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715: Long-Awaited Asteroid Finally Hits Earth

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Remember years ago, the guy who ran the military, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said, kind of famously, there are the things we know, the things we don't know, and there are the things that we don't even know we don't know. That last kind of spooky category he called the unknown unknowns.

And I guess maybe talking about known unknowns and unknown unknowns might have been appropriate for the thing he was talking about, which was Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. But who knew that someday it was going to be a good way to describe the chaos swirling this year around two of which should be the most pedestrian, predictable things the government does-- counting votes in an election and starting the school year.

OK, let's save the election for another day. Can we talk right now about the demolition derby multi-car pileup of known unknowns and unknown unknowns that is the opening of this school year? Matt teaches at a big high school in the suburbs of South Carolina. And all summer he's been doing what parents and teachers everywhere have been doing this year, wondering if there's going to be in-person instruction this fall and watching state and local officials give out information that seemed incomplete, and contradictory, and confusing.

Matt

And it was sort of like hot potato of responsibility too. It was like everybody was kind of passing, you know, like, when you hear from your district, when you hear from the state superintendent, when we hear from our gov-- you know.

Ira Glass

Oh, they're all saying somebody else is going to set the course, and then you'll know.

Matt

Yeah, it felt very deflective.

Ira Glass

By August, when they got to the first day, the teachers reported back to school-- no kids there yet, just teachers. Matt says things still seemed very unclear.

Matt

Thinking surely when we get in the building, we're going to get the answers. The answer is in the building where my bosses are, they're going to know. And over the course of the week, sort of having the veil lifted and realizing my bosses don't know anything more than I do about the start of school-- like, my principal and I know the exact same amount of information.

Ira Glass

At that point, teachers had received an email with a tentative plan, but the emphasis was very much on "tentative." His principal noted, quote, "Things change daily." The plan was called the A/B plan, and it was the hybrid plan that lots of schools are doing.

Students will be divided into two groups, A and B. Half would come to school for two days while the other half would stay home and join online using Zoom, then they'd switch. But if you want to see a high school spinning through the maelstrom of known unknowns and unknown unknowns, OK, here is what happened that first day the teachers came back.

Matt

The first meeting that I go to is at 10:00. And it's a department meeting, so we have just 15 people spread out.

Ira Glass

And you all are sitting there socially distanced from each other, wearing masks.

Matt

Yep. There's a good atmosphere in the room. All things considered, we're happy to be there and happy to see each other-- a very glass half full, whatever may come sort of vibe in the room. And our department head, who's a teacher, has written up these two plans on the board-- the A day, B day sort of hybrid plan and then an all-virtual start.

Ira Glass

Virtual start-- no students in the building, you're teaching everybody online.

Matt

Correct.

Ira Glass

Got it.

Matt

Yeah. We get a little into this meeting, and we have an administrator-- one of our assistant principals is in the room, and he's been mostly quiet. But when we get to a conversation about how we get back into teaching, he sort of pipes in, and he says, hang on. And he's like, the A day, B day plan is out. Apparently they had received word from the district that our school needed to cancel that plan. So, all right, everybody, first change, curve ball coming at 11:00 AM. Change of plans-- let's plan on all virtual.

Ira Glass

So to summarize, 10 o'clock it's A/B. 11 o'clock it's all virtual. Or anyway, that's how Matt took it. His department chair told us he had no idea what would happen.

Matt

So meeting ends. Then around 2:00 in the afternoon, word sort of spreads that there's this bomb drop of an announcement. And that administrator who had been in our meeting caught my colleague in the hall, and he was kind of flustered. And he said, plans are changing again. We just got word from the district. So it's just like, wait for the staff meeting. Let's see what happens.

Ira Glass

The staff meeting is the big welcome to the new school year all staff meeting for the whole faculty. And it starts at 3 o'clock.

Matt

About 250 teachers are on this Zoom call. We're all in our own rooms.

Ira Glass

You're all in the building, but you're in your own rooms--

Matt

Yes.

Ira Glass

--on Zoom.

Matt

Yeah. And then like nothing happens at this meeting. The whole meeting is trivial information. They introduce new faculty members. They share positive news from teachers' summers, like new babies or engagements. They talk about our SAT scores from last year, all the things that we hear annually.

Ira Glass

When they finally do talk about the restart plan, he says it's a lot of we can do it positivity, but no concrete details about whether they'd be going all virtual or what the plan was going to be.

Matt

So the meeting ends, and we're all sort of sitting there thinking like, what was it? And my colleague and I are determined to figure this out. So it's 4:00 now. We're like, we're going to go down to the administrators' offices and just see what we can see.

And we go to one of the administrator's offices, and there are two other assistant principals in there. It's pretty jammed. And it's sort of like the situation room in any White House action drama. There's papers all over the table, and everybody's on their computer. And even for as few people are in the room, they're sort of talking past each other, and there are multiple conversations going on.

And my friend and I kind of got that vibe of like, we're just going to stand at the door. We're not even going to come in, wade into the water. But what we find out is that in the afternoon, the district apparently came back to the schools and was like, OK, new plan. You need students in the building on the first day of school, five days a week, at 25% capacity. That's all we're giving you. Figure it out.

Ira Glass

What?

Matt

And so what we see on the table are all these rosters of students and scheduling. And so there's some logistical nightmare.

Ira Glass

The logistical nightmare is because South Carolina mandates that every parent should have the option to send their kid to school for in-person instruction if they want or keep them at home for virtual learning if that's what they want, which is the kind of trying to please everybody solution that in practice is just enormously difficult to execute.

It means that there have to be some students in school five days a week. But, of course, there's only so much space in the school for students with proper social distancing. So how do you figure out who gets to attend and who does not get to attend, and what happens when you cannot give every family what it wants?

Meanwhile in the classrooms, as South Carolina heads towards the first day of classes September 8, teachers have to figure out how to do something that they did not do last spring when schools went on quarantine. They had to figure out, how do you teach a class that is partly at home and partly in the room with you?

Matt

Which is a particularly-- it's particularly funny to think for choir, it's a very difficult subject to teach virtually.

Ira Glass

Oh, Matt, he's a choir teacher.

Matt

Trying to sing in a Zoom with other people is just a nightmare, because you can't even-- if you say let's clap at the same time, you'll hear a bunch of different claps because everybody's--

Ira Glass

Oh, of course. There's a little delay, and that delay makes it impossible to sing together.

Matt

Yeah, not to mention that usually the software is built to identify who is speaking and amplify their voice, and silence other people.

Ira Glass

So the only way to sing together is with everybody on mute, and what kind of rehearsal is that? And the one fourth of the class that's going to be in the room with him, they can't sing together in the room because singing in a chorus can be a super spreader event for the virus. Remember that choir near Seattle at the beginning of the pandemic where 52 people got sick? Even with masks it's not safe, which means singing together is the one thing you cannot do in chorus.

Matt's classes are 90 minutes long, and right now he figures he'll teach the kids on Zoom and the kids in the classroom together for half an hour at the beginning of it, lecture style, give out singing assignments to do at home--

Matt

And then at the 30-minute mark or something, I would probably dismiss those Zoom students, say, like, OK, you've got your assignments. I'll see you soon-- take the students that are in the room somewhere outside where we can be spaced out and actually practice singing with them.

Ira Glass

Weather permitting.

Matt

Yeah. We're going to have to just MacGyver the whole semester basically.

Ira Glass

So you're re-engineering every part of your job? Like, every single part of it?

Matt

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Other teachers have said this to me too, that virtual teaching is making them rethink and re-engineer the most basic things they do in their jobs to get through to kids. A second grade teacher in Chicago told me that she was still struggling to figure out how she was going to hold the attention of a bunch of seven-year-olds over video for the mandated three hours a day of live, real-time instruction.

She was like, I don't even know if developmentally, that's even possible for them to focus on the screen for that long. Not to mention, what activities was she going to give these little kids to do on their own, unsupervised by her, for the hours they would not be on video with her? She was spending weeks before school started, every day on her own time, unpaid to figure this out.

It's been a few days since I've recorded that conversation with Matt. And since then, his high school surveyed the teachers and realized that so many of them wanted to stay home and teach from home that there's no way they could actually have 25% of the students come back for in-person instruction. Right now it seems like they're only going to have enough instructors for fewer than 10% of the students. But administrators are still figuring it out.

And of course, who knows how everything is going to unfold in September when kids actually arrive. Will anybody get COVID? Will things be fine? Matt knows some teachers in states where school has already started.

Matt

What it feels like right now is going cliff jumping with your friends. And our friends next to us are Georgia and Alabama. And we're like, 1, 2, 3-- and we're like, I'll see you in four weeks, as they're jumping off. Because we want to see what happens to the other districts. I'm starting to see-- I have friends in Louisiana that are teaching entirely virtually. I have friends in Georgia and Alabama that are posting their Instagram stories of Plexiglas in front of their desk, and like, here we go.

Ira Glass

Are you in that weird situation where you actually don't know what's going to happen and you're kind of worried, but you have to deal with parents and students? And with them, do you let them know your apprehensions? Or do you just keep like a big smiley face, and, like, it's going to be great? Do you feel like you're lying?

Matt

[LAUGHS] Yeah, it sort of feels-- it feels a little contorted. Like, I have teachers that are posting first day of school pictures as always. And they sound bright and cheery. And it's like, can't wait to see my students, despite the challenges. Really excited to show them a great new year.

But underneath the surface, these teachers are my friends, and I know these teachers are terrified. And it feels twisted this year because we really don't know what our safety looks like and what our students' safety looks like, but you still have to be the boss in front of the class and be like-- [CLAPS] --what's up, y'all? So excited you're here. Let's go. I am going to put my best foot forward because I can't wait to teach kids, and I love doing that, but I'm scared [BLEEP] -less about what the year looks like.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. Today on our program, teachers, students, parents launch themselves into a school year that is beginning like none that any of us have ever experienced. Since the spring, everybody has been anticipating the school opening like this-- I don't know-- this asteroid that we've all been watching head towards Earth, floating towards us, tumbling towards us in space in slow motion.

And now it is finally hitting, and we are finding out if it is just as bad as we thought it was going to be or way better than we hoped. We have stories from around the country of it going badly and, I'm glad to tell you, and some places going surprisingly well, at least for now anyway. Stay with us.

Act One: Masked Crusaders

Ira Glass

Act One, Masked Crusaders. So right before school started in Utah this month, our producer Miki Meek caught up with two high school teachers. Clark is 33. Bayley's 26. They're married, and we agreed not to use their last names. They joke that their pillow talk is reviewing each other's lessons for the next day.

Clark teaches art and photography. This year's his sixth year as a teacher. Bayley's a newbie, about to have her own classroom for the very first time, teaching sophomore English. The two of them teach at different public high schools in Utah County, south of Salt Lake City. And they found themselves thrown into this really heated and ugly fight in the county right before schools open back up. Here's Miki.

Miki Meek

Clark and Bayley are still these fresh-faced, enthusiastic teachers, but they spent the summer stressing about their schools reopening because COVID cases had started surging in Utah. Both of them would have classes with as many as 40 students in them. Their classrooms are too small to space desks six feet apart. And the windows, they don't open.

Governor Gary Herbert issued a mask mandate for all K through 12 schools, which made them feel a little better, until a county commissioner, a guy named Bill Lee, he started lobbying against it. He thought it should be up to parents whether their kids wear a mask. He called it a, quote, "compassionate exemption."

To try to drum up support, he invited parents to the commission's next meeting. Suddenly you were either pro-mask or anti-mask. Clark and Bayley decided to go in support of masks.

Bayley

But going into it I was like, is anyone really going to be there? Like, who's going to go to protest masks? I just thought, are there going to be 10 people there? I have no idea.

Miki Meek

There were actually around 100 people there. The meeting was held at the county building in Provo. And when Clark and Bayley got there, they saw mostly moms gathered outside, some with kids. Hardly anyone was wearing a mask. But one family who was wearing masks stopped Bayley.

Bayley

They were like, you should go in, because there's like no one really in support of masks. And so I was like, OK, I'm going in. And I just kind of ran in the building.

Miki Meek

It was packed. There were chairs set up with tape across them for social distancing, but that didn't work so well.

Bayley

People were just peeling off the tape and sitting down. And people were just riled up. You could feel this energy that was really intense.

Clark

And just wearing a mask in that space put a target on your head immediately.

Bayley

Yeah.

Miki Meek

The room was hot and crowded, and a bunch of people without masks were fanning their faces.

Tanner Ainge

And we're good to go. All right.

Miki Meek

That's a county commissioner named Tanner Ainge. He was not happy about this meeting.

Tanner Ainge

Hello, everyone. This is going to be brief, I think. This is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing. We are supposed to be physically distancing, wearing masks.

[BOOING]

And so--

[BOOING]

--all of our medical--

[BOOING]

All of our medical experts--

Man

Let him talk!

Tanner Ainge

Our department of health--

Man

You've already made your decision?

Tanner Ainge

Everyone is encouraging us to do that. This room is not complying with these health guidelines. This creates a health concern for this meeting, so--

[SHOUTING]

Miki Meek

In a little over a minute, the whole meeting was over.

Tanner Ainge

OK, the meeting is adjourned.

[SHOUTING]

Miki Meek

Ainge stands up and walks out of the building. People in the crowd call him a coward.

Woman

Yeah, Tanner is a coward.

Miki Meek

And then--

Crowd

USA! USA! USA!

Miki Meek

Ainge later tweeted, "This is not a Parks and Rec episode. It's Utah County government." To him, this whole thing was just a political stunt. The county commission has no jurisdiction over school districts. They don't make decisions for them. It'd be like the sheriff's department holding a meeting to vote on the school budget. It didn't make any sense.

But Billy, the guy who wanted the governor to give the county a compassionate exemption from wearing masks, and another commissioner, they agreed to stay behind to listen to any parent who wanted to make a comment. Again, here's Bayley.

Bayley

At that point, when I realized that people were going to be making comments, I kind of pushed my way into the room because I wanted to make a comment.

Miki Meek

She got in line for the podium. There were around 12 people ahead of her, even more behind her, mostly moms. One of them had a baby carrier strapped to her chest. I watched this meeting on a Facebook livestream.

Most of the speakers accepted that COVID is real. They didn't think it's a hoax. They supported hand washing and staying at home if you're sick. But they didn't trust the CDC, and in general all the precautions seemed overblown.

Some sounded like libertarians. There were tons of conspiracy theories. Like that mom with the baby, she said this thing I heard a lot of parents there say, that CO2 and germs can get trapped in your mask and make you sick, which is totally false.

Woman 1

You want our kids to breathe their own CO2?

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Woman 2

That's right!

Woman 1

Do you really think it's good to breathe in your own germs for hours?

Miki Meek

She's saying, do you really think it's good to breathe in your own germs for hours?

Woman

Amen, sister.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Miki Meek

This myth has taken off in parent groups all over the country. The American Academy of Pediatrics even put out a statement to try and dispel it. And another conspiracy theory at this meeting, that mask mandates will lead to more kids getting abducted and sex trafficked-- also not true. The fear is that if kids are wearing masks, they'll be harder to identify and rescue.

Woman

Those numbers will continue to rise because of a world are at home and online all day and being masked. It's a pedophile's dream come true.

Miki Meek

Thomas Jefferson also kept coming up in this pretty ironic way.

Woman

I got on my Facebook page. Thomas Jefferson said, I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery. I will never be a slave, no matter what it takes. Give me liberty, or give me death. I mean that. I will do whatever it takes to have liberty. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

Miki Meek

Listening to all these parents, Bayley and Clark were alarmed, worried that they might have to face classes of 40 kids who were going to fight with them about wearing masks. So Bayley, she got up to the mic. She was sweaty and nervous, but fired up.

Bayley

My name is Bayley. I'm experiencing fear and anxiety about many things.

Miki Meek

She tells the crowd she's a first-year teacher who's already juggling a lot of anxiety, and she's scared that she'll get COVID in her classroom. The crowd turns on her.

Bayley

Wearing a mask is a minor inconvenience, if you can even call it that.

Woman

Who says?

Clark

Sh.

Miki Meek

That's Clark, doing some very teacher-like shushing.

Clark

Hey! Sh.

Bayley

I am honestly shocked right now by your behavior.

Woman

You should be.

Bayley

I'm frankly so shocked that so many people have come out to oppose such a simple, harmless act.

Clark

We gave you your time. Be quiet. Shut up. Listen.

Miki Meek

It's like this for five minutes, and then Bayley finally ends her speech and takes a little bow.

[BOOING]

On their way out of the meeting, Clark, feeling sheepish, apologizes to the people that he told to shut up.

Clark

That was my wife out there... I'm sorry. Thank you.

Bayley

I've never been booed before. It was just wild to be surrounded by so many grown adults who were shouting at me, calling me names. It was like, whoa. Also re-watching the video, I realized that I kind of did, like, a little bow after my comments, which is kind of embarrassing now. But it was just like-- it felt like such an outrageous experience, and it was almost comical.

Miki Meek

But Bayley was also sympathetic to the parents in that room. She thought a lot of their hostility was coming from a place of fear.

Bayley

You know, like not wanting kids to have to be in schools where things feel very dystopian and like this fear that having to be masked is going to scare their children or something like that or impact them negatively. I feel like those are reasonable points in some ways, but also not at the same time.

Miki Meek

I grew up in Utah County. I still have a lot of friends and family there. So I feel pretty safe betting that most of the people in that meeting were Mormon. The majority of the county belongs to the church.

But watching that meeting, I saw something I didn't recognize-- Mormons yelling at other Mormons with total vitriol. Bayley and Clark said they felt the same. They're from the area too. By the way, I know we're not supposed to say Mormon anymore. We're supposed to say Latter-day Saint. But I just don't actually know that many Mormons who use that with each other.

Anyway, right after Utah's Republican Governor Gary Herbert issued his mask mandate, church leadership in the state backed him up. They asked Mormons to wear face coverings in public, calling it a sign of good citizenship. Immediately there was pushback. I saw comments online about corruption and false prophets in the church. That was mind-blowing. It's not like members never speak out against the church. It's just that I haven't seen it done so casually.

Pro-mask people were called maskers and mask-holes. Governor Herbert called the parents who went to that county meeting foolish, and he refused to back down from his mask mandate, which just enraged the anti-mask movement in Utah County even more. They held another rally and told parents to tell their kids to fight back against their teachers.

Bayley and Clark wondered how widespread the feeling was and worried that some of the parents or fellow teachers at her new school would recognize Bayley from the county meeting and think she was a crazy radical. Video had hit local news, and it was a big deal.

Miki Meek

Have you thought about what you're going to say in your classes on the first day, anticipating you might have kids who come from families that share some of the same beliefs of the people who were at the county meeting?

Clark

I really don't know what I'm going to say or how I'm going to approach that conversation.

Bayley

Yeah.

Clark

We really don't know what this is going to look like when the school year actually starts. And so we'll see what happens then.

Miki Meek

What if you get booed?

Bayley

I will bow and walk out. [LAUGHS]

Miki Meek

On the first day of school, Bayley and Clark got in their cars and headed in opposite directions. Their schools are about a half hour apart. They both recorded voice memos for me while they were driving.

Bayley

OK. I am driving to school for my first day of teaching ever in my whole life as an actual teacher. So there's kind of a mix of feeling excited and also nervous. Hopefully I can remember students' faces through their masks.

Clark

The time is now 6:36. And I didn't sleep very well last night. I kind of tossed and turned. Worst case scenario today-- oh my gosh, I think I had a nightmare about that last night, where everybody came in and just was touching each other, and hugging each other, and not wearing masks. And I think there was a couple that was making out in the corner of my classroom-- just so much touching.

And so I'm hoping students will wear masks today. I'm hoping I won't have any major conflicts with students as they come in. Judging on the anti-mask hearing that Bayley and I went to, I mean, all bets are off.

[STUDENTS CHATTERING]

Miki Meek

As students walk into his classroom, Clark stands at the door to greet them and squeezes hand sanitizer into their hands.

Clark

Hi, guys. Hand sanitizer coming in hot. There you go.

Student

Thank you.

Clark

Hey, dude, hand sanitizer.

Miki Meek

Clark describes his teaching persona as dorky dad. Once everyone is seated, he gives his warm-up.

Clark

Hello, everyone. Welcome. How are you guys feeling today? Are you feeling excited to be here? Raise your hand if you're excited. [LAUGHS NERVOUSLY]

Miki Meek

This is awkward. In a class of 36 kids, only a few of them raise their hands. He had never taught a class that was so quiet and somber.

Clark

Raise your hand if you're just kind of like stressed and sad. [LAUGHS NERVOUSLY] Few of you. Is anybody feeling anxious about wearing masks or feeling bummed about wearing masks? A little bit?

Student

I'm bummed about wearing masks.

Clark

Yeah, tell me more. You're bummed about wearing masks? It sucks? Tell me more. Why does it suck?

Student

I don't know.

Miki Meek

The student says, I don't know. I just don't feel like it sometimes. And then, my dad talks about it all the time. It's just to make people feel better. Clark responds deftly by first trying to validate the student.

Clark

Yeah, I mean, from a medical standpoint masks are definitely not perfect. If we really wanted to prevent every single germ, we'd have to wear full hazmat suits. We'd have to be in a controlled environment. So masks are not 100% effective. However, they are effective in stopping the spread or slowing the spread of these.

And so I know a lot of people are really, really frustrated about wearing masks because they're uncomfortable, and they make breathing hard, and blah, blah, blah. Even though they're not perfect, I think it's worth doing as a gesture of kindness toward people who might have more sensitive immune systems or might be more at risk. I was just barely talking with a student who lives with her grandma, and also works at a nursing home. And so she's trying to take every precaution to make sure that she doesn't get sick. So there are a lot of situations like that.

Miki Meek

Little by little, his class starts to open up. Clark keeps lobbing questions at them. Anybody here play sports? A football player tells the room that his whole team wears masks for games and practice. A girl says she hates it, that they make her glasses fog up. About 15 minutes into this conversation, Clark uses the tactic that didn't work with the parents at the county meeting. He tells them about his own anxiety.

Clark

That's been one of my anxieties coming back to school, is I don't want to have to tell somebody to wear a mask. You know? That feels stressful to me.

Miki Meek

And the kids, they seem to get it. Clark has two other periods that day, and he starts each class with the same soapbox spiel. He never gets any push back. The kids all wear their masks, and nobody makes out.

After school, Clark and Bayley crash exhausted on their living room couch with their dog and debrief about how their first days went.

Clark

The hallways were just kind of the wild, wild West.

Bayley

Yeah.

Clark

Like, anything went. And so many students, as soon as they left their classrooms, would just peel their masks off and put it around their chin--

Bayley

What?

Clark

Or just rip it off their faces. And then as they walk closer to me, I'd say, hey, masks. And they would say, oh, yeah, sorry, I forgot, and then hurry and put it back on. And they'd put it back on as they walked into my classroom. I mean, there's just no way that the hall monitors can see everything that's going on.

Bayley

Yeah.

Clark

When you talked about masks, how did you approach the mask conversation?

Bayley

They walk in the door. You're like, hi. And they just look at you, or they're just like, hi. And you're just like, do you hate my guts?

Clark

[LAUGHS]

Miki Meek

She told Clark she started class by showing them slides of Billie Eilish wearing a lace mask and Beyoncé wearing a mask upside down.

Bayley

And in my first class, everyone was totally fine. In my second and third classes, there were kids who kept wearing them under their nose. And I just had to keep being like, if you're not wearing your mask over your mouth and nose, wear your mask over your mouth and nose.

Clark

I had to call out a couple kids today because they just kept on letting their nose stick out.

Bayley

Yeah.

Clark

And I was like-- [SNAPS FINGERS] --hey, Cody, Josh. Cover your nose up.

Bayley

Cody and Josh.

Clark

Yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

Bayley

Oh, also, there was a kid who was wearing a full yellow hazmat suit with like a gas mask-looking thing. And I think it was like a joke, but it also was hard to tell. And my friend who was his teacher said that it looked like he was just dying in there, like so hot.

And there was another girl wearing a mask in one of my classes-- apparently this is a thing that I didn't know about, but she was wearing a mask that said "Virginity rocks." So I don't know what that's about, but it was funny to see that on a mask. That's the extent of Utah's sex education.

[LAUGHTER]

Clark

Totally.

Bayley

Oh, man. It was a wild thing. I don't know. I was thinking about it after school today, and I was just comparing these sweet sophomore students to the parents who were in that meeting. And like, oh my gosh, these cutie, cutie high school students are just so nice, and so willing to just do this thing so they can be in school. And all those parents were just losing their minds and being so childish and unreasonable. I don't know. It just was really nice.

Clark

[LAUGHS] Are you tearing up a little bit?

Bayley

Yeah, a little bit. I don't know why.

[LAUGHTER]

Just really nice students who want to be at school.

Miki Meek

The reality is that more than half a million people live in Utah County, and only 100 people were at that meeting. The consensus among most parents is that they'll make their kids wear masks if it gets them out of the house.

Ira Glass

Miki Meek is one of the producers of our show.

Act Two: Screen Times at Ridgemont High

Ira Glass

Act Two, Screen Times at Ridgemont High. So across the country right now, kids are facing the weird experience of getting to know new classes and new teachers, all through Zoom. It's especially intense for kids who are jumping into a new school.

Producer Aviva DeKornfeld talked to some students who are making the jump to high school this fall, and it is a big job, right? It's one that causes a lot of anxiety and excitement in normal times. Now, all of it happening online. One girl told Aviva that she'd already thought through how to make friends at her new school.

She said she had a plan to email kids to discuss homework, and then she would try to shift the conversation to other topics and see if they went there. And Aviva talked to this 15-year-old in Los Angeles, Alex Hymen, at the end of his very first day of high school about how he's prepped for remote learning with a bunch of kids that he doesn't know.

Alex Hymen

This week, I'm painting my room. I actually just finished this morning.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Why are you painting your room?

Alex Hymen

Well, last year in the spring, when online school started in March or April, believe it or not, a lot of kids made comments on my bright, vibrant baby blue and orange room that I've had since when I was very young. And I thought it'd be cool to have a multicolored room, very bright.

Aviva DeKornfeld

What do kids say?

Alex Hymen

They were just like, nice room. Like, oh, that's a very neutral color, just sarcastic comments like that. I mean, it's a very first-world problem that my room's not the right color.

Aviva DeKornfeld

How old were you when you first painted it, the bright colors?

Alex Hymen

I believe I was, like, seven, eight. I was like, yes, it's going to be so cool and awesome. And now here I'm 15, and now I just want a white room. Now, actually-- I just finished this morning. Now it's all the light gray I picked out, and I actually like it a lot. My mom was a little sad because I'm growing up, and she was upset about that.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Oh. What did she say?

Alex Hymen

I mean, she was like, I'm going to miss this room. Like, remember when you picked out the colors and--

Aviva DeKornfeld

Yeah. It's funny, your mom was upset that you're growing up. And you're like, that's the point.

Alex Hymen

Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Aviva DeKornfeld

So you were on Zoom calls today. Did you look at your little box on Zoom--

Alex Hymen

Yeah.

Aviva DeKornfeld

--to check out how it looked?

Alex Hymen

Yeah, I did. I did.

Aviva DeKornfeld

How did it feel seeing your room in the camera?

Alex Hymen

It looked very good, I will say. It looked very cool. I was happy about it.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Did the other kids have childhood stuff in their bedrooms?

Alex Hymen

I don't really pay much attention to it, along with them not really paying attention to me, which is weird because even though we both know that, it still makes us feel self-conscious about it. That probably didn't make any sense. What I'm trying to say is that I look at some of them, but I don't really analyze the rooms.

Aviva DeKornfeld

You didn't really pay much attention.

Alex Hymen

Yeah, exactly.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Looking at the other kids' rooms and realizing you don't actually really care about how they look, did it make you feel like it didn't matter if you had switched up your room or not?

Alex Hymen

Yeah, it actually did sort of.

Aviva DeKornfeld

What's the first thing you saw today at school?

Alex Hymen

I logged on, and it was our whole grade, so around a little less than 200. I'm not sure of the exact number. But yeah, it was a bunch of boxes. Most of the kids-- or I guess half the kids had their cameras on. Half had them off. I started with mine on and then turned it off, to be honest.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Really? Why?

Alex Hymen

I guess it just-- a lot of other kids had it off, like most them towards the end. And I didn't want to be the one kid that had it on, if that makes sense.

Aviva DeKornfeld

So you sort of took your cue from the other kids.

Alex Hymen

Yeah, exactly. Peer pressure, I guess.

Ira Glass

Aviva DeKornfeld talking to Alex Hymen in Los Angeles. Aviva's one of the producers of our show. Coming up, an elementary school that carefully did everything you could possibly do to prepare for students coming back. And then first day, it all goes south in a way nobody ever expected. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program is about schools reopening this fall. And can I say, of all the cataclysmic things that happened this past week around our country-- wildfires, Hurricane Laura, the shootings in Kenosha-- school reopenings was on the calendar. You know, it's the one thing out of all those things that we knew would happen and had time to prepare for, and still it somehow feels like the whole summer has been an all-nighter for a test that we're having this fall, and lots of parents and educators are feeling very shaky about how the test is going to go.

How it is going is what we're documenting on today's show. And we have arrived at Act Three of our program--

Act Three: Future Imperfect

Ira Glass

Act Three, Future Imperfect. This next story is from a high school in Tennessee, Maryville High School. This is one of the first in the country to open up. And it opened as cases were rising in the area.

On the COVID map that Harvard Global Health Institute maintains, the county is currently red as we get today's show on the air. Red, the institute says, means that they're at a tipping point for uncontrolled spread. That's exactly the kind of situation that lots of teachers around the country have been saying would keep them from returning to their classrooms. Maryville, however, has been at it for a month now.

So what's it like? How are they holding up? For a glimpse of the future that awaits many educators elsewhere, David Kestenbaum talked with a teacher named Stacey Travis.

David Kestenbaum

Stacey is the kind of teacher people go to when they have problems. A lot of the time they're math problems. That's what she teaches. One of the days we talked, she got a call in the middle of the day from a kid who wasn't even in school that year. He'd graduated. He was in his dorm room in college.

Stacey Travis

And so I call him back, and he was like, I don't know how to solve this. And he shows me this paper. And I said, what class are you in? And he goes, freshman engineering. And I said, I taught you how to solve that. He goes, I know. That's why I called you.

David Kestenbaum

The decision to go back to school in the middle of a pandemic, it's a different kind of problem. Even before school opened, there were cases. Some kids couldn't come in on the first day because they tested positive. And she says a couple teachers have taken these extra precautions in their classrooms.

Stacey Travis

Like one has this-- it almost looks like the old-fashioned bathtubs with the ring around it with the curtain, and it goes all the way around their desk.

David Kestenbaum

Wait, wait. So the teacher's desk is basically surrounded with, like, a shower curtain?

Stacey Travis

Clear shower curtain on PVC pipe.

David Kestenbaum

Even with all the masks and social distancing, Stacey says school feels kind of normal once the day gets started. But there's always this menace that feels just offstage. Since the high school opened, several students have tested positive. She gets an email every time. When we talked, she had one student out awaiting test results. It doesn't look like any of the students got the virus from school, but there has been one case in the district where it looks like a maintenance worker may have gotten COVID from a colleague.

Stacey Travis

There are moments that it worries me, and I can give you a specific example. I had a student ask for help. And I had my mask on. I have my mask on every time I walk up close to a student to offer help.

And he had his mask on, but had it below his nose. And I was writing on his desk, and we were talking through this problem. And I could feel his breath on my arm. And that kind of made me have a moment of, oh, my gosh, he's breathing on me. I can feel the breath coming out of his nose, onto my arm.

And after I finished helping him, which I do this after I help any kid at their desk, I sanitized my hands. But then I also have some spray sanitizer, and I just sprayed it down my arm. And I know it probably looked weird, and I wasn't trying to make him feel uncomfortable, but it made me feel a little bit better.

David Kestenbaum

Do you think about the question of sort of risk with math ever--

Stacey Travis

[LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum

--since you're a math person?

Stacey Travis

As the risk of me catching COVID--

David Kestenbaum

Yeah. I don't know.

Stacey Travis

--doing my job? Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah. There are this many positive cases in the community or this many people in school over this period of time. I'm in contact with this number of them. You could do the numbers.

Stacey Travis

Oh, yeah. I could definitely do the numbers. I don't let myself do the numbers, because I think I've just kind of realized that I'm probably going to get it. Either I'm going to get it from a student, or I'm going to get it from my kid who got it from another kid.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah.

Stacey Travis

Or I'm going to get it from my husband who got it from one of the workers on his job site.

David Kestenbaum

What do you think about that? It might be OK, but it might not.

Stacey Travis

I know. I know. It might be OK, and it might not. And again, it's one of those-- the what-ifs that I can't just let myself think about.

David Kestenbaum

That's a kind of amazing degree of fatalism. Somehow we're at a place where simply by doing her job she feels sure she's going to get sick.

Stacey Travis

There are moments that I am super scared about getting it. There are moments that I wonder, if I do get it, what's going to happen to my kids? Of course there's moments like that. I don't know. All of the conversations are hard, no matter what way you look at it.

David Kestenbaum

It's like the virus is this thing that you think about, then don't think about. Then you worry that you're not thinking about it.

I wanted to see what a class was actually like, given all this. Here's how things work. If your last name begins with a letter between A and K, you come in Monday and Wednesday. On Tuesday and Thursday, you join the class by Zoom from home. If your last name begins with a letter between L and Z, it's the reverse. Friday, everybody is remote. I watched on Zoom as Stacey taught some juniors how to graph polynomials.

Stacey Travis

This is x going to positive infinity, and this is y going to positive infinity. Does that make sense to you?

David Kestenbaum

It seemed to go pretty well, even for the kids who weren't in the room.

Stacey Travis

Let me get a brave person from at home who wants to talk through it. Who's going to unmute? Y'all are going to make me call on you, aren't you?

Emma

I'll try it.

Stacey Travis

Thank you, Emma, for being a brave soul. OK, what you got?

Emma

OK, so I know--

David Kestenbaum

Given how well it went, I asked her why not have everybody be remote? Why take the risk of doing anything in person? She said teaching online, you miss a lot. It's much easier for kids to get lost. If they're in the room, she can keep tabs, walk around, look over their shoulders.

And lots of kids do way better if they're there in person, interacting with other kids and with the teacher. There are kids who need extra attention. Just that day, she'd helped a student get through a test that he'd failed before, despite trying really hard.

Stacey Travis

I got to tell him face to face that I was proud of him. That's different. He looked at me, and I said, way to go, man. And we fist bumped. And he had a huge grin on his face. He knows that I've got his back.

He had that victory moment. And that's the stuff that like-- that's why I feel a little bit on a high. These are the moments that I just live for.

David Kestenbaum

She was so happy, happy she was in school that day. She's there because the kids need her. I think it's also true that she needs them.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum is one of the producers of our show.

Act Four: The Case of the Well-Prepared Elementary School

Ira Glass

Act Four, The Case of the Well-Prepared Elementary School. So next, we go to a school that was remarkably ready for the first day, Tindley Summit Academy in Indianapolis. It's an elementary school, a charter school, pretty small, fewer than 300 students. And it was set up especially well to roll out all the new COVID safety precautions and procedures, because like lots of charter schools the whole philosophy of the school, from the kids all the way up to the principal, is very regimented. Kids walk silently in the hallways. There's a strict dress code, super involved teacher trainings.

But even a place that could prepare so well, something big happened that first day that nobody saw coming. Stephanie Wang reports for a website that covers education that I am a fan of. It's called Chalk Beat. And for a month she watched Tindley Summit prepare for their reopening and then was there when the kids finally showed up.

Stephanie Wang

Tindley Summit started the year with two weeks of online learning, but this is the moment everyone's been waiting for, the first day children are allowed back into the building for in-person instruction.

Man

Good morning.

Student

Good morning.

Stephanie Wang

It's 7:30 in the morning, and parents are already lining up in the parking lot. Drop-off has been shortened to a frenzied 30-minute window to keep kids from gathering before classes start.

[CAR DOOR SHUTTING]

[CAR HORN]

Woman

How are you, buddy?

Student

[LAUGHS]

Woman

Good.

Student

I like that mask.

Stephanie Wang

A tiny first grader in a Spider-Man backpack named Karlo walks from the car to the front door, where a teacher leans down, aiming a handheld infrared thermometer at his forehead.

Woman

Good morning, buddy. I'm going to take your temperature, OK? I just need to do one little click.

[BEEPING]

All right, you're good to go.

Stephanie Wang

I'm standing with the principal of Tindley Summit, David McGuire, who's been planning for this moment for months, to get more than 200 children out of their cars and into the right classrooms in half an hour, all while keeping a safe distance. But Mr. McGuire is one of the most optimistic people I've ever interviewed. He doesn't like to worry or even use the word "worry." At one point when we're talking, he calls it the W word.

David Mcguire

I feel confident with our plan. And again, maybe day one we see how the plan goes. But I feel confident with the plan we have in place.

Stephanie Wang

Though he does admit to being a little W worded about the fact that they can't let parents into the building anymore and is concerned they'll get upset when they can't walk their little kids in. And as we're standing there, we watch how a mom named Pam Lee navigates that new reality. She's walking her sixth grader Nysia and kindergartner Ny'asia up to the door. It's Ny'asia's first in-person day of kindergarten.

Pam Lee

Ny'asia. Ny'asia, you're going to be a big kindergartener, all right?

Nysia

She's a big girl now.

Pam Lee

All right. You're going to be good for Ms. Johnson, all right? All right, I will see you ladies later.

Ny'asia

Just come in.

Stephanie Wang

Just come in, Ny'asia pleads with her mom.

Pam Lee

I can't come in. I can't come in. Love you. Be a good girl, OK?

Stephanie Wang

As soon as she walks in the door, Ny'asia turns around. And she's just tall enough to peek out the bottom corner of the window in the door. She smiles big and waves to her mom.

Pam Lee

[LAUGHS]

Stephanie Wang

Oh, her little face in the window, waving.

Other parents also follow the new rules, and drop-off goes without a hitch.

The kids settle into their classrooms pretty quickly. All that planning is paying off. Mr. McGuire and I speed walk through the school, and we see kids patiently waiting to use the bathroom, where they're only allowed to use every other stall to maintain space.

Woman

We're figuring that out for tomorrow.

Stephanie Wang

He points out a sixth grade class reading The Outsiders at their desks that have shields set up on them, like little cubicles. The kids don't even fuss that much about wearing their masks.

Teacher

When I sat down to the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house--

Stephanie Wang

It seems like a smooth start to being back in school, except for one thing. As we pass by a second grade classroom, we both notice that there's only a single kid in it. Mr. McGuire kind of breezes by, continuing to walk and point out other classrooms. But I stop and make him come back. The second grader is sitting in the middle of the room, looking lonely and small behind rows of cubicle desks.

Stephanie Wang

Just one?

David Mcguire

Huh? Two first graders-- these two are first graders.

Stephanie Wang

Oh. No, but she's just got one second grader?

David Mcguire

Yeah, second grader. Yeah, so, again, that--

Stephanie Wang

We continue down the hall. Other classrooms also have way too many empty desks. On the first day back, a lot of kids are missing.

226 kids were supposed to show up for school today. Another 45 signed up to stay virtual. Just after 9:00 AM, David and the two assistant principals get the actual attendance number from the school counselor in the hallway.

David Mcguire

How many?

Counselor

102, not including the three that's online so far.

Stephanie Wang

Which makes 105 students out of 226. Just three days before this on Friday, most of those students were in class virtually. Now over a hundred of them had disappeared. Mr. McGuire talked to one of his assistant principals about what happened.

David Mcguire

I said, did we miss something this summer? She said, what do you mean? I said, did we miss something? Why are there so many kids missing? And she was like, I don't know. We got to find them. We just got to find out. And I was just like, yeah.

But I said, we communicated, right? We had it on the website. We put it on our social media. We sent ClassDojo. We used the parablast, right? We did mailers. We did those things, right?

Stephanie Wang

Those things weren't enough. Mr. McGuire, the dean, the school counselor, the office manager, and a few teachers start calling parents, trying to figure out why their children didn't show up. I tried to figure it out too. I talked to several parents whose kids were not in school that first day, including Kierra Leonard. The reason she didn't take her kids in?

Kierra Leonard

I just wanted to make sure that there were going to be no cases.

Stephanie Wang

Kierra actually really wanted to send her two children back to school. Things were getting kind of wild at home. Her seven-year-old daughter was sneaking out of bed and staying up all night.

Kierra Leonard

And she's up snacking and eating whatever she can find. She didn't go to sleep until the sun was coming up. She has a kitchen set in her room. I open the freezer, and there are the sprinkles to the cupcakes. What are you doing? Icing in the oven-- what are you doing?

I couldn't wait. That's why I was so for them going to school, because it was just like the schedule was broke. It was like they were just doing whatever they wanted to do.

Stephanie Wang

They needed to get back on a normal routine. At first, Kierra thought it seemed OK to send her kids to school. She went to a school orientation and thought the precautions seemed pretty sensible, like the desk shields and separate supplies for each student. But then--

Kierra Leonard

After I went home from orientation, I went to get the kids from my mom. And that's when I explained to her what they had in place. And she just wasn't too sure about it, like, nuh-uh, not my grandbabies.

[LAUGHTER]

I mean, she sits up and watches the news all day, so you can just imagine what's going through her head. And she's like, nuh-uh. Because she has to pick them up from school. They're with her after school. So, I mean, I couldn't argue with her not wanted to be playing Russian roulette with COVID. So that's when I started questioning it. And I was like, well, let's just see how it goes the first day, see if we hear anything.

Stephanie Wang

So after the first two weeks of virtual learning, Kierra kept her kids at home instead of sending them into school for the first day back in person.

Kierra Leonard

I was torn. I knew they needed to be in class. It would help them more. But I wasn't sure if I wanted them to be with the first wave of kids that went back.

Stephanie Wang

She thought they could keep doing virtual learning, but then they couldn't get into the online classroom. When the school called to check where the kids were, she explained why she didn't send them in. They reassured her that things were going well so far, and they asked if there was anything they could do to help get the kids into school.

When she told them it was hard to pick them up on Fridays, they said that was fine. They could keep the kids an extra half hour until their grandma got off work. This, plus the fact that there were no COVID cases those first few days, won over both Kierra and her mother.

Kierra Leonard

And I guess she just seen how much they were willing to work with us. And she knows as well that they need to be in school.

Stephanie Wang

The school was doing tons of calls like these, including to another mother, Jamela Williams, who also kept her son Tre home that first day. She had a lot of worries that would have seemed small, but suddenly seemed big.

Jamela Williams

I spoke to more than one person. I spoke to three or four people, actually.

Stephanie Wang

So what were the types of things you wanted to know from them?

Jamela Williams

I wanted to know more about bathroom breaks, because I know they go in groups. And I know some kids don't wash their hands. I know my child sometimes doesn't wash his hands. So I was wondering, how would they take care of that sort of thing?

And they told me that there would be frequent restroom breaks. The restrooms are cleaned. And I think it's after every section of kids go they thoroughly clean it. So that made me feel very good.

Stephanie Wang

She also worried about her seven-year-old feeling comfortable and safe in a classroom with plastic shields on the desks and everyone in face masks.

Jamela Williams

Well, I didn't want them to be scared. And they reassured me. And I've seen pictures, and it looked fine to me.

Stephanie Wang

She was touched that so many people-- Tre's teacher, the school counselor, and Mr. McGuire-- were willing to talk through her concerns. Even the tone of their voices, that they were confident and jovial, signaled to her that they felt good about reopening. So maybe she didn't have as much to be worried about.

It's a stunning amount of extra work for the school, convincing parents one by one for their kids to attend the school they're already enrolled in, but this is what it took in so many cases. By the end of that first week, the school tracked down all but three of the missing students. They convinced around 70 more kids to come in person, and another 40 or so decided to stay online. Jamela's son Tre went back to school that Tuesday. Kierra, the mom who had to convince her mother, she sent her kids on Thursday.

Stephanie Wang

I just feel like you are having to make this decision that so many parents across the country are having to deal with right now.

Kierra Leonard

Yes. I was hoping that the other parents would make the decision for me so that I can ride their coattail, see how it was working for them and then see if it would work for us. So, I mean, if it has to be the other way around, so be it. Everything's fine-- no cases, no sick children, no problems-- but still just week two, week one for us.

Stephanie Wang

This difficult decision of how kids should return to school in so many places has played out like this. The federal government left it to the states, the states left it to the schools, and the schools left it to the parents. And how are the parents supposed to know what the right answer is to any of this? No wonder it played out the way it did at Tindley.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Wang, she's the bureau chief of Chalk Beat Indiana. To read their education coverage from around the country, go to chalkbeat.org.

Act Five: The Leftovers

Ira Glass

Act Five, The Leftovers. Of course, the big fear at every school right now is that they're going to start up classes in person in the fall and then the virus will arrive and spread through the student and teacher population, endangering everybody, and, of course, forcing them to shut down again, go back to mostly virtual learning. That happened at the University of North Carolina this month. Exactly one week after classes began, with 177 confirmed cases at the time, the school ended in-person undergraduate instruction and told students to start moving out of the residence halls and go home.

Kids have taken a while to clear out. And as they have, clusters of coronavirus cases keep popping up around campus in dorms, and fraternities, and a sorority house. NPR staffers Lauren Migaki and Elissa Nadworny were on UNC's campus last Saturday and happened to be at the school paper, The Daily Tar Heel, when one of the paper's editors, Brandon Standley, got a text about the latest cluster, the school's eighth at that point, before the school announced it. It was in the dorm called Craige.

Brandon Standley

Oh, man. Craige just reported that it's about to have a cluster. So we got notification from a housing employee. I think that's all the high-rises and most of the first-year residence halls.

Interviewer

And Craige is where you live.

Brandon Standley

Craige is where I live. So that's really not exciting to know via a text message. This is not good.

Ira Glass

That was this past Saturday. One of our producers Robyn Semien called Brandon four days later to see what happened.

Robyn Semien

After Brandon heard his dorm, Craige, had a cluster, his mom called, who wanted him to leave school. He said, no, Mom. Then he and some of his friends started texting on a group chat.

Brandon Standley

One of my coworkers said "what" in all caps. One of them said [BLEEP] me. One of them said, what if we've come into contact with those people? And they're going home and would potentially spread it to their communities.

One of them called us cluster Craige. One of them was scared about getting tested. So she said, if you see me having a panic attack getting tested, no, you didn't. I talked about how I was scared to get the COVID test too. I said, if you see me crying because that COVID test poked my brain, no, you didn't.

Robyn Semien

Ultimately, in the evening, he went back to his dorm.

Brandon Standley

And the parking lot outside the building was just completely full. And there was families moving out. There were students moving all their stuff. It was a lot of people in one tiny, little area.

And they were walking up and down the breezeway with fridges, and boxes, and things like that. And I had to walk straight into that, because it's really the clearest entrance to get to the building. So I had to walk straight through that and straight into the main area where people were taking the elevators up and down.

Robyn Semien

It sounds pretty crowded.

Brandon Standley

I would say it was. I felt nervous.

Robyn Semien

He beelined to his room on the third floor, talked to nobody. By Sunday, all four of his suitemates had left. Brandon does not want to leave. UNC has said basically, we know we invited you back, but please leave.

Brandon is technically allowed to stay. He's paid to manage the dorm RAs, resident assistants, who clearly have fewer and fewer residents to assist. Brandon has a bathroom to himself now. It's kind of nice.

Brandon Standley

Yeah, I'm hoping to stay, and I'm hoping to keep my job because this is my livelihood right now. This is how I make ends meet. This is how I put gas in my car and how I feed myself. And I'm really hoping that that doesn't disappear.

Robyn Semien

As of now, Brandon and the 15 remaining RAs can stay, but he sees the problem. If the resident count gets too low, the university will terminate them and kick them out.

So Craige, a big, fairly empty dorm meant for about 650 people, a six-story building shaped like an X with an A, B, C, and D wing, lounges, and an elevator tower in the center, Brandon estimated on Wednesday there may be 90 residents left. I talked to Brandon in his dorm room. At a certain point, I ask him to please just walk into the hall for me.

Brandon Standley

Give me one second.

Robyn Semien

OK. I'm so curious if there's people out there.

Brandon Standley

Yeah. Let me put on some shoes.

Robyn Semien

And a mask.

Brandon Standley

And a mask. All right. Here we go.

Robyn Semien

He leaves his room on the third floor.

[DOOR SHUTTING]

All the hallways are outdoors, breezeways.

Brandon Standley

But looking out, I can see up to the sixth floor and down to the ground. There's literally nobody in the breezeway, not a single person on the volleyball court. I thought I just heard a door open, but maybe I'm crazy.

Robyn Semien

What about the lounge? Are you close to the lounge?

Brandon Standley

Yeah. Let me go to the lounge.

Robyn Semien

OK, let's go see.

Brandon Standley

Nobody. It sounds so quiet.

Brandon Standley

It is quiet there. The light is on. There is not a single person here. I'm walking into the basketball side now.

Robyn Semien

OK.

Brandon Standley

Oh, there's a person.

Robyn Semien

Oh.

Brandon Standley

There's actually a person.

Robyn Semien

A student who was late and can't talk, one student.

Brandon Standley

I'm looking out now at the basketball side, doing the same thing that I was doing on the volleyball side. And I can see up to the sixth floor and down to the ground. And there's not a single person. Doesn't even look like the light is on in any of the rooms. And there's kind of just nobody.

Robyn Semien

He goes to the kitchen-- nobody. Does the entire fourth floor, too. Nobody.

In August, just before the school went online, The Daily Tar Heel ran a piece with the frustrated headline, "We All Saw This Coming." But not Brandon. He wasn't as skeptical of UNC's reopening plan.

Brandon Standley

And I thought that if there was an outbreak on campus that the university would lock down the buildings, lock down the campus, force everyone to quarantine. It's kind of like a snowstorm. I just thought it was going to be just like that. It was going to be like two weeks worth of a snow day for everybody. And we were all going to be sick, and it was going to suck, but it was going to be OK enough, you know what I mean?

Robyn Semien

You really had confidence in their plan.

Brandon Standley

I did.

Robyn Semien

Two weeks of quarantine, that was Brandon's backup plan for the university. The university had no such backup plan for Brandon.

Brandon Standley

They don't. I was stunned. I was shocked. I was like, are you serious? What was the point of touting the safety plans that you had in place if you had any sort of inkling that if there's an outbreak that you're going to send people home? I would love to be in the room where that happened and sit down and listen to them say, well, if there's 300 cases, we're just going to send everybody home. Because that's what they ended up doing, is there was a little over 300 cases reported within a week and a half, two weeks, and they sent everyone home.

Robyn Semien

UNC did a survey over the summer, asking students if they'd go to parties this year. Over a quarter said yes. Maybe that's the only thing the university needed to know.

Ira Glass

Robyn Semien is one of the producers of our show.

Our program was produced today by Emanuele Berry and Diane Wu. The people put together today's show include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Dana Chivvis, Aviva DeKornfeld, Noor Gill, Damien Graef, Michelle Harris, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Mae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Executive editor is David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks today to Cheryl Cofie, Ricky Allman, Andrea Mitchell, Sally Goza, Peggy Fletcher Stack, Patrick Wall, Joicki Floyd, Lisa Pollak, Vincent Kolb-Lugo, John Rabe, Karen Soto, Carrie and George Frieswyk, Lisa Nhan, Doyin Oyeniyi, Andy Kenney, America Billy, Elizabeth Friary, WFYI in Indianapolis. And thanks to the many, many students, parents, and educators we called as we put together today's show.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to any of our over 700 programs for absolutely free.

Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he has really been cracking himself up all this week with this prank he came up with. Every single time I sit down in the studio to record anything, he swings the door open and yells--

Clark

Hey! Sh.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.