, anyway? Next week on the podcast on your local public radio station.