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The Struggle To Reopen Schools: Teachers Don't Feel Safe; Kids Are Struggling

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to the debate over reopening schools. Almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, arguments are still raging over whether to reopen schools or how to reopen them safely. And everybody, from federal and state officials to teachers, parents and students, seem to have a different idea about what that looks like, with some states like Florida ordering all schools to open for in-person learning. Others, like Massachusetts, are urging districts to do so, but not ordering it. In some states, it's a mix of in-person and remote learning. And while some states are making sure teachers are eligible to get early doses of the COVID vaccine, that's definitely not true everywhere.

The one thing that seems clear to everybody is that many students are really struggling. And what also seems clear is that many teachers really don't want to go back to classrooms where they don't feel safe. So how to reconcile all of that?

Elana Sigall wrote a piece about this for Chalkbeat that caught our attention. Sigall is a former teacher who is now an educational consultant and a lecturer at Columbia University. She's also a former deputy secretary of education in New York. And she got a front row seat to the struggle when she agreed to help her niece in middle school with her Zoom learning. And she is with us now. Elena Sigall, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ELANA SIGALL: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so happy to be here.

MARTIN: What did you see? Your niece is - she's in seventh grade, and she was having a hard time. Her parents ask if you could help her. So you did for a month - I mean, like, eight hours a day, attending online classes with her and coaching her through homework. So what are some of the things that you noticed?

SIGALL: I really noticed a lot of disengagement on her part and on the part of the other kids in the classroom. And I also noticed the teachers being very sort of sensitive to the online environment and what that was doing to kids on an emotional level and being very sensitive to that. And so there's sort of a fragility in the atmosphere. And that's very understandable. And I think a lot of the kids are fragile, and a lot of them don't want to be on camera, and they feel uncomfortable.

But in that, there aren't a lot of strategies for turning kids on. And what I saw is that it was really flat. Everybody was really flat. My niece was really flat. She wasn't participating. As I mentioned in the piece, I quickly learned that she didn't know how to type, which was a obviously huge impediment to participating in anything where you're relying on a device.

MARTIN: So you're not hating on teachers. I mean, you are a teacher, and you certainly have worked with teachers. And what do you think is going on on their end? I mean, as you've seen, there have been demonstrations where in some parts of the country, people are just furious because they see their kids struggling. They're struggling. Give us the sort of the teacher perspective on this. Is it just - is it harder than people realize to translate in-person learning to a digital experience or to a virtual experience?

SIGALL: I think it is. And I'm absolutely not hating on teachers. I think that our teachers are exhausted by the last nine months of chaos and COVID. A lot of our teachers have their own children, whom they're also trying to supervise doing online school - you know, in the same room in some cases as they're trying to teach classes.

And I think that teachers haven't been given support. I think there's been sort of these widespread assumptions like, oh, they get to stay home. You know, they're getting off easy. They're sitting in their kitchens getting to do their jobs. They're not working hard enough. I think it's crazy. I think people have actually no idea what it takes to really be a teacher and what it takes to then translate a whole skillset into an entirely different environment.

And I think one thing I hope comes out of this crisis is that we recognize how much we need teachers, how much we rely on them, and that we can start treating them like professionals and supplying them with the support and, frankly, the pay that they should be getting to do what I think is one of the most important jobs on the planet.

MARTIN: Well, you write that one of the things that made a difference in your niece's experience is that you spent a lot of one-on-one time with her - I mean, hours a day. How did that work?

SIGALL: So we would sit together, and I would, for one thing, keep her attention on the task at hand. For kids, it's really hard to stare at that screen all day long and keep your attention. And just the toggling that she had to do between assignments, schedules, classroom meetings, classroom assignments, homework assignments - it's a lot to keep track of. And for kids with disabilities and kids who have executive functioning issues or attention issues, all of which are quite common, it's really, really hard to be the person managing all of that with no one there to sort of see how it's going.

So I was able to do that piece for her, and I was pushing her to expand her thinking. And the excitement of that, as all teachers know, is you start to see a kid light up. And she did light up, and I could - you know, it was almost like her brain turned on. And that was so exciting and sort of joyful to see. And I want all kids to get that. I think all kids deserve it. I think there's a lot of evidence that high-dosage tutoring can be really effective with kids. And it can be one-on-one. It can be in small groups. And it doesn't have to be hours and hours of it. And, in fact, sometimes that can be counter-productive. But, you know, there's research showing that three to five times a week, 30-minute sessions with a person who has some training can make a huge difference in a kid's skill development.

MARTIN: You are obviously highly educated. You are skilled, and you care about this student. And so the logical question then becomes is, a lot of students were going through what your niece was going through. How can other students kind of get the kind of support that you were able to provide?

I mean, just frankly, just - Ms. Sigall, I mean, jeez, thinking about it, very few individual families, it seems to me, could replicate that experience. So what do you think is the answer? I mean, the fact is, kids are eventually - let's say - let's assume people are going to go back to school, so why don't we kind of walk through the options here? I mean, the first thing is, do you think that - you know, where do you stand on bringing students back to in-person school?

SIGALL: I think we need to get schools open as soon as we can safely do that. But I really understand the hesitancies that teachers have about going back and that families have about going back. I think a lot of trust has been lost. I think we need to rebuild trust between families and schools, between teachers and schools, so that we can get kids back. And we need to get everybody vaccinated. You know, that's clear.

MARTIN: That was Elana Sigall. She is an education consultant and lecturer at Columbia University and former deputy secretary of education in New York. We're talking about a piece that she wrote for Chalkbeat. Elana Sigall, thanks so much for talking with us.

SIGALL: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.