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As Districts Reopen For In-Person Learning, What Schools May Look Like Going Forward

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More and more school districts are slowly reopening for in-person instruction. That trend is expected to continue and maybe even pick up now that the CDC has said students only need to be three feet apart in class. That's instead of six. So we're going to take a moment to look ahead and ask, when will our schools reach some kind of normal again? And what might that look like? To help us answer that question, I'm joined by NPR education correspondent Cory Turner.

And, Cory, I want to start with this very big question. How long before most kids and their teachers actually return to school buildings?

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Yeah. I think this spring, we're going to see schools continue to reopen, Audie, as you said, but it's not going to happen overnight. And there are a couple of reasons for that. One - in spite of what the CDC has done here, it is a huge logistical pivot for schools who had been working off that old six-foot guidance. It's also already late March. The other big reason here is that many teachers, and especially families, still don't feel safe in spite of what the science suggests. And I think in many districts, this spring is about restoring trust. Superintendents I've spoken with say they do expect most students to be back by the fall. Still, I think the shadow of COVID - you know, the masks, the spacing of desks - that's going to be with us really until kids can be vaccinated, which looks, you know, late 2021, early 2022.

CORNISH: This was such a painful disruption for so many students. But are there any lessons that school districts have learned about the way they do business?

TURNER: Absolutely. You know, I've had a lot of people asking me recently, when will school get back to normal? And I think it's important in a moment like this to remember that the old normal didn't work well for a lot of kids.

Michael Hinojosa is superintendent of schools in Dallas. And he told me up to now, public education has really been resistant to change.

MICHAEL HINOJOSA: And that's because all the people in power - high school was good to them. But I grew up with a lot of kids in the inner city of Dallas that were a lot smarter than me, but this version of school did not work for them.

TURNER: But, Audie, Hinojosa says now because of the pandemic and all of the COVID relief money his district has gotten, all of his students have access to technology - you know, a personal learning device. And I've also heard this from districts all over the country. Hinojosa is also using some of that aid money to put up cell towers so that his kids can use those devices to access the Internet. He's even starting a small, all-remote school next year for the kids who really flourished this year.

CORNISH: Technology in the past was always sort of hit-or-miss when it came to widespread adoption in classrooms. But how did this experience change things?

TURNER: Yeah, I think what's going to be interesting moving forward is, how is it going to change the traditional classroom experience? You know, I've had more than one superintendent tell me that these personal devices are going to be, like, the new textbook, notebook and pencil all rolled into one. I've had teachers tell me they're really excited because these devices and all of their kids having them will allow them to, you know, better focus on kids at different skill levels - working with one group while another group works online. I also heard from one superintendent, Curtis Jones in Bibb County, Ga., that this tech could also give, you know, high school students access to more and better classes.

CURTIS JONES: For those subjects that are difficult - like Latin, for example - where you only may have one Latin teacher in five high schools. We have students in other places that may want to take it, so now we'll be able to offer some virtual classes within the district and be able to let those students remote in.

TURNER: And it's not just Latin. You know, this could really open the doors for high-achieving students at rural or underfunded schools who might not have had access to, say, AP history or calculus. You know, Hinojosa in Dallas told me COVID has really stretched schools like a rubber band. They're experiencing a huge amount of creative tension. And the challenge, he said, is that when that stretching stops for schools to not go back to the way things used to be.

CORNISH: That's NPR education correspondent Cory Turner.

Cory, thank you.

TURNER: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.