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CNN Special: "Back to School: Kids, COVID and the Fight to Reopen". Aired 9-10p ET

Aired March 12, 2021 - 21:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Hello and welcome to this CNN Special: BACK TO SCHOOL: KIDS, COVID AND THE FIGHT TO REOPEN. I'm Jake Tapper.

As we come on the air tonight, there are reasons to be optimistic about this Pandemic. Starting Monday, teachers in all 50 states will be prioritized to receive vaccines. Kids around the country are going back to school to learn in-person.

But one year into this Pandemic hell, which is what this year has been, for so many parents, kids and teachers, the progress is still too slow, for millions of kids stuck at home.

Virtual classes were seen, at the beginning of the Pandemic, as the best option. But classes online, often in isolation, have created their own health concerns.

This has resulted in frustrated students, struggling parents, millions of whom cannot afford or access, high speed internet, or childcare, and teachers, working to save a generation of young minds, while too often fearing for their own lives, and their health, and that of their loved ones.

Tonight, we will try to explore every part of the educational crisis this Pandemic created. But let's start with an obvious admission. There are no simple answers here.

There is no one-size-fits-all inexpensive solution that would end this struggle "Like that." If this were easy, it would have been solved long ago. So, let us listen, and learn, and try to figure out what to do.

So, here's a snapshot of where things stand. The families of more than 50 million kids rely on public schools in some 14,000 school districts. So, let's bring in our Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Sanjay, let's start with the most basic question. What do classrooms need to be safe for kids and their teachers? What does the science say?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we can say pretty definitively now, Jake that kids are far less likely to get sick. Yes, there is this rare condition known as multi inflammatory

syndrome. But it is rare. We didn't know that in the beginning. But it's pretty confirmed now. Kids are far less likely to become infected, far less likely to be hospitalized, and far less likely to die.

We also know Jake, as we've looked at the data that counties where schools were in-person versus counties, where they were virtual, did not see an uptick in hospitalizations, overall, for kids or for adults.

And if you did see outbreaks in schools, and you investigated those, they were almost always due to some sort of laps in the basic mitigation measures that we spent all year talking about.

So, Jake, I went to David T. Howard Middle School to get an idea of what mitigation measures are in place, and how well they're working.


GUPTA (voice-over): School in the age of COVID-19, temperature scans, plastic dividers, eating outside, all of it to lower risk.

LISA HERRING, SUPERINTENDENT, ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Decisions, tied to health risks, feel very much out of our wheelhouse. It felt scary.

GUPTA (voice-over): It was the weight of the world that Atlanta Public School Superintendent, Lisa Herring carried when the city schools reopened on January 25th.

GUPTA (on camera): There was huge surge post-holidays that we were still in the midst of. So how did you arrive at these decisions?

HERRING: We became more and more aware of the high level of focus around mitigation for safety and health risks.

You start by looking down.

GUPTA (voice-over): Herring shows me what that means at David T. Howard Middle School.

The CDC's guidance for schools to reopen safely considers community spread, and relies on five familiar strategies, masking, physical distancing, washing hands, cleaning facilities, and improving ventilation, as well as contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.

HERRING: All of the doors open, so we're very intentional.

GUPTA (on camera): All the doors there you open.


GUPTA (voice-over): The few studies that have been done looking at in- school transmission have found few Coronavirus cases when those mitigation measures are in place. One study of 11 North Carolina School Districts found just 32 cases of

in-school transmission, among nearly 100,000 students and staff. Not one of those cases involved a child infecting an adult.

Another study looking at more than 200,000 people, in the New York City public schools, between October and December, found just 0.4 percent of those tests were positive.

Still, sixth grade social studies teacher, Patrick Dougherty (ph) had his doubts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I definitely was leaning towards "We should stay virtual." Now there's not a lot of crowding, they hand-sanitize, they keep their masks on. So, I feel safe. And I'm getting vaccinated tomorrow, first dose.

GUPTA (on camera): Should teachers get the vaccine before coming back to school?

HERRING: In a perfect scenario, absolutely, Dr. Gupta, absolutely. This just simply was not the perfect scenario.


GUPTA (voice-over): Weekly testing of staff and students that began in February spotted 32 cases so far.

GUPTA (on camera): Can school districts open, if they don't have that level of surveillance testing?

HERRING: There are school districts that are open who don't have that, so the answer is yes. Does it give another layer of protection? It absolutely does.

GUPTA (voice-over): More than a third of the district's 52,000 students have now returned.

GUPTA (on camera): By show of hands, does everyone feel safe being back in school?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I hadn't been in-person for like a year. I haven't socialized with anyone at all. But it was better than I thought it was going to be.


GUPTA: What so many people have told us, Jake, is that it does seem clear that schools can reopen in-person, safely, if, right, if you have all these other things that we talked about.

And as basic as they may sound, it's not always that easy. Sometimes, getting - having the resources for the masking, to be able to have the square footage for the physical distancing, and ventilation costs money.

So, a lot of people paying close attention to the $125 billion that will go to K-12 schools to try and be able to improve those resources. But even without vaccines, even without testing, Jake, it is certainly possible.

TAPPER: And Sanjay, I saw a study, out of Massachusetts, suggesting that schools where students are three feet apart are really - there's really no difference in terms of the spread of the virus, from schools where kids need to be six feet apart.

It's tough to do the six feet. It's one of the reasons schools - some schools are staying closed. Does it need to be six?

GUPTA: Well, this is very interesting. So, there's a couple of things.

I saw that. That study was 251 schools in Massachusetts. And you're right. In schools where they were doing three feet versus six feet, they did not see a big difference in transmission. Again, some of these schools were able to test.

Couple caveats. It does depend how many people are actually in the room. The more people that are in the room, the more virus is likely circulating the air, and the more distance you want to try and keep.

And also, the other thing was, are you doing a good job with the other mitigation measures? Obviously, mask's always important, but particularly important, if you're going to be closer together.

Jake, the World Health Organization, if you look at their recommendations, they say one meter, so just over three feet is what the World Health Organization says. We've been saying six feet in this country.

TAPPER: All right, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thank you, as always.

GUPTA: Thank you.

TAPPER: We have more from some of the most powerful voices in this crisis, ahead, for you. But the voices that matter the most are yours. We asked teachers and kids and parents, to make video diaries, to give us all a sense of the COVID and education challenges in their daily lives.

Let's listen to the stories of three of America's students now, Bobbi and Reese from California, and Christal from Maryland.


BOBBI BROCK, STUDENT, WOODLAND HILLS, CA: Hi, I'm Bobbi. And online school actually has been really difficult for me.

REESE MCCALL-REGUERRA, STUDENT, LOS ANGELES: I'm a new student to the school. I'm a ninth grader. And it's really hard to socialize and make friends.

CHRISTAL SIMMONS, STUDENT, BALTIMORE COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOL: It's mentally draining, doing the same thing over and over again. MCCALL-REGUERRA: If we make time to socialize, we don't have enough time to learn. And if we make time to learn, you can't really socialize at all.

BROCK: And also, I just feel like the teachers are really putting on a lot of pressure for us to get perfect grades and get everything in on time. And I just feel like I lose all my motivation to do anything except for school.

SIMMONS: Staying involved is an issue because a lot of times you don't really get to speak. It's more or less you can only speak, if you have a question. So, involvement is hard to do for me.

BROCK: Online school is way more draining than regular school. And I just have no motivation to do the things that would usually make you happy.

SIMMONS: You sort of get lost of who you are. Well, I know I did.

MCCALL-REGUERRA: The biggest struggle really, it's the social interaction. And this is coming from a usually socially-awkward person who's a little, you know, I don't have a lot of friends, but I never had no friends.


TAPPER: It's tough. Let's talk about all that and more with the brand- new Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona. Before joining the Biden Administration, he was Commissioner of Education in Connecticut.

Secretary Cardona, thanks for joining us.

You just heard that new reporting from Sanjay Gupta, suggesting that with proper mitigation measures, schools can be safe. So given what the science tells us, what is holding back every school in America from opening with those proper safety measures?

MIGUEL CARDONA, EDUCATION SECRETARY: Thank you for having me, Jake. And Happy Birthday to you. I know it's your birthday today.

TAPPER: Thanks.

CARDONA: Happy Birthday. I hope your day is going well.

Without question, my biggest priority right now is safely reopening our schools and doing it quickly. We know our students, you know, that - those comments from those students, right before this clip, were really touching. And we need to do it for Reese and for Bobbi.


We need to make sure that our schools are open quickly and safely. And as Dr. Gupta pointed out, there are examples throughout our country where it's being done.

So, my priority is to reopen schools quickly. And I have experience doing that, so I know we can do it. And now with the American Rescue Plan, I'm confident it's going to get done.

TAPPER: Let's look at a few of the biggest school systems.

Los Angeles Elementary Schools are not opening for another month. Chicago is in-person two days a week, but not five. Even in your home state of Connecticut, more than 40 percent of school districts are still not fully in-person classrooms.

We know that obviously, there is the Pandemic, but then there are other effects of this. Students are falling behind. Given the science, do you think that there are some school districts that are moving too slowly?

CARDONA: I do think that throughout our country, we have districts where they don't have the resources to implement some of the mitigation strategies that other districts have.

And in some places, there might be fear, or there might be some concerns about whether or not the schools are safe enough. But I can tell you, in Connecticut, over 90 percent of the students have an opportunity for in-person learning to build that sense of community.

So, it's a balance, making sure that we're moving the needle in the right direction, to get students in school every day. But we have to do so making sure that we're adhering to those mitigation strategies that have worked to keep our schools safe.

TAPPER: You touched on, on kind of what I'm driving at here, which is you talked about the fear. And we're all empathetic. And there needs to be more empathy in this debate. But the science is also very important.

You've said, quote, there is not widespread transmission in schools. CDC researchers, in the medical journal, JAMA, agree with you. They wrote, "There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission."

I guess the question is are enough school officials following the science when they don't offer in-person classes at least three days or four days a week?

CARDONA: Yes. I do believe, you know, I, having worked as Commissioner of Education in Connecticut, I've seen the tremendous work that our educators, and our school leaders and our district leaders have done to get the doors open, and to make sure that they're learning and following the science, to make sure the schools are open, implementing mitigation strategies, communicating with parents, and creating that sense of confidence, while bringing the stakeholders to the table to make sure that they feel comfortable with this process.

It is a process. This is unprecedented. I mean, we are in the middle of a Pandemic. I do feel that they're following the science. And I do think that this is hard work. There is no playbook for this in any leadership course. I do think that they're following the science. I do think that they're moving it. And I can tell you, there are districts that have been open, since day

one, providing their students an opportunity to engage in that social emotional experience that we heard from Reese in the episode - in the segment earlier.

TAPPER: Is there a clearinghouse at the Department of Education? And look, I know, you're just a few days on the job, OK? But is there a clearinghouse, or will there be a clearinghouse for best practices?

So, for instance, my relatives, who are in school, in Texas, and my relatives, who are in school, in Florida, are able to have their schools that are doing this, and it's working with mitigation efforts, let me - let me underline that with mitigation efforts--


TAPPER: --so that my relatives, who are in California, can benefit from what is going on in these other states?

If the Department of Education is not already doing that, and I don't know that they were doing it, under Secretary DeVos, will you commit to doing that, so schools can learn from each other?

CARDONA: That's a great point, Jake. And the answer is, yes, definitely. In a few weeks, before the end of March, we're going to have a National Summit on school reopening, where we're going to have experts.

And we're going to have, as you mentioned, districts that have found success, doing this, talking to other districts, and sharing their best practices, but also sharing the challenges that they had, so we can learn from those districts.

We also have a clearinghouse, a repository of best practices, around reopening, but also how to provide social-emotional supports for our students, and for our educators, who've also experienced a lot of trauma, in this past year. So that's coming out very soon, too.

And we have a handbook that came out about three weeks ago. And we have another handbook coming out in April with that goes deeper into the long-term strategies for reopening, such as providing more support for students, and helping with the recovery of whatever skills were lost.


TAPPER: Yes, because I think, for teachers who are understandably afraid of getting sick, even if the kids, the risk to them is low, I think, learning from experiences, where it has not resulted, opening schools, in-person classrooms, with mitigation efforts, masks, distancing, et cetera, ventilation--


TAPPER: --I think it could be reassuring. Let me ask you. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote in "The Washington Post" this week that schools nationwide should cancel summer vacation and continue classes through the summer, in order to make up all the lost ground.

Do you agree? Does the Biden Administration agree?

CARDONA: Let me tell you. I know I appreciate the urgency to make sure that we're giving our students the best opportunities. But I can tell you, from last March till now, our students have worked twice as hard, as you saw in that segment earlier, trying to stay engaged.

And if we do provide summer opportunities, which I think are critically important, we need to make sure that they're not more of the same. We need to make sure that our after-school programming, our summer experiences, are enriching experiences where students are getting out, visiting museums, doing things to build community, and learning in the process.

So, I do think we should have summer opportunities for our students to engage in learning, but in ways that are engaging and building community. And I think that's critical. That's a critical part of the recovery. And the American Rescue Plan does provide funds to make those opportunities available to our students.

TAPPER: When do you think, in this country, there will be an opportunity for all schools to offer five-day-a-week in-person education? When will that be? Will that be in the fall? Will that be not until 2022? Give us an idea of what you're thinking.

CARDONA: Jake, as soon as possible. And I'd like to think that in many places, we can do that this spring.

I know schools that are functioning all day, every day, five days a week, for all students currently. And we need to continue to grow and make sure that we're giving students an opportunity to be in school as much as possible.

There is no substitute for in-person learning. So, my biggest priority is making sure that we're doing everything we can to move from remote- learning to in-person learning, five days a week, as quickly as possible, across the country.

TAPPER: A guest that I'm going to have next is the Head of the largest Teachers' Union in the country. Do you think, on the whole, the role of Teachers' Unions, has been a good thing, or a less positive force, when it comes to the goal of reopening schools?

CARDONA: Educators across our country have bent over backwards. They learned how to teach totally different, from one day to the next. And yes, they need to make sure that they're advocating for a safe work environment as well.

So, I do think they've been helpful. As a matter of fact, my experience in Connecticut, we worked hard, and we moved quickly, to close the digital divide, to get students in school, because of that partnership.

So definitely feel that having educators, school principals, superintendents, board members, at the table, is a critical component of safely reopening and reopening quickly.

TAPPER: Secretary Miguel Cardona, thanks for being here tonight with us. Please stay in touch. We'd like to stay on top of the story. We've been covering it since last year. We hope there will be a time that we don't have to cover it anymore.

CARDONA: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up, I'm going to be joined by the Head of the nation's largest Teachers' Unions. What will it take for the nearly 4 million educators in the U.S. to feel safe, when they're back in class? An important question.

And coming up next, parents fed up with waiting, how many are suing, to try to force these reopenings, as our CNN Special continues.




One of the hidden tragedies of this Pandemic, kids dropping out of school.

In New York City, enrollment has dropped by about 43,000. Youngest students, from pre-K and kindergarten, make up the steepest drop.

Chicago is down nearly 15,000 students, Dallas 13,000.

In Sacramento, teams of social workers are searching for the missing kids, in one particular district, where 90 percent live in poverty.

The blow to our children's education from chronic absenteeism can be staggering. Studies show it can leave third graders unable to master reading, and high school freshmen dropping out permanently.

Data from Stanford shows that in more than 100 School Districts, students' reading scores are 30 percent below expectations.

Let's take a look at another video diary from those sharing their personal stories with us. This is Cortni Alvis, a mom of two, from Indiana, telling us what it's like to homeschool her kids, while working full-time, from home, during the Pandemic.



C. ALVIS (voice-over): We have two kiddos ages 3 and 6.

C. ALVIS: It's time for school.

C. ALVIS (on camera): Today, you will see a day in the life of us when it comes to homeschooling our children. One is in a public school, and we luckily have the option to have him do in-person with a few e- learning courses throughout the calendar year.

C. ALVIS: Good job.

NORMAN ALVIS, INDIANA FATHER OF TWO (on camera): It's been a major transition as far as us converting our basement, to the home office, as well as we created a little niche, to make it a classroom-setting as much as possible.

N. ALVIS: Love you guys, bye.



C. ALVIS (on camera): E-learning days are very challenging, honestly. I'm trying to get things done for work, and hurry up and get them done in a timely manner, because that's when my husband then has to tap in. It's hard to hold meetings, to do conferences.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you please help me with my homework?

C. ALVIS (on camera): This is a prime example. He needs help with his homework assignment.


TAPPER: Thank you to the Alvis' family for sharing that with us.

For some parents, the outrage over schools not offering in-person classes is now at the point, where they're going to court. CNNs Bianna Golodryga spoke with a group of New Jersey moms, who are schooling, who - I'm sorry, who are suing their school districts.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The garbage workers who pick up my freaking trash risk their lives, every day, more than anyone in this school system.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN SENIOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST (voice-over): Across the country, exasperated parents, like this Virginia dad, are demanding more of their school boards.

KERI AVELLINI DONOHUE, ATTORNEY: It's maddening because, why is my kid suffering, and other kids get to be in school? It's a game and the kids are being used as pawns.

GOLODRYGA (voice-over): Attorney Keri Avellini Donohue was representing 17 equally-frustrated families, pro bono, in lawsuits against two New Jersey school districts, Montclair and South Orange- Maplewood. It's been almost a year since students filled the classrooms in these districts.

DARYN SIROTA, MOTHER: This has been such a tremendous battle for all of us.

GOLODRYGA (voice-over): The suit asserts that students have been denied their right to an in-person education.

SIROTA: I myself is a teacher. Children need to be in school, with their peers, with their teachers, working collaboratively.

DONOHUE: Oh, really?

GOLODRYGA (voice-over): For Donohue, these cases hit close to home.

DONOHUE: The Department not responding to my own child's specific needs, and realizing oh, you know, not that they're not going to open the schools, and it was kind of like "I could do this, you know? I'm going to speak up for her because no one is speaking for the kids."

GOLODRYGA (voice-over): Her 11-year-old daughter Mary (ph) has not set foot inside of a classroom since last March.

GOLODRYGA (on camera): What grade are you in?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm in sixth grade.

GOLODRYGA (on camera): Do you worry about when you can possibly return back to school?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. I always ask mom. "When am I going back to school?" She says she doesn't know.

GOLODRYGA (voice-over): Diagnosed with ADHD, Mary (ph) had been on an Individualized Education Plan or IEP prior to the Pandemic and had been thriving.

DONOHUE: She did so well that they said when she goes into middle school, she no longer needs like the intense like special services.

GOLODRYGA (voice-over): Today, Donohue says her daughter is a completely different person, and refuses to participate in online classes.

DONOHUE: She's progressively declined to the point, where she's diagnosed with high levels of anxiety and depression. And it was recommended that we put her like on antidepressants, to help her get back to a somewhat normal state. It's heartbreakingly sad.

GOLODRYGA (voice-over): The family she represents in the lawsuit describe similar setbacks.

ANNA FERGUSON, MOTHER: He was a star pupil a year ago, thriving, happy. All of his in-school supports were helping him. My son is in emotional mess now. He's depressed. He's not interested in anything. He doesn't talk. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He wasn't even participating. He wasn't turning his camera on. And this is a kid, who had tested as "Gifted" in the 99th percentile, now getting essentially D level grades.

GOLODRYGA (voice-over): Similar lawsuits have been filed against school districts and Teachers' Unions in over a dozen states, from Maryland to Kentucky, Wisconsin and California.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Getting our schools back open safely. Right now--

GOLODRYGA (voice-over): But while the push to reopen schools has garnered national sympathy from the White House, there's little the federal government can actually do. The majority of the country hinges on decisions made by local school districts.

For these moms, the battle is halfway over. On Thursday, the Montclair School District, one of the two named in Donohue's lawsuit, reached a deal to return to the classroom April 12th.

SIROTA: And I'm so, so grateful to her.

GOLODRYGA (on camera): You know your mom is out there fighting for you.


DONOHUE: Thank you

GOLODRYGA (voice-over): Bianna Golodryga, CNN, New Jersey.


TAPPER: Both school districts declined CNN's request for an interview. They cited the pending litigation.

But, in a statement, the South Orange-Maplewood School District said "We share that goal consistent with the New Jersey Department of Education's public policy to open schools safely to the greatest extent possible as soon as possible."

Coming up, the Head of the nation's largest Teachers' Union will join me. How does she respond to the parents we just heard from? That's next.




As we look for answers from the top, we're also listening to your stories, one year into this unprecedented battle for health and a return to normalcy. In this video diary, Linda Rost, of Montana, opens up about her

struggles, not just as a teacher, but also as a mother, trying to keep her own children safe, as she sends them off to school.


LINDA ROST, MONTANA HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER: I'm Linda Rost. I teach high school science in Baker, Montana. And I'm the 2020 Montana Teacher of the Year.

Probably around a third of my students have had COVID. I have not. But I've had quite a few students. And some of my students got really sick. So that was really hard.

I've been teaching 14 years. And it's definitely been the hardest year that I've ever taught. I was even looking for other jobs like when things were really - when cases were really high here. But I'm OK now like I think, think it's OK now.

It was just it - when everybody is doing the thing that you know is not right, it's really hard. It's really hard.

It's morning at our house and Rye (ph) is putting on her mask. And Rye (ph), do you think you'll be the only one on the bus with a mask, along with your brother?


ROST: Yes, so very few kids are wearing masks now because they're not required. But they still are.

My second grader and my fourth grader were riding the bus home. And as they were getting off at their stop, another kid said that they weren't allowed to get off unless they took their mask off. That was really hard. And I don't know really what to do with it.


TAPPER: That's tough!

Let's turn now to the view from the nation's largest Teachers' Union. Becky Pringle is the President of the National Education Association. She's a middle school science teacher with more than 30 years in the classroom.

Thank you so much for being here. It's good to have you.

BECKY PRINGLE, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION: It's good to be here with you, Jake, for this important discussion.

TAPPER: So, right now, infection rates, hospitalization rates, and death rates, are down significantly. They're still too high, but they're down significantly.

[21:35:00] Teachers are being given priority vaccinations. There are multiple safety measures, from masks to extra cleaning in place, at many schools, though probably not enough.

What are you hearing from your teachers on the ground? Are they ready to return? What do they need to feel safe back in class?

PRINGLE: Well Jake, as you just said, I am a middle school science teacher.

And as I think about the year that we've just spent, with the impact of the Coronavirus, and all of the crises that it spawned, I think about my middle school science teachers, and I think about how hard it would be to teach virtually, the experience of learning, the experiments that I did in my classroom. And those are the stories I'm hearing from teachers all over the country.

And not just our teachers, Jake, but our food service workers, and our custodians, our bus drivers, our counselors, our nurses, all of them want nothing more than to be in-person with their students. That's how they were trained to teach and work with them. And they miss them. They want to be back in-person.

And what we've been saying for now, a year, now we can say it's a year, we have been asking for the resources we need to do just that.

And the smile you see on my face right now, Jake, is the light at the end of this very dark tunnel, as I watch President Biden sign into law, the American Rescue Plan, of almost a $2 trillion, that dedicated $170 billion, not just to K-12 schools, but to higher education, so we can get all of our students back to in-person learning, safely and equitably.

TAPPER: Now, we understand that mitigation measures need to be in place for schools to reopen in-person learning, safely, not just for the students, but for the teachers, for the faculty, for the custodial staff, for everyone, masking, ventilation, distancing.

But we have seen, in recent months, especially, School Districts and Teachers' Unions take positions that seem to be in contradiction to the positions being voiced by the CDC, and health experts.

We even hear some teachers now saying that vaccinations for teachers, that's not even enough to get them back into in-person teaching, even though the CDC says vaccinations aren't even a prerequisite to do it safely.

Would you agree that what the CDC says following the science, that that's an important principle when it comes to this issue?

PRINGLE: Absolutely, I'm a science teacher. And I've been saying that for a year.

Follow the science, listen to the infectious disease experts on what we need to do, the mitigation strategies we need to have in place, to keep our students safe, to keep our educators safe, to keep our families and communities safe. We've been saying that for a year.

With the vaccinations now being a very real possibility, not just for educators, but for the entire community, we were so pleased to hear President Biden say that we should prioritize educators, which by the way, Jake, if you read all the way through the guidelines for the CDC, they also said that educators should be prioritized. And over half of our states had already done that.

So, we were very pleased to hear President Biden say that, but he didn't just stop there. He actually took - used his power, his authority, as President, to ramp up the production of the vaccines.

So, while we were - while we were having these discussions, more and more educators and community members, were getting vaccinated. And so, that's just that extra layer of support, so that educators can feel safe.

I listened to the educator that you just featured. And my heart was breaking, you know?


PRINGLE: Most of our, educators, are not only teaching, they have children too. And they are - we have to be able to look our parents, and our children, our educators in the eye, and say to them, that their schools are the safest place for them to be.

TAPPER: I agree, look, and that situation where that teacher's kids are the only ones on the bus, wearing masks, because it's not required, that's outrageous. It needs to be - there needs to be - there need - the school districts need to be on board in terms of having these mitigation efforts, absolutely.

But would you not agree that sometimes it seems that parents and students are getting the short end of the stick when they hear, in some school districts, Teachers' Unions saying "Even when we're all vaccinated, we don't think it's safe to go back to school." I don't even understand that. Why wouldn't it be safe?


PRINGLE: Couple of things, Jake. First of all, I just want to make clear that most of our schools are already back to in-person learning. So that's important to say that.

TAPPER: Not five-days-a-week though.

PRINGLE: And the reason that's important to say that--

TAPPER: We should - we should note. Not five days a week.

PRINGLE: And each school district is making the decisions based on the guidance of the CDC.

And they are doing - they are being so creative, Jake, to keep students safe and make sure they implement with fidelity, the guidelines that the CDC has laid out, so they are doing a variety of things, hybrid measures, and methods, a variety of things to keep the students and educators safe.

I actually had a chance to visit with Secretary Cardona, and first lady Dr. Jill Biden, who as you know, is an educator. She's still teaching. And she's an NEA member.

I got a chance to visit the Fort LeBoeuf School District, where I visited the Middle School there. And I had an opportunity to talk with the local president there, Kelly Clark, and with the superintendent, Superintendent Emerick.

And what they told me was a story that has been played out all over the country, and we haven't heard much of it. And it's why most of our schools are back to in-person learning already.

And that is because they worked collaboratively. They followed the CDC guidelines. They were able to get the resources to implement them, although they need the resources coming from the federal government now because they're running out.

But they - but they worked collaboratively with the parents. They talked to the parents. They interviewed them. They found out how many parents actually wanted to keep their kids virtual, and so they allowed for that as well.

Working together in a collaborative way, demonstrating that it is our shared responsibility, to keep our students safe, and to ensure they continue to learn, is the way that most of our schools have been able to get back to in-person learning.

TAPPER: Becky Pringle, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Let's share one more video diary, this one from Anthony Coy-Gonzalez, who teaches students, who have hearing impairments. He teaches them through sign language.


ANTHONY COY-GONZALEZ, TEACHER, OHIO SCHOOL FOR THE DEAF: I'm tired. It takes a different kind of energy using a screen and focusing on little hands signing in tiny boxes all day. This year has been a challenge, but I still love teaching. And I still love learning.

One cool thing about teaching online is that I can see my kids smile. They can fully communicate in ASL with expression. In school with masks on for safety, that's something that I really miss, the smiles.

So suppose you set up a lemonade stand. You have your stand all ready to go to sell lemonade.

For the last year, teachers have been pouring themselves into trying to reach and teach students virtually.

I know we've been focused on supporting the social, emotional and basic needs of students, and families, who've been struggling during this time. We've also been trying to reach them and teach them academically.

Beyond that, I've wondered how far behind my kids would be in math and reading when they came back.

Yesterday, they took the math and reading tests and I was nervous to look at the results. And honestly, when I saw them, I almost teared up with how much growth some of my students made.


TAPPER: Coming up, the race to stop the next medical emergency, the mental health toll on our students, on our children. Some of the nation's leading experts who see the risk and impact, firsthand, will join me.

And up next, our correspondents around the globe will show us how other countries are taking on the questions over reopening, as our CNN Special continues.



TAPPER: Welcome back to our CNN Special.

Of course, it's not just American schools struggling to stay open, during the Pandemic. We asked CNN correspondents around the world to take us inside their classrooms.


ISA SOARES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Isa Soares, in London, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made the opening of schools the first stage in his cautious four-step roadmap out of lockdown. But the reality looks very different for students returning.

Very strict Coronavirus rules, from one-way corridors, to hand sanitizing stations, to face coverings that have to be worn at school and in classes by students as well as teachers. They'll also have to have regular rapid Coronavirus tests.

The plan here, say authorities, is to be able to track and isolate those pupils, who are asymptomatic, to make sure that doesn't have an impact on England's infection rates.

SAM KILEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Sam Kiley, in the Cliffs Spring School, in North Tel Aviv. Now, there are about 500 children here, all of whom are being accommodated in the school. There is no distance learning for the kids here.

It is different for other children around the country. There's 2.4 million children trying to get back into school. If they're in areas, where the infection rates are high, they can't do it. But here, and in other areas of Israel, where the infection rates are

relatively low, they're able to get at least some of the children back, others in distance learning, and all of the teachers have been vaccinated.


Most schools here in South Korea are back in-person to a certain degree, and that's despite here in the Capital, this month, an average of more than a dozen students a day testing positive for the virus.

Now the younger years, up to Grade 2, are in the classroom, as are the high school seniors. Everyone in between is still a mixture of online and in-person.

Everyone without fail wears a mask. Everyone has a temperature check. And as soon as there is a case in a school, that school reverts to online, it is shut, and that's when the contact tracing begins.


TAPPER: The push to get kids back into classrooms is not just a convenience issue. It can be an issue of life or death. Suicide is always difficult to discuss, but that's exactly why it's so important that we take some time to do so tonight.

In recent years, suicide was the second leading cause of death in young people between the ages of 10 and 19. Now the data is still coming in from this Pandemic, but what we do see is of concern.


A study in the Journal, Pediatrics, found higher rates of suicidal behavior whenever so-called COVID stressors and community responses were heightened.

And between last April and October, kids' mental health issues led to a sharp increase in emergency room visits compared to 2019.

Tonight, let's discuss balancing the physical and mental wellbeing of children, as reopening plans are debated around the country.

Joining us Laura Ross, who was Counselor of the Year in 2020, named that by the American School Counselor Association. She works at a middle school in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Also, with us, Dr. Alice Kuo, Chief of Medicine-Pediatrics, at UCLA.

Thanks to both of you for being here tonight.

Dr. Kuo, let me start with you. You wrote an Op-Ed for the "L.A. Times" saying that students in your home state of California are suffering because of remote learning. You call for them to be let back into in-person class teaching.

Tell us what you're seeing on the front lines that alarmed you enough to write this?

DR. ALICE KUO, CHIEF OF MEDICINE-PEDIATRICS, UCLA, PROFESSOR OF INTERNAL MEDICINE AND PEDIATRICS, UCLA: Yes. So, pediatricians across the country are seeing in our clinics, the effects of the Pandemic on children's health, both physical and mental. And really, the two are very intertwined.

So, from a physical perspective, many of us are seeing tremendous amounts of weight gain, because of lack of physical activity. The American Heart Association recommends 60 minutes a day of vigorous physical activity for school-aged children. And during the Pandemic, many are not receiving that.

So, I have seen children as young as 8-years-old, 9-years-old, 10- years-old, gain 30 pounds, 40 pounds, even 50 pounds, during this pandemic, which will have detrimental effects on their cardiovascular outcomes, further on down the line.

In addition, I've seen higher rates of anxiety and depression, leading to these emergency room visits in these studies.

Children live in the context of their families. And when there is high levels of stress in the home, because, for example, mom can't work, because she has to stay home, to take care of the kids, so now there's financial stress in the home, or just general concerns about COVID, because of what they're hearing in the news, the children absorb all of that.

And so, they themselves are also having actual symptoms of severe anxiety and depression, similar to the video diary earlier in the segment.

TAPPER: And as a doctor, what do you tell parents in terms of - there are a lot of parents out there, who are worried about sending their kids into school, because they're worried their kids' going to get COVID?

Is it safer, statistically, for kids to be with hundreds of other kids inside school buildings than at home?

KUO: As we've been discussing, and there is actually emerging evidence that that is the case. With the appropriate mitigation strategies, with the layers of safety protocols, schools can actually be safer than the communities surrounding them.

So, for example, many schools have implemented symptom screening, in addition to universal masking and social distancing. And so, children who are supposed, you know, anybody in the school setting who might have a symptom of fever, a cough, should not be coming into the school setting.

That's not happening in other parts of the sector, for example, like in the grocery stores, or whatever. So with that, with all of those layers, of safety protection, schools are actually quite safe.

In conversations that I'm having with parents, I am encouraging parents to allow their children to go back for the benefits in their overall health. And it's a one-on-one conversation.

TAPPER: Laura, tell us what you've seen at your school. You have about half your student body of about 1,200 students back for in-person classroom learning. How did they respond to months of learning at home on both the academic and emotional fronts?

LAURA ROSS, LEAD SCHOOL COUNSELOR, FIVE FORKS MIDDLE SCHOOL: Yes, so we have about half our students, now, second semester, with us, in this school building.

Just re-entering the school is not the only thing that is what is needed for them. So, I've seen increased anxiety. I've definitely seen more sadness, maybe depression. And our students need so much emotional social support.

I'm in a middle school. So, that social connection is so important for them at that age, is really how they start to understand themselves in the world. And so, getting them reconnected with peers, and building that community again, is something that we have to focus on, so they can get to those academics.


For some of our students, learning digitally has not - some have done well with that, but some have not. And so, they've returned back to school. And it's really being able to have a space, where we can hold those students able to be the successful students that they've - that they've always been.

TAPPER: All right, Laura Ross, and Dr. Alice Kuo, thanks to both of you for being with us tonight. We appreciate it.

Coming up next, how you can help in this education crisis, even if you're not a parent or a teacher. We'll be right back.


TAPPER: We want to thank our guests, and you, for joining us this hour, for this Frank and difficult conversation. I think we can all agree that as we go forward on this issue, we need to be candid, we need to be empathetic, and we need to stick to facts and to science.

No matter your role, teacher, parent, student, or just someone, who wants to help them, get through this emergency, here are some ways to do so. You can go to the CNN Impact Your World page, where you'll find links to all kinds of great charities, to which you can donate.

Ones that provide meals to children, who counted on in-school dining, others that help provide teachers' supplies they need, or put technology into the hands of students in underfunded communities, there's a long list of options. Visit

I'm Jake Tapper in Washington. Thank you so much for watching.

"CNN TONIGHT WITH DON LEMON" starts right now. DON LEMON, CNN HOST, CNN TONIGHT WITH DON LEMON: Jake, thank you very much. This is CNN TONIGHT. I am Don Lemon. Thank you so much for joining us.

Boy, what a week! What a week, especially for President Joe Biden. The kind of thing that he once called a "Big effing deal," remember, he whispered that into President Obama's ear, when he got the health care bill through, Obamacare?