Anya Kamenetz

Two weeks' notice: Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in North Carolina voted on Oct. 28 to close schools on Nov. 12 for a "day of kindness, community and connection."

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When can kids safely take off their masks in school? About three-fourths of the nation's largest districts required masks at the start of the school year. Recently, the calls by some parents to unmask children have grown louder, especially now that there is a COVID-19 vaccine available with emergency authorization for children as young as 5 years old.

Natalie Saldana would love to put her 1.5-year-old daughter in a quality child care program while she works and goes to school, but the $700 monthly price tag makes it impossible.

"Seven-hundred dollars is almost my rent," Saldana said.

On Tuesday, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a Senate panel. The hearing's focus was advertised as "protecting kids online."

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So far this fall, children heading back to school have faced many obstacles: battles over masks, vaccines, delta-variant surge fears and mental health needs. Now, in many places, there is a last-mile problem — quite literally.

Updated March 19, 2021 at 12:46 PM ET

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its guidance for schools. On Friday, the agency announced it "now recommends that, with universal masking, students should maintain a distance of at least 3 feet in classroom settings."

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MIGUEL CARDONA: I just know that school reopening is really about creating those opportunities for our students. Doing it now, doing it in a safe way, we can do it. The American Rescue Plan is providing the resources needed.

The COVID-19 relief bill working its way through Congress is full of big ideas to help people. But there's one idea that's so big, it was politically unthinkable not that long ago.

President Biden and Democratic lawmakers want to fight child poverty by giving U.S. families a few hundred dollars every month for every child in their household — no strings attached. A kind of child allowance.

If this proposal survives the wrangling in Congress and makes it to Biden's desk, experts say it could cut child poverty nearly in half.

When you think of the history of Black education in the United States, you might think of Brown vs. Board of Education and the fight to integrate public schools. But there's a parallel history too, of Black people pooling their resources to educate and empower themselves independently.

Enslaved people learned to read and write whenever and wherever they could, often in secret and against the law. "In accomplishing this, I was compelled to resort to various stratagems,"like convincing white children to help him, wrote Frederick Douglass. "I had no regular teacher."

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Friday its much-anticipated, updated guidance to help school leaders decide how to safely bring students back into classrooms, or keep them there.

Ever since the pandemic closed the nation's schools in March 2020, there has been no official national source for understanding where schools have reopened, how many hours of live instruction students are getting online and just how unequal the access to learning has been over the past 11 months.

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Diana Muhammad, who teaches PE and dance in Chicago Public Schools, was "unsure," "uncertain" and "reluctant" about her district's plan for in-person classes starting Monday. At a Chicago Teachers Union press conference earlier this month, she said the plan felt "rushed." And then things got really scary.

"Over the winter break, my life was devastated when my daughter, who was sick with various symptoms all over the place for an entire week, woke up one morning and could not see."

When schools shut down in the spring, that raised immediate worries about the nearly 30 million children who depend on school food. Those worries were essentially borne out, with researchers reporting a large rise in child hunger.

Don Brown has been driving a school bus for more than 20 years in the Chicago area. And for all that time, he's noticed one odd student habit.

As they climb aboard his bus, "when they get to the top step, they always cough," he says. "This was even before the pandemic! Or, when they get ready to get off, they say 'Bye, bus driver!' and they cough."

Because of this, Brown says, he hopes he'll be getting the vaccine, "as soon as I can."

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Deborah Rosenthal starts her virtual kindergarten class on Zoom every morning with a song — today, it's the Spanish version of "If You're Happy and You Know It." Her students clap along. There's a greeting from the class mascot (a dragon), yoga, meditation and then some practice with letter sounds: "Oso, oso, O, O, O."

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Columbia, Brown, Penn, Purdue — universities with hallowed traditions, proud alumni and another thing in common: Right now they're being sued by disgruntled students.

The students claim that when campuses shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic, they should have been entitled to more of their money back. And the list of institutions facing such challenges is growing, including private institutions and entire public systems in California, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona.

Nightmares. Tantrums. Regressions. Grief. Violent outbursts. Exaggerated fear of strangers. Even suicidal thoughts. In response to a call on social media, parents across the country shared with NPR that the mental health of their young children appears to be suffering as the weeks of lockdown drag on.

Standing in front of a small tropical tree, a man in flip-flops, trousers and a polo shirt bends over what he calls, in a video made for NPR, a "handwashing facility".

It's a plastic jug, hanging from what looks like a knee-high swing set made of sticks. There's another stick tied to the handle of the jug; you can step on that stick, spill water out of the jug, and wash your hands without ever touching the jug. A bar of soap hangs from the swingset by a string.

With most schools closed nationwide because of the coronavirus pandemic, a national poll of young people ages 13 to 17 suggests distance learning has been far from a universal substitute.

The poll of 849 teenagers, by Common Sense Media, conducted with SurveyMonkey, found that as schools across the country transition to some form of online learning, 41% of teenagers overall, including 47% of public school students, say they haven't attended a single online or virtual class.

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Right now students are out of school in 185 countries. According to UNESCO, that's roughly 9 out of 10 schoolchildren worldwide.

The world has never seen a school shutdown on this scale. And not since Great Britain during World War II has such a long-term, widespread emptying of classrooms come to a rich country.

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For 6-year-old Sadie Hernandez, the first day of online school started at her round, wooden kitchen table in Jacksonville, Fla. She turned on an iPad and started talking to her first grade teacher, Robin Nelson.

"Are you ready to do this online stuff?" her teacher asks, in a video sent to NPR by Hernandez's mother, Audrey.

"Yeah," Sadie responds.
"It's kind of scary isn't it?"
"Kind of."

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