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How Atlanta Public Schools Are Coping With The Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

How this is going to look - well, right now, it looks like this. More than 4 out of 5 of the nation's children are now out of school in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus and keep as many people as possible from getting COVID-19. It's a national experiment with distance learning set up hastily and playing out day by day. The Trump administration has just announced broad flexibility for states to cancel their spring standardized tests, and that may take some strain off teachers and be a huge relief to parents and grandparents and other caregivers struggling to remember basic math and science. But what will it mean for our kids' education? And how are schools responding? Meria Carstarphen is the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, which has nearly 52,000 students. The system reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 this past week. Welcome to the program.

MERIA CARSTARPHEN: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz is also with us. She'll have some questions for the superintendent, as well. Good morning, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So first, please update us on this first case of COVID-19 in your school system.

CARSTARPHEN: Yeah, so we were very aggressive with a preemptive strike around closing schools. It was clear to us that prevention - we were way past that point, as well as containment. We moved to what is arguably a potentially draconian approach to how to address our concerns. But we did close all of our schools. And we're preparing to do that weeks before our governor kind of leaned in and made it more possible for us to do it. So our case was one of the better cases. It was toward the end of the week that the employee thankfully was considered enough to make sure that that employee did not have contact with students. And they also made sure that they were not in close contact with staff members, either, and took themselves straight to a health facility. And because of that, we were able to thankfully, through the health officials, ensure that we were not more exposed than we needed to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the question here, at least at first, is, will you be one of the states seeking a waiver from standardized testing this spring?

CARSTARPHEN: Well, I mean, we - at least for our school system, I have pushed a lot of my colleagues in the superintendent ranks and certainly our local and - our local delegation and our local elected officials to push on our needs as a school system. And we are a state that has 100% online testing. But you can imagine you don't have unlimited technologies. So if you're tele-schooling and teleworking, you need that technology in the hands of teachers and students. So you can't on one hand give them all the technology and also be expected to do online testing if school comes back online.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So is that a yes?

KAMENETZ: Right.

CARSTARPHEN: So we have absolutely pressed on that. And we did get the waiver, thankfully.

KAMENETZ: Superintendent Carstarphen, this is Anya Kamenetz. So that testing data, that's really what states across the country collect for purposes of equity - right? - to understand the achievement gaps between groups of students. And that brings up for you in your district, who is going to be hit worst and hardest by these school closures?

CARSTARPHEN: Oh, I think it's going to have a huge and disproportionate impact on black, brown and poor children in particular. It is absolutely clear that there is no comprehensive strategy for support. So the inequities that we often talk about have a spotlight during this crisis. So if you're wealthy or of a better socioeconomic means, you can get an access to tests, still get access to the support you need for your students. But that's not true in communities where there's high poverty and high need. And Atlanta, at least from the research of top foundations and other institutes - show that we are the most unequal metropolitan city in the country for income disparity. So you have an intergenerational poverty in a way that other big metropolitan cities do not. So that only exacerbates the issue. So I do think we have student groups, the most disenfranchised - the students who are most challenging will come out on the back end of this in a very bad way.

KAMENETZ: I just want to follow on that because there's a little bit of news here. The education secretary, Betsy DeVos, yesterday clarified that schools should absolutely be making online learning available while also respecting special education and civil rights law. And I know there's been some confusion over this. Can you actually offer home learning, distance learning while respecting the needs of students that have IEP special education?

CARSTARPHEN: I think - what we've seen is that it is incredibly hard. I mean, it is - some of our students are - have all - I mean, as you know, like, incredibly diverse needs in the special education category. And so some of it is direct. Some of our students have one-to-one support when they're in school. So imagine if you don't have that at home. It becomes virtually impossible for us to do that. And I think that the - what we're seeing is that there's still a lot of constraints on a school district to kind of do things the old way when we're in unprecedented times.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I've got a question. What do you think happens next when this pandemic is over? What do the schoolchildren do? Is it summer school? Do you think children will have to repeat a year?

CARSTARPHEN: Oh, wow. You know, I think the world's going to be a very different place when all of this is over. And we've operated as a public school structure, many people say, the same way even when they were in school. And so what we've witnessed is in less than a week - and for us, it was like 24 hours - we made a dramatic shift in the way that we're trying to approach education. And so I do think things will change. What that will be, it is hard to predict mostly because we barely have our heads above water. I'm trying to do big, consistent things that our communities are expecting of us that actually goes beyond the district and the classroom.

We're still trying to feed children. We're still trying to provide safety and security in our communities. We're doing health care. People are asking us to do daycare. There's just so much that's on system in this moment that is much broader and bigger than what we were expected to do when we were doing traditional school structures. So I don't know what it's going to look like. But I do think it will dramatically change the face of how we do education.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And...

KAMENETZ: Just in the time we have - yeah, go ahead. Please.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, I'm just going to jump in. Just - because I think this is on many people's minds, we have 30 seconds left. How long are you planning for? And what should parents be prepared for? Do you think that kids are going to be able to go back to school this year?

CARSTARPHEN: Well, it is my hope. I was listening to some of those vignettes you were sharing and the kids screaming about, like, where'd you get the number nine? - and how much they love field trips and wanting to see kids in school. I'm a full-service superintendent who absolutely loves children and loves the job that I do. And what's really hard to imagine and what I am still hopeful for is that our country comes together. We have not seen a comprehensive strategy. We continue to get confused and mixed guidance throughout this process - but that we actually hunker down and create a structure that allows us to get back to schooling before the school year is out and actually mitigate and do our best to contain this virus. But I am planning on probably not even coming after spring break. It'll be certainly mid-April before we have any hope of really coming back to school in any normal way, if that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Meria Carstarphen. She is the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. Thank you very much for joining us this morning.

CARSTARPHEN: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And thanks also to NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz. Thank you.

KAMENETZ: Thank you.

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