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Schools will usher in another new year defined by the pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Students, teachers and parents are bidding farewell to a fourth school semester in a row that's been defined by the pandemic. And schools are trying to figure out how to respond to the omicron surge. Here to catch us up on the past year and what lies ahead is education correspondent Anya Kamenetz. Good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How do people sum up 2021?

KAMENETZ: So it made me think of this woman. At the very beginning of the pandemic, she set a world record by running 95 marathons in 95 days. And it's been a little bit like that. I mean, educators, in all seriousness...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: ...Have told us that this semester, it has been the hardest one of the pandemic yet. Here's a few of those voices, starting with Alena Zachery-Ross, the superintendent in Ypsilanti, Mich.

ALENA ZACHERY-ROSS: Many more challenges this year than the other years.

RENE SANCHEZ: We've got several teachers out who are quarantine. A lot of teachers also feel overwhelmed with just - these babies that are in school now, they have been experiencing a lot of trauma.

BRYCIAL WILLIAMS: It's been a challenging year, having to address the delta variant and just be anxious and frustrated and dealing with the fallout.

KAMENETZ: Those last two voices belong to Brycial Williams, a reading specialist who spoke to my colleague, Claire Lombardo, there in Arkansas, and Rene Sanchez, who runs a district outside Burlington, Vt. And new federal data shows that nearly all students were back full-time in-person this fall. However, these learning interruptions have been dragging on - students being sent home to quarantine for several days after COVID exposure. Thousands of schools have had to close their doors completely for a couple of days or even a week at a time.

INSKEEP: I'm also just thinking about the factor of burnout. It's been so difficult for kids to learn from home. It was difficult to re-enter. It's got to also be difficult for teachers and staff.

KAMENETZ: That's so true. Yeah. No. The people who educate our kids are really exhausted. That's teachers, school counselors, food service workers, and it's principals and superintendents. They see that their kids are hurting. But they always - they don't always have the resources to reach them. Dan Domenech is the executive director of the School Superintendents Association. And here's what he told me.

DAN DOMENECH: Just about every superintendent I speak to is spending at least one day a week in the classroom as a substitute teacher.

KAMENETZ: So they're having to wear multiple hats because staff are out sick. And there's no subs to be found. And those folks in leadership positions, Steve, are themselves quitting at an unprecedented rate. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles - all three of the biggest school districts in the country changed superintendents this year.

INSKEEP: This has got to continue to affect education even now that virtually all students were back this past semester. How are students performing?

KAMENETZ: So first of all, I think, most worrisome, as our team reported earlier this fall, enrollment is down across many large districts for a second straight year. And at least some of this, superintendents told us, is due to high school students who dropped out and are working to support their families. For those kids who are in school, unfortunately, this should've been a recovery year for them. Children started out behind where you might expect them to be in reading, especially in math. Some studies showed the less in-person instruction they received last school year, essentially, the less they learned. And we're seeing achievement gaps, you know, inequities being magnified for Black students, in particular, for low-income students, you know? However, if anything, educators and parents are even more concerned about students' well-being. I spoke to Sha'Miah Robinson. She's in Greensboro, N.C. And she said, coming back to high school was rough after months of lockdown.

SHA'MIAH ROBINSON: I feel like I lack the energy to do stuff. So I pretty much became a couch potato. And I really didn't want to - I didn't want to go to school. I didn't want to do anything.

INSKEEP: Anya, let's talk about another factor here, politics. Schools are often at the center of politics, but rarely quite so much as they were in the past year or two.

KAMENETZ: Right. So what we really saw this fall was the use of race and LGBTQ rights in schools as a culture war issue from the local school board level on up. This is Karen Watkins. I spoke to her earlier this fall. She's on the school board in Gwinnett County, Ga.

KAREN WATKINS: Oh, goodness. I used to - I was called a demon. I was Satan's spawn, you know? I'm trying to kill our kids.

KAMENETZ: School leaders are getting this kind of harassment about mask wearing, vaccine mandates, as well as about race and gender. It's personal. It's angry. And it's wearing people down. In Tennessee, one teacher was fired this year for teaching about white privilege because eight states now have passed laws that restrict what teachers can say about race or gender in the classroom.

INSKEEP: Which gets to the fact that this is central to politics for a lot of political candidates. And now 36 governors' races are coming up in 2022, not to mention races for Congress, the House and the Senate. Where does education fit into that?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So besides this Republican base activism, what's also popping up - some focus groups and exit polls in November's Virginia gubernatorial race saw potentially prolonged remote learning and these continued disruptions showing up as a swing voter issue among suburban white women. And I speak to parents like this all the time. They previously identified as staunch progressives. But they're really upset about what's going on in their schools. And we have reported on enrollment drops in many public school districts. Private school and charter school enrollment is up. So this is really kind of about the fabric of a lot of communities.

INSKEEP: So we've had this tumultuous couple of years. And now we prepare to begin another semester for many students in - I don't know - about a week or so, in some cases, a couple of weeks from now. But I got to tell you, Anya, when my kids finished for - got - went home for the winter break, there was kind of a feeling of relief because of omicron and, honestly, some question about whether they'll all go back on time.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. That is the question. And these emails are coming. And we've seen a handful of districts already announce a shift to remote or delays coming back from winter break from Chester County, S.C., all the way to Washington, D.C., and Mount Vernon, N.Y. Other districts are trying to get ahead of the game with testing. We've seen districts sending students home with rapid tests. New Orleans is out ahead of the country in requiring all students down to 5 years old to have their first vaccine shots not long after the first of the year. And they say they want to save the Carnival season with those shots. I would say, there's much more of a consensus, Steve, than in previous years, that everybody does want to keep schools open as much as they can, avoid these prolonged closures. One way to accomplish this would be to use rapid tests to limit student and staff quarantines after exposures. This is called test-to-stay.

INSKEEP: Right.

KAMENETZ: It's been backed by the CDC. And President Biden has called for it. However, you know, obviously, this is going to require a lot of tests and consistent access to tests. So recently, New York and Connecticut both announced that they're giving out millions of tests to schools. But, I mean, these states have millions of students, right? So and another limiting factor to keeping students in schools is going to be simply staff getting sick on top of the existing staff shortages.

INSKEEP: We've talked about all the problems and challenges. What's working?

KAMENETZ: You know, as hard as things are right now, I'm consistently amazed by the determination of educators to seize this moment. And the attention that they're giving to students' social and emotional needs, 4-in-10 schools in a recent survey have hired new staff to deal with those needs. And so this may be the beginning of a change that some people have been calling for for a long time.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thanks, as always.

KAMENETZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLORIES' "CROWNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.