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With a new surge in cases comes another fierce debate about in-person learning

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A familiar scenario is playing out in schools across the country amid the effects of yet another surge of coronavirus cases. That scenario sounds like this - classes meet again in person. There's a rise in infections among students and staff. Student absences and staff shortages follow, and that, in turn, leads to yet another fierce and sometimes ugly debate about the safety of in-person learning right now versus the cost to kids of a return to virtual classes.

So we're going to start by talking to somebody who is living this reality right now. She is Diane Lundahl, a Spanish teacher at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz. We spoke with her last fall. We wanted to check in with her again. And, Diane Lundahl, welcome back. How are you holding up?

DIANE LUNDAHL: I am surviving like everyone else - showing up.

MARTIN: Well, your school started a new semester two weeks ago. Has this latest surge affected how your school is operating? What's going on?

LUNDAHL: Unfortunately, there have not been many changes in the way the school is operating, and the changes, obviously, that we're seeing is more absences among students. We're also seeing a severe shortage of teachers that are showing up. I was one of them myself. I tested positive on the 5th of January, and school started for us on the 4th. So I didn't present the entire first week of school, and two days out of the second week of school, I didn't see my students, either.

MARTIN: And how are you feeling, by the way? You just kind of dropped that little bomb in there that you...

LUNDAHL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...You yourself got COVID. How are you doing?

LUNDAHL: I'm tired. That post-COVID fatigue is real. But other than that, I'm doing well. Thanks for asking.

MARTIN: So I understand the school has - it remains open for in-person learning. I understand that - just sort of set the context there, let me just say that the vaccination rates in Arizona - I don't know about your district, but in Arizona - are below the national average, around, like, 57.9% is the latest figure I saw - below the national average but not the worst. Like, that's down in the 40s - and certainly not anywhere near the best, which is in the 70% range. And I understand that your school has an optional masking policy. Do most staff and students wear masks or not?

LUNDAHL: No. I would say not most. And it's kind of shocking to me, especially returning, that more are not wearing masks in, you know, reaction to the surge.

MARTIN: You know, we like to think that parents and schools and students are generally on the same page about things that affect kids. But this seems to be a situation where people are not all on the same page. And so I just wanted to ask, because you are a part of all of these constituencies - your family is. I mean, your student - your kids - you're a parent. Your kids attend the school...

LUNDAHL: Correct.

MARTIN: ...And you're a teacher. And so I want to ask you about each of these different - because you embody all of these identities in your household, but everybody doesn't. Do you feel a situation where, you know, let's just start with the teachers. Are teachers generally of accord here about whether they would like to be in person or teaching virtually? What is your sense of that?

LUNDAHL: I think there's a general consensus that our students do better in the classroom. I don't think anybody would argue that. But the logic should be that we need to try and contain this so that we can teach longer in person for the remainder of the school year.

MARTIN: And what about...

LUNDAHL: So...

MARTIN: OK. I'm sorry. Just - what about as a parent?

LUNDAHL: I can tell you, as a parent, that I like having my children in school. You know, it's their senior year. We want them to be in person because we believe it's better for them socially but also because better teaching is taking place. The - what we're really seeing, the reality of having everybody come back in person, is that that quality of education, you know, what - the concept that it's better to have a student in school or that they're safer in school - it's just not a reality in the current situation that we're in because we have so many teachers that are out absent currently and we don't have the substitutes necessary to be manning those classrooms. So a lot of students are really just sitting in classrooms right now in person without real teaching taking place because that teacher isn't there.

MARTIN: Do you feel like it's a safe environment for your kids and for you?

LUNDAHL: I do not. I do not feel safe going in there. And the reason, again, I don't feel safe is because a lot of the mitigation measures are optional. And when you have optional mitigation measures that not everybody is on the same page about, then you really end up with no mitigation measures. These mitigation measures should be layered. We're talking about social distancing, masking. We're talking about the vaccinations, especially with the specific variant that we have going on out here in Arizona right now, you know, the omicron. But, you know, without layered mitigation, there is no true mitigation. And because of that, I don't feel safe.

MARTIN: That was Diane Lundahl. She teaches Spanish at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz. Diane Lundahl, thank you so much for talking with us, first of all, but being a teacher, doing everything you do. Hang in there, please.

LUNDAHL: Thank you, Michel. I appreciate it. I - yeah. I'm not one of those ready to tap out yet, so we will hang in there. And I'm really glad and appreciative of your attention to the matter and the subject.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GENTLEMAN LOSERS' "PEBBLE BEACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.