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News brief: voting rights speech, schools juggle COVID, Novak Djokovic

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden and Vice President Harris traveled today to Atlanta, where they're expected to make an impassioned plea to pass voting rights legislation.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are two bills currently held up in Congress that Democrats say are critical to protecting the right to vote. Biden and Harris will spend some time talking about that legislation. They're also going to visit Ebenezer Baptist Church and lay a wreath at the crypts of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. But advocates say they want a plan for action on these bills, not just political symbolism.

MARTINEZ: Here to discuss the visit is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, so what do we expect to hear from President Biden today?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: You know, A, I expect we'll hear some of the same themes that we heard last week in his speech on January 6, when he talked about the United States being at an inflection point in the fight for democracy. You know, Biden touched on the voting rights legislation in that speech. And he described it as a key part to countering Republican efforts to use false claims about the 2020 election to pass laws that limit voting in many states. And those include Georgia. Here's some of what he said.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Right now, in state after state, new laws are being written not to protect the vote, but to deny it, not only to suppress the vote, but to subvert it - not to strengthen or protect our democracy, because the former president lost.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, A, but a big part of this visit is also signaling that this is a top priority. For many, you know, advocates and supporters, he just hasn't put enough political muscle behind this effort, the kind of political muscle that he has put on other parts of his domestic agenda.

MARTINEZ: OK. So let's talk about that for a second because there is concern that the visit is too much about optics. Advocates have told the president not to come if he doesn't have an actual plan to pass the legislation. So does he have a plan for this process?

ORDOÑEZ: (Laughter) You know, the White House says they do have a plan...

MARTINEZ: OK.

ORDOÑEZ: ...And that is to sign voting rights legislation into law that a majority of senators support. And Press Secretary Jen Psaki said yesterday the president was open to the idea of changing the filibuster rules in order to do that. But - and it's a big but - that's not good enough for some advocates, like Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter. He and other organizers from Georgia say they're actually going to skip the event because they don't see a real plan.

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: What we're saying is we don't need another speech. What we need is action. What we need is a plan. What we need is for him to lean into the filibuster and do what he has not yet done, which is give a clear call for it to be modified, not just telling us what he's open to.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, they want a full-throated call for a change on the filibuster. But the problem for the White House is that Democrats don't have the votes to do that. They need all 50 Senate Democrats to support changing the rules or creating some type of carve-out. And at the moment, there are just some holdouts. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set a deadline anyway of January 17 for a vote on changing those rules if Republicans continue to block the bills.

MARTINEZ: So speaking to Republicans, how are they responding?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, some Republicans have said they could be open to a more narrow proposal to fix laws on how presidential votes would be counted. But leaders are criticizing Democrats for the broader push for voting rights by tying it to the January 6 attack. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argues voting rights are not in jeopardy. And he put out a scathing statement Sunday, charging Democrats with trying to, quote, "use fake hysteria to break the Senate" and take over elections. So it's really getting ugly already.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thanks a lot.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Some school districts are doing what seemed pretty unthinkable just a few months ago.

MARTIN: They're sending students home and resuming online classes. The past few weeks have brought a dramatic spike in school closures. And in some cases, the whole thing has pit school districts against teachers' unions against parents.

MARTINEZ: NPR's education correspondent Cory Turner joins us. Cory, where are these closures happening? Do they signal, maybe, a meaningful shift back toward remote learning?

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Yeah. So we've seen closures in Detroit, Milwaukee, now Louisville. They're all virtual, as well as a third of Baltimore schools. There's also Chicago, where teachers and city leaders appear to have resolved their standoff overnight over whether it's safe to learn in-person. The mayor says students will return to class there on Wednesday. You know, A, closures are still fairly isolated and short - just a week or two. But it wouldn't surprise me to see more. You got to remember - omicron was hitting its stride right as we hit the big holiday travel rush. You know, I spoke with one elementary teacher in Louisville yesterday, Penelope Quesada (ph). She told me she supported the decision to go virtual for a week. But she worries about her kids now, her students. She told me school staff met online yesterday to prepare for remote learning.

PENELOPE QUESADA: Man, I mean, nobody was smiling. Everybody had this, like, traumatic face of, oh, my God. We're here. We're back again.

MARTINEZ: I know omicron is more transmissible than other variants. But it also appears to lead to less severe illness. Vaccines are all over the place. And lots of pediatricians and child advocates have been very forceful, Cory, in saying that kids are better off in school. So why are schools closing?

TURNER: Yeah. In many cases, it really comes down to one word, staffing, you know? So many teachers and bus drivers are out sick right now that districts just don't have enough adults. Making matters worse, many communities are suffering from a very real shortage of substitute teachers. I spoke with Louisville superintendent Marty Polio yesterday. He told me last week, he even sent staff from his district headquarters to cover for sick teachers.

MARTY POLLIO: But when you start - like, on Thursday, it was over 600 uncovered classrooms in our district. It becomes really untenable at a certain point.

TURNER: And, you know, A, Pollio estimated that's roughly 10% of his classrooms that didn't have teachers.

MARTINEZ: That's a lot. There have been a lot of conversations about COVID and schools the last couple of years. Are schools better equipped to roll with these punches? Or is it getting more difficult?

TURNER: You know, I was talking to Dan Domenech yesterday. He talks to superintendents all the time as head of the national School Superintendents Association. And he told me he's heard something from a few superintendents personally that he's never heard before. And I should say, this might be tough to hear.

DAN DOMENECH: Superintendents calling me, telling me that they're ready to commit suicide. That - I've never, ever seen a period of time where I've had to deal with that.

MARTINEZ: Wow. Cory, I mean, what is it about this moment that's left school leaders, superintendents, feeling this way?

TURNER: Yeah. The problem, Domenech says, is the debate around safe schooling has become toxic, you know? Some families are angry if you close schools or make kids wear masks. Others are angry if you keep them open, you know? Not to mention, some educators received actual threats not only to themselves but to their families during this recent critical race theory fight. And the result, really, is that schools are a pressure cooker in a way that they just weren't when these closures started in March, 2020. If there is hope right now, it's that the closures we're looking at will be brief, you know, a matter of a week or two, buying districts time until omicron peaks.

MARTINEZ: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Cory, thanks.

TURNER: You're welcome, A.

MARTINEZ: And before we go on, we want to note if you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, there is help. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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MARTINEZ: Tennis star Novak Djokovic is back to training for the Australian Open, at least for now.

MARTIN: The world's No. 1 ranked men's tennis star arrived in Australia last week unvaccinated. He recovered from COVID in December and said he'd been granted a medical exemption. But Australian officials said he actually wasn't free from a rule that all non-citizens be fully vaccinated. Djokovic's visa was cancelled until yesterday, when a federal judge in Australia reinstated it. The saga doesn't end there, though. Australia's minister for immigration says he can still revoke Djokovic's visa and deport him over his vaccination status.

MARTINEZ: For more, we're joined by Melbourne-based journalist Elizabeth Kulas for the latest. Elizabeth, what exactly did the federal judge decide?

ELIZABETH KULAS, BYLINE: So basically, we should start off by saying that the ruling yesterday was not about whether the exemption that Djokovic had sought was valid or not valid. Yesterday's hearing was instead a review of the decision to cancel Djokovic's visa, which happened on his arrival. And the question was, was that decision made fairly or not? The judge, Anthony Kelly, ruled, no, that it was not fair. And in that ruling, he focused on an early morning interview that Djokovic was subject to on his arrival into Australia last Thursday. He was told at that time that he would have until 8:30 that morning to respond to the government's intention to cancel his visa. And instead, he was pressed much earlier than that, around 6 a.m. And the visa was cancelled shortly after something like 7:30 that morning. So Judge Kelly ruled yesterday that Djokovic should have been given that full time to 8:30 in the morning to consult with his lawyers, to respond. And so the decision to cancel his visa was quashed. And he was released from immigration detention within about half an hour of that ruling.

MARTINEZ: You know, Elizabeth, one of the things I've been wondering about all this is how Djokovic even got into Australia to begin with. I mean, he's been very open about not being vaccinated.

KULAS: That's been an extremely complicated part of this story, goes to a web of communication between the federal government, the state government and Tennis Australia that ran the tournament. But essentially, before he left Europe to come to Australia, Djokovic was given a kind of preliminary clearance to do that based on the fact that he'd tested positive to COVID in the last six months. The open question right now is whether or not, having recovered from COVID, he should have been vaccinated before arriving in the country. This is the issue the border force had upon his arrival. And that's kind of an open question. It hasn't been resolved by this ruling either. But it looks like, at this stage, unless we hear something from the immigration minister in the next couple of days, that Djokovic will compete in next week's tournament.

MARTINEZ: I know Australians are facing very strict COVID restrictions. How do they feel about this ruling?

KULAS: Yeah. Look; restrictions have been easing over the last few months. But as a result, and plus the omicron variant, COVID case numbers here are at levels beyond anything that we've seen in this country through this pandemic. Ninety-three percent of adults in the state of Victoria, where the Australian Open will be played, are vaccinated. This is a city that has gone through one of the longest lockdowns anywhere in the world over the last two years. So there's not a huge amount of sympathy for someone who's had 12-plus months to be vaccinated and hasn't done so. And now there's a bit of a peeking through the timeline, you know? After testing positive to COVID in mid-December, Djokovic was photographed the very next day out and about at events maskless, standing next to children, posing for photos.

MARTINEZ: Wow.

KULAS: Many people are asking about personal responsibility or irresponsibility for public health.

MARTINEZ: Now, I know the prime minister's government is seeking reelection in May. Any sense that this could be all political theater?

KULAS: Look; I think this is definitely a difficult political moment for the government, with this huge wave of infections that we're currently experiencing. Supply of rapid tests is extremely limited right now, hospital system is definitely stretched. But I think the sort of politics here is more about a strongly held cultural belief that elites - and in this case, an athlete - should be treated the same way as anyone else. That runs very deeply here. And I think if the government hadn't subjected it to scrutiny, there would have been a problem for them politically.

MARTINEZ: Very quickly, Australian Open starts next week. The No. 1 ranked player in the world isn't there. Will it dampen enthusiasm?

KULAS: Yeah. Look; I think it might. At this point, we expect to see that Djokovic will be on the court when the open starts on Monday. So at this stage - I mean, he was out training this afternoon. So at this stage, we can expect to see him. But how crowds respond will be another story entirely, I think.

MARTINEZ: That's journalist Elizabeth Kulas speaking with us from Melbourne. Elizabeth, thank you.

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