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How 2 Communities Have Approached Reopening Schools

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

By some estimates, about 4 in 5 students in the U.S. have the option of in-person learning right now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has offered all kinds of recommendations for how to make that possible. But a year into this pandemic, many schools have simply found their own way of doing things. Reporters Robby Korth of StateImpact Oklahoma and Carrie Jung of WBUR in Boston visited two communities with very different approaches. We begin in Massachusetts.

CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: For students and teachers at Wellesley High School outside Boston, the school week begins with a few very different routines, like taking a saliva-based COVID-19 test for the district's surveillance testing efforts.

CAROLYN SPANGLER: OK, so are we - are you ready, girls?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mmm hmm.

C SPANGLER: All right.

JUNG: Biology teacher Carolyn Spangler and her three kids, including 10th-grader Georgia, take one each week regardless of their symptoms.

GEORGIA SPANGLER: It's, like, really hard because you have to collect a lot of spit in your mouth.

C SPANGLER: You can't force the saliva we've learned, although the smell of brewing coffee helps.

JUNG: Testing isn't the only new routine students have gotten used to. They also have to wear masks all day, maintain social distance and participate in contact tracing efforts, all things recommended by the CDC. Wellesley is in a well-resourced school district and can afford to do all of this.

(CROSSTALK)

JUNG: Breakfast and lunchtime also feel different under pandemic protocols. Diane Zinck, the principal's secretary, explains.

DIANE ZINCK: Typically, we would have these tables, and they would fit, you know, six kids, eight kids to a table. And it'd all be kind of crowded around like puppies, you know? It would be about 25 more decibels higher than this.

JUNG: Today, the cafeteria is filled with individual desks spaced eight feet apart, and each one has a QR code that a student has to scan with their phone to help with contact tracing.

ZINCK: This is very quiet and very calm.

JUNG: Wellesley runs a hybrid learning model, so only half of the school's 1,400 students are in the building each day.

CAROLINE MACK: It's weird to have a lot less students in the school than we normally have, but it's really nice to see people and be able to learn together again.

JUNG: Eleventh-grader Caroline Mack says she's grateful that she gets these two days a week in the building. Remote learning got really lonely. Plus, Mack says, her teachers have gotten pretty good at making hybrid learning feel more normal. She says she feels safe at school. But for some, like teacher Carolyn Spangler, it's more complicated.

How do you feel about in-person learning now?

C SPANGLER: Oh (laughter). I'm so grateful for it. I'm grateful that we have as much as we do because there's just no substitute for face-to-face interaction, even this kind of sterile environment.

JUNG: Despite all of the precautions, the school building has still had to shut down twice this school year because of in-school transmissions.

For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung in Wellesley.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBBY KORTH, BYLINE: And I'm Robby Korth in El Reno, outside Oklahoma City. El Reno High School principal Tim Pounds does just about every job here, including working the buffet line in the cafeteria.

TIM POUNDS: Just got my hairnet off.

KORTH: Unlike the cafeteria in Wellesley, lunchtime sounds pretty normal here. But it does look a little different. Tables are spaced six feet apart, with two students at each one, often directly across from one another, not exactly socially distanced. Plus, because of staff quarantines, which happen a lot, the principal is serving lunch.

POUNDS: We normally have five ladies in the cafeteria. Today, we had two, so...

KORTH: OK.

POUNDS: ...We stepped in. Wherever they need us, we try to step in and help.

KORTH: Unlike the hybrid model in Wellesley, El Reno has been offering full-time in-person classes since the fall. About two-thirds of students are taking part. Everyone is required to wear a mask. How's it going?

POUNDS: Good - it's a day-to-day, yeah, but overall, it's good.

KORTH: Yeah.

POUNDS: Kids want to be here.

KORTH: With so many El Reno students in school full-time, social distancing has been hard. And like Wellesley, the school has had to shut down twice. Here, it was because of staff quarantine. There's no money to pay for things like surveillance testing. Nate, a sophomore, is happy to be in school.

NATE: My grades are coming up.

KORTH: Last fall, he opted to do school online, but this semester, he wanted to come five days a week. He does have some anxiety about being in-person.

NATE: I just hope I don't get it because, like, my mom, she has a weak immune system. Yeah, that's all I'm really worried about.

KORTH: Nate is concerned about his mother contracting the coronavirus. We aren't using his last name to protect her health privacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALLS BOUNCING)

KORTH: On the day of my visit, the girls' basketball team had just come off quarantine after playing an opponent with a positive case. Point guard Tetona Blackowl was excited for a game that night.

TETONA BLACKOWL: We just always just have a fun time.

KORTH: Tetona has been doing virtual learning to avoid the chaos of school-related quarantine. She has some serious hoop dreams. She hopes to lead her team to the state championship.

BLACKOWL: Better for, like, the season, just for us to have a season where I wouldn't get quarantined so easily just being in class with other people.

KORTH: But that careful planning didn't pay off. Shortly after I spoke to Tetona, El Reno's game that evening was canceled. Their opponent had to pull out because of their own quarantine protocols.

For NPR News, I'm Robby Korth in El Reno, OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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