Back to School? With Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education)

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Every parent wants to know: Will school will reopen in the fall, and if so, what will it look like? Andy brings you the answer as he chats with former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. He also interviews Sonal Gerten, a parent of two public school kids, and a budding college freshman named Zach.

Show Notes

Keep up with Andy on Twitter @ASlavitt and Instagram @andyslavit

Find Arne on Twitter @arneduncan.

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[00:37] Translator for Chancellor Angela Merkel: We’ve achieved something that was at first in no way certain, namely that our doctors and nurses, all those in healthcare and the hospitals are not overburdened. But I must emphasize, this is a fragile, intermediate success.


[00:57] Andy Slavitt: Welcome to In the Bubble. This is Andy Slavitt. Welcome to the back to school episode. Or should it be back to school, question mark, episode, where we are going to try to get at the question on everybody’s mind: what is going to happen in the fall? The voice you just heard was the voice of Chancellor Merkel from Germany talking about the progress that they have made, which is allowing them to make decisions around opening schools much more clearly. Let’s just face it: we are in a situation with schools where we don’t quite know the best answer. We’re in a situation where we are bound to disappoint some people. We are bound to take uncomfortable risks. And let’s face it, we’re bound to have this feeling that we’re not doing quite right by our kids, and that is a terrible feeling. I think if we’ve been reminded about anything in the last few weeks, it should be that our needs are not the only ones that matter. 


[02:07] Andy Slavitt: There are people who, for all of the challenges that we’re going through, are going through an incredibly more complex set of challenges. Whether that’s racism, whether that’s being in a nursing home and facing the consequences of poor planning and poor healthcare, whether that’s large amounts of unemployment. The thing that I hope people in our bubble are grappling with is how to make their bubble bigger. How to include their neighborhood and their community and their needs, because school is a collective good. Our kids, the whole generation, is a collective good. And while we want what’s right and what’s best for our kids, we have a whole lot of considerations to attack. So for that reason, this episode is gonna be completely focused there. And I honestly couldn’t have a better guest than Arne Duncan, who is the former Secretary of Education under Barack Obama. He’s also the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools.


[03:19] Andy Slavitt: He is deeply, deeply, deeply invested in educational outcomes, and the equity issues in the educational system, and the ones that are even being more deeply understood by all of us in this time, where both the Coronavirus and the criminal justice issues are brought to bear. So we are going to explore head-on the question, should we be starting schools? How should we be making those decisions? And how should parents be thinking about them? After that, I’m going to talk to a parent who will talk about her perspective on the matter, and I will introduce her to you after the interview. Her name is Sonal Gerten. And then finally, in lieu of Zach’s facts, we’re going to have an interview with Zach Slavitt, our co-host and co-producer, about his own thoughts as he thinks about heading off to college and the tradeoffs there. So I will see what I can get out of Zach at the very end if you stick around for that. But in the meantime, here’s Arne.


[04:35] Andy Slavitt: Hey there. 


[04:36] Arne Duncan: What’s going on, sir? You’re hanging in there?


[04:40] Andy Slavitt: I’m trying. How about you? 


[04:44] Arne Duncan: It’s a hard time. 


[04:46] Andy Slavitt: Yeah, it is. I mean, I think the principal things I’d love to start with — I mean, I want to get some of the work you do with Emerson Collective, and I actually have no choice, but we’re going to have to get basketball. Because in this house, basketball rules everything else. Probably makes sense to start with what I think people are starting to obsess about right now, which is are schools gonna open? I’ve got a co-host who is an 18-year-old getting ready to potentially go off to college. 


[05:25] Arne Duncan: What’s going on? You’re doing a great job as a co-host. It’s really cool to see. I’ve got an 18-year-old trying to go to college as well. So we’re in the same boat.


[05:32] Andy Slavitt: So if you were still running the Chicago school district, would you open the schools? And how would you be processing all this? 


[05:40] Arne Duncan: I’m talking to Janice Jackson, who does run Chicago schools, all the time and talking to superintendents around the country. And these are, as you know better than anybody, these are unprecedented times. And so it’s not a matter of do we open or not open? It’s not a light switch that we flick on and flick off. I think many school districts, and we’re talking about higher education as well, many school districts are going to try to go back, but it’s going to look very, very different. What has changed? Almost everything. And so I think what we need to prepare for is that every child, part of their learning will continue to be virtual, will continue to be online. You may have some students Monday, Wednesday. You might have other students Tuesday, Thursday. You might do afternoon shifts. 


[06:31] Arne Duncan: There’ll be students, you know, because of their own health issues or because of preexisting conditions of people at home, a parent, a grandparent, raising them, who literally may not be able to come back to school at all. There are going to be teachers who can’t come back and are going to have to teach virtually. Real basic things — we’re maybe getting a good experience in supermarkets now — how do you manage hallways? How do you think about sanitizing bathrooms multiple times a day? I worry a lot about our younger kids, how do you think about recess and play and those things that are so fundamentally human? How do we try and do that differently? High school, I think, has been more adaptable. None of this is the same, you know, at home, virtually. But I think this is absolutely much harder for pre-K and kindergarten, first and second grade doing this. You know, folks have talked about maybe you don’t bring back high school students, and you free those high school buildings to serve your elementary or middle school students, you’ll create more physical distancing. I don’t like to use the term social distancing, everyone’s connected more than ever before, but to creative the physical distancing. 


[07:37] Arne Duncan: And then the hard question that nobody is much talking about, I’m trying to sort of get people thinking about is, OK, let’s say folks do go back at some point. If things go south, if things don’t go well, how and when do you close back down again? And that’s a very, very tough question. Before we open, we need to at least have some parameters, some guidelines, some thoughts about what that’s going to look like. 


[08:03] Andy Slavitt: Help people who don’t understand the structure of the education system here, understand where those decisions even get made. Do you expect them to get made locally, district by district. even more locally, school by school? Do you expect there to be some national recommendations or standards that people can follow or opt in or opt out of? Do you think at the state level — where’s the thinking? You’ve raised about 10 or 12 really hard questions. Where’s those debates going on? 


[08:32] Arne Duncan: Well, that is just a question of theory versus reality. So in reality, I’m always very honest, and people can agree or disagree, you could push back. But I think you and I probably agree on this one that the lack of leadership coming from D.C., from those in government has been devastating. And has actually, you know better than anyone, has contributed to death and contributed to the just the heartbreak and the devastation that so many kids and communities have felt. So in a normal time, where we had leadership that had compassion and believed in science and wanted to make a difference, and we didn’t have the CDC watering down guidance, you would see much more leadership coming from D.C.. But a part of the reason you and I have been so active is not, frankly, that we’ve wanted to — I have a very different day job now — but because we feel compelled to. Because there’s been that lack of leadership and guidance. So there’s very little good, honest information coming from the federal government. And frankly, lots of misunderstandings that have increased the death toll in our country. It’s absolutely unconscionable. But that’s where we’re at. 


[09:43] Arne Duncan: So having said that, we have seen, you know, stronger leadership at the local level, at the state level, having governors and mayors work together. This is going to vary on the school side. It’s going to vary tremendously in what you do in rural Montana is going to look very different than what happens here in inner-city Chicago. You know, what happens in Maine is going to be very different than what happens in L.A. or D.C. And so it’s going to be a combination, I think, of leadership at the state level and then focus on what’s going on at the local level. But for me, before you could open, a couple things have to be in place. And you understand this. I’ve tried to listen to you so carefully and to others who are truly experts in this. I’m not. You have to see declining cases in your community. You have to have the ability to test frequently. And I don’t know if that’s, you know, every day or every other day. But I don’t think it’s every two weeks, it’s much more frequent than that. You have to have an ability to trace. You have to have the ability to isolate and quarantine if that’s necessary. You have to think of the surge capacity of your local hospitals. And again, you have to think about that last hard question, when and at what point do you close things down if it is not working. And so I think much of this will come down, or maybe all of this will come down starting with the state, just sort of bypassing the federal level because of the absence of leadership and clarity there. The state will set some parameters, and then local communities, depending on the size of the communities, will make those decisions. 


[11:18] Arne Duncan: I see in a place like my hometown of Chicago, you have 600 schools and many, many neighborhoods that you could see different things happening potentially in different neighborhoods, given the size of the school system. New York is obviously the largest. L.A. is the second largest, Chicago is third. But in rural communities ,where there may only be, you know, 100 kids in the school, there are some schools in Montana that opened very, very early and very thoughtfully, they’ve been open. And I’m watching those very carefully. And the superintendent is a superintendent of, you know, 200 kids, not, you know, 1.2 million. And the superintendent was the one doing temperature checks, you know, at the door for students walking in. So we just have to be thoughtful. We have to be honest. We’re doing calls again, you know, every week with superintendents, everyone’s sharing information, seeing their creativity and thoughtfulness has been so helpful. There’s a separate question — I just want to let you know, Andy, that we’re spending a ton of time on food distribution, because schools aren’t just places of learning. Schools are social safety nets. School systems are continuing to serve tens of millions of meals every single day. And we’re trying to troubleshoot and work through issues there. And that need for food continues to go up every single week. At some point, we may get closer to getting on the other side of Covid, we’re not going to get on the other side of poverty and job loss and hunger and food insecurity. And that’s a much longer road. And so I’ve just been unbelievably inspired and impressed by the heroic efforts of school districts. We have nonprofits that are helping. 


[12:47] Arne Duncan: We’ve had a crisis here in Chicago this week, which we can talk about, if you want. You’re living at the epicenter there and to see folks step up to make sure that basic needs are important. So my priority for schools first is to keep kids and teachers alive and safe. That’s the first thing. I ran Chicago Public Schools for seven-and-a-half years. We never closed schools for a day. We never had a snow day and never had a strike. It wasn’t just because I care about education, because school is often the safest place for kids, because it’s the place were they got two, sometimes three meals a day. You have to keep people alive, safe. And we had to close schools down. I hated that we had to do that, it was the right thing to do. Then we have to think about kids’ physical and social and emotional needs, their food, their mental health. We should talk about the huge challenges and trauma there. Then after those things, keeping kids and faculty alive and safe, then health and safety, physical, emotional needs met. Then let’s talk about education. What that looks like. Whether that’s in a physical school building or whether that’s online.


[14:49] Andy Slavitt: We have an exciting announcement. We’ve now gotten through a dozen or so episodes. Zach and I promised that any proceeds that we get from In the Bubble will be donated directly to Covid relief. And we have gotten a $10,000 check and we are going to sign that check over to our first place we’re gonna provide relief for. So, Zach, where did we decide, with the help of many listeners, to make the donation? 


[15:19] Zach Slavitt: World Central Kitchen.


[15:21] Andy Slavitt: World Central Kitchen. So $10,000 to World Central Kitchen. That is a great group that if you don’t know it, is run by chef José Andrés, who’s coming up on the show soon. That feeds hundreds of thousands of people. Now, how do we do that? You might ask the question of how do we actually get the money in the door to send over to places like World Central Kitchen? We do that two ways. First, we find organizations that want to sponsor our program, like Teladoc does, who really want to get information to you and services to you that can be valuable. And second is from those of you who join the podcast who joined Patreon, and get a whole array of services and connection points and special episodes to listen to. And for even small donations. The nice thing about becoming a member is that you can kill two birds with one stone. You can help support the program, make it work, and know that money is going to go to a good cause if it comes to Zach or I. So that’s Patreon. And the way you would join is if you went to Thank you so much for allowing us to do this show and for allowing us to make this donation. 


[16:46] Andy Slavitt: So I’m gonna get parents comfortable with some uncomfortable truths. One of them is that there may not be a single best answer, from a science standpoint. And therefore, the uncomfortable truth is we may be going into the fall doing the best we can without a reliable answer. And I know that’s frustrating for parents. But that may be, in fact, where we are. 


[17:08] Arne Duncan: I think it’s 100 percent where we’re going to be. And to state it even more explicitly than you did: there is not a single best answer here. And, you know, your co-host is trying to go to a physical college campus this fall. My daughter’s trying to go to a physical college campus this fall, and we don’t know whether that’s going to happen. It may happen. It may not. If it does happen, she may have to return home at some point, and things may have to close down. And so we have to be, to your point, which is a really important one, we have to get used to a huge amount of uncertainty, of trying to learn in real-time. And again, seeing people talk and share information, do this work — this work does nothing if it doesn’t humble you, doing this with great humility. Being willing to admit when things aren’t working. Changing direction, learning from others, whether it’s college presidents, school superintendents or principals or whatever. But that’s the world going to be in — I’ll say that’s the world we’re going to be in for another year? Another 18 months, another two years? Anyone who is thinking about this as a fall thing — my goal two months ago was I wanted to have a massive summer school so that we could catch kids up, get them going. And that dream went out the window. I hope we can go back in many places for the fall, but what that looks like, how we do that and how we help catch up those kids that are just falling further behind. I’m spending lots of time thinking about that and we can get into that if you want.


[18:41] Andy Slavitt: One thing — and you alluded to it in a very kind way — if some tough decisions were made to bite the bullet early and take some medicine early on, your dream of having kids in summer school could have been very possible. If we’d had done what they did in New Zealand and other places. Now, we didn’t. And so it’s of limited value to dwell on that, other than to say that if tomorrow morning the president woke up and decided to put on a mask, and tell all of his supporters to put on a mask, and we can get the transmission rate down, we can return to normal life quickly. And so I know he listens to this podcast religiously, so that’s my ask for him. 


[19:19] Andy Slavitt: I think one thing parents that I’ve talked to have learned in this whole process is how different being a teacher is than being a parent. And how much respect they have for what it takes to develop a child physically, emotionally, intellectually, academically. And certainly they have had to do it, many of them, while they try to keep income coming in and in less-than-ideal settings. But parents at this point, I believe, have noticed that their children, I think, are behind where they would want them to be. If you were putting yourself as a parent who doesn’t know what you know, how do you make that decision? Who do you listen to? Who do you trust? 


[20:06] Arne Duncan: We’re getting into some real issues here and I appreciate it. I think I’ll maybe further complicate it a little bit. I don’t think it’s going to be that much of a bifurcated choice. I think the norm is going to be a hybrid type of situation. So the goal might be for my son or daughter, that they’re going to school two days a week, or maybe two mornings a week, or two afternoons a week or whatever it might be, in a way to limit that, you know, social interaction and to try and mitigate that risk and learn from home. And that situation can work in some families, and in some families that isn’t possible. A single mom trying to work two physical jobs, and she’s an essential worker at a grocery store, whatever, and if she doesn’t show up, she gets fired — there’s going to have to be a level of coordination and communication that is unprecedented. And let’s just say I’m the principal of that school of 500 kids, or maybe 1,000 kids. At some places it’s 3,000 kids. You’re going to have to have a conversation literally with every single family and try to figure out what they need. For me, the goal is not equal, the goal is equality. I’m just trying to put the hard stuff on the table. The really hard call for a principal might be that you have X number of kids who want to come back to school. You’re going to have X number of kids who have to come back to school. And you have X number of kids who cannot come back to school. 


[21:42] Arne Duncan: But that middle bucket, those kids who want to come back to school, you may well have to prioritize which ones you’re going to allow to come back to school because of their home situations. It would be a nice thing, but they could still sort of manage to learn and be safe at home. And there’s no right or wrong on this, but there’s never been that conversation. When I ran Chicago schools, every August, I’d go knock on doors and hand out backpacks and bring everybody back to school. We wanted everyone coming back. If kids missed a week, we’d be out that next week, so kids would drop out and try and bring them in a little bit late. Schools may literally in some places not be able to physically accommodate every single student. And they’re going to have to have some tough and uncomfortable conversations with parents as to, yes, your child is safe to come back. We understand they have to come back because of their family situations and they’re not safe at home by themselves. And they might say to you or me, we know that your son or daughter wants to come back, you want them to come back. But I’m not able to take them right now because there’s another family that needs the physical school more than you do. And that’s the level of detail — and again, there’s going to be adjustments made and situations are going to change, as you know. But that’s the level of detail and nuance that we’re gonna have to get to. Not everywhere, but I would say in many, many places.


[23:05] Andy Slavitt: Right. Well, couple of things I just learned from what you said. One is how individually customized decisions are. Secondly, what people want and what they get may not match. And people are taxpayers, they’re going to feel for the first time like they’re getting asked to do things that other kids are getting to do. And we know how difficult that can be. And I have a feeling if hat parent who comes to school screaming when their kid gets a B+ and they’ve never had anything but an A, that’s going to not be very happy when they get told, sorry, you can accommodate your child at home better than others can, and therefore we’re going to ask you to do that. 


[23:42] Arne Duncan: So we’re having a whole conversation in this country now about privilege, and about a lack of equality and a lack of fairness and a lack of justice. And you hit the nail on the head that school systems now may have to prioritize kids who historically have had less. And those of us with privilege may be asked to make some sacrifices or do some things differently. And you talk about uncomfortable conversations, that’s gonna be some uncomfortable conversations. And how that’s going to play out is going to vary place by place. But if anything, through this crisis, we’re discovering our common humanity. And hopefully people can really rise to the occasion and think about what it takes to keep everyone safe. Certainly we, as parents, we worry about our own kids. We don’t worry about our neighbors’ kids. We have to worry about our neighbors’ kids. We’ve got to worry about the kids down the block. We gotta worry about the kids in our community in a way that we haven’t before. And that’s going to be so critically important.


[24:37] Andy Slavitt: What you said is so profound. It hits me into the theme of why we started this podcast In the Bubble, which is you got to make your bubble as big as possible in this time when people are hurting. And the sense of sacrifice, of stay home so you can save other people’s lives, this sense of I’m thinking of others, even if you don’t personally feel at risk, that is going to be at a whole new level when you’re asking me to ask my kids to sacrifice. Because I know a lot of people that will buy into the theory, but let’s be honest. You feel like your kids have one chance. And most of us, as parents, want for our kids everything that we had, but mostly we want everything that we missed. We don’t want them to miss anything. Let me actually run another thought by you, now we’re thinking way out loud here. One of the conversations I was having with a parent was don’t expect that what you get in return will be the same as what you had. Expect you will lose some things. But ask yourself, are there compensating gains? In other words, because of the fact that your child is living through a unique period in time, can they learn something about themselves as a human? Can they learn something about this country? Can they contribute something that would be an educational opportunity they’d never have before? And yes, they may be four months behind in mathematics, but they may be two years ahead in writing essays and working in teams and communication and something else. And if you take that look as a parent, instead of saying what is mine, what do I need, what can I get? But think with a little bit of creativity. That’s what it’s going to take to get through this period. 


[26:28] Arne Duncan: All of these challenges — Covid, George Floyd — everything is slapping our nation in the face at the massive inequalities that have existed everywhere, in every system: education, healthcare, access to capital. I’m here in Chicago in the south and west sides. They’ve been socially distanced for decades. This is nothing new. We just didn’t call it socially distanced. They had been redlined. They’ve been marginalized. They’d been disenfranchised. So what do we do? Educationally, we have to do the best we can for every single child. Again, I worry most about those kids that are falling further and further behind. Chicago’s given out 100,000 devices. Boston’s given out 30,000 devices. In South Bend, Indiana, it’s not just access to devices, it’s access to Wi-Fi and the Internet. In South Bend, Indiana, they’re parking school buses in communities that don’t have access to the Wi-Fi and able to open that up. The idea, Andy, that our kids should only learn 9:00 to 3:00 in a physical building, that idea has to be obsolete. Every child — inner city, rural, remote Native American reservation — has to have the chance to learn anything they want, anytime, anywhere, 24/7. And find their passion, find their genius. So closing this digital divide now, making access as ubiquitous as water and electricity, should have happened a long time ago. Hasn’t happened. We have to do that now. And try to mitigate as best we can those kids that are falling behind, but create a level of access that’s never existed in the history of our country. Really tough job market now. Lots of young people coming out of college. What if we had a massive tutoring force of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tutors? 


[28:18] Arne Duncan: One of the most proven, most researched things is small group, individual instruction. Again, ideally face to face, but we could do that virtually. My daughter tutors kids during the school year, she’s still tutoring them online now. But could we match up those kids who have fallen behind, who we’re worried about, you know, with tutors who can help them continue to catch up and grow? I don’t want to just concede that kids will fall behind. The truth that you’re saying is real. But I want to fight that every single day as creatively as we can. Kids’ mental and emotional health I’m so worried about with this telehealth. We have some school systems where teachers and counselors and social workers and psychologists are checking in with kids every single day, virtually. And as you know, many young kids are almost more comfortable with technology than they are face-to-face. And you can keep that going. And so do that with a thoughtfulness. Your larger point is — I don’t want to say I see any silver linings here, I hate so much that we’re here as a nation. But if your kids, my kids, this generation of kids have a level of awareness of their humanity, of their global connectedness, that none of us can be safe or free or feel good in our bubbles, to use your word, if others aren’t doing that. This is a lesson that for me is way more important than algebra or biology or whatever. And to have them lead us to places where  we as adults have failed. In this area, I talk a lot about gun violence. That’s where I’m focused now. We as adults have fundamentally failed to keep our kids safe from gun violence. We’ve failed now to keep them safe from Covid in a way that we should have. We’ve failed to keep them, you know, free from racial prejudice and overt racism that defines so much of who we are as a country. If our young kids can figure these lessons out better than we did, and do it at this age, and lead our country not over the next two years, but over the next 20 or 30 or 40 years to a safer and more just and more equitable society, then lesson is for me a hell of a lot more important in chemistry or physics.


[32:52] Andy Slavitt: There are people that Covid has disrupted their lives, and there’s people to whom Covid has brought a focus on the deprivation that they already experienced and made it greater. We can all sort ourselves. And I don’t mean to be in any way judgmental, because maybe you’re experiencing both. But if you’re someone who primarily is experiencing disruption, it’s an enormous opportunity to use that disruption to reach out and create those new lessons. But more importantly, to reach out and actually help someone on the other side of that equation. People who are going through something far more than having their lives disrupted, missing being in their physical campus. I think our kids are more inclined to accept that lesson than we as parents are. I think we as parents have a very protective feeling for our kids that we want them to all have everything. But I think our kids have an understanding of justice, at least I’ve experienced, that is innate. I see the way they’re reacting over the last few weeks, and this is the breath of fresh air, this acknowledgment, this bearing witness to where we are. They can lead us part of the way through there. But that’s not to sweep away and make the justice and equity issue sound easy. In Minnesota, we have one of the highest education gaps by race. And one of the highest health gaps by race. We also have the highest likelihood that a black person is going to be murdered by a police officer relative to a white person anywhere in the country. We have some real issues here that have been known by so many people, and never spoken about or seldom spoken about. Let’s talk about the opportunity here, Arne, because as I listen to you, I think about things that you’re referring to, to recast things for students in a way that maybe can create some leapfrog opportunity, using technology, using mentoring, other types of things.


[34:56] Arne Duncan: There’s a continuum here, but there’s a huge difference between what’s inconvenient for folks and what is systemic oppression. And to your point, where we all fit in on definitions along that vein, and to see people violently protesting because they can’t get a haircut? Because they have to wear a mask in 7-Eleven? Versus those who are killed on live video in nine minutes by a police officer with a knee to a neck. There’s a big difference between those concerns in life. And for us as a country to grapple with that reality and that continuum, that all pain is not the same, and that all challenges are not equal. Painful conversations, difficult to raise, but we have to do that. I just happen to be very familiar with the situation there in Minneapolis. Couple of your mayors, R.T. Rybak, Betsy Hodges, a good, good friend, we’ve been talking about a fair bit. You’re former state commissioner of education Brenda Cassellius, a very close friend of mine, she’s now running schools in Boston. And to be very clear, whenever you have inequity in educational opportunity or in healthcare, you are always going to have that same inequality in that other bucket. It’s not like you can have great educational equity and inequity, these things always work together. We have communities here in Chicago that, you know, two miles from downtown, the life expectancy is 16 years less than those who live downtown. So less than 16 minutes to drive that distance, but a 16-year difference in life expectancy. And so these inequities are always in tandem. And again, the compounding impact of lack of access to educational opportunity, lack of access to healthcare, food deserts, access to capital, entrepreneurship, investment in the community, jobs, these things are all tied. 


[37:00] Arne Duncan: I read a thing that R.T. Rybak wrote that said that, you know, the things that he didn’t do as mayor, and what he felt about them, things that he knew and saw. And, you know, that’s true for all of us. That’s true for you. That’s true for me. We’ve all tried. We’ve all worked pretty hard. But if any one of us thinks we’ve done anything close to enough we are lying to ourselves. And we are all feeling inadequate — I don’t want to say hopeless. I always have hope. But we have to rethink everything. And so the fact that you have one of the largest achievement gaps there in Minneapolis, we’ve all known that. We in education have known that forever. The fact that you have a younger, more diverse police force and a fantastic police chief, but a veteran set of officers where it’s very, very scary. I’m going to be real real here. The fact that you have a union leader for your police and we have a union leader here in Chicago for our police that are just absolutely terrifying. These are real things that we’ve got to think through. 


[38:06] Arne Duncan: And what’s been interesting to me, we have yet to see a mayor anywhere step up and challenge the police union. To just fundamentally challenge some of the things that are in place. I don’t think we should defund the police. I don’t think we can live without a police force. But we have to radically — not just a little bit of reform on the edges, this has to be radical change. We have to think about truth and reconciliation. So can we build systems, educational, police, justice, health that take what has been true for decades, are we going to keep watching them contentedly? Or are we going to take those on? And this is going to be a hell of a lot of hard work for years. I have no interest, in any of this stuff, to going back to what was ”normal.” Normal wasn’t good enough for far too many kids. Normal wasn’t good enough for far too many communities. So can we leapfrog? Can we make some fundamental challenges? I am hopeful. I desperately hope we can do that. Sitting here right now, Andy, I don’t know if we had the courage to take that on as a nation. And it’s going to be up to you and I and so many people listening and others that we all, in our own ways, big and small, you know, locally, micro-locally, nationally. Do we have the courage to fundamentally challenge these structures that have been so unbelievably inequitable since our country’s birth for hundreds of years? 


[39:39] Andy Slavitt: I can tell you what I’ve seen in healthcare is the cry out — in cities, we’ve started to do this every morning, if you’re from a community that has otherwise been ignored, you get a text asking you, “how are you? Are you OK? Do you need groceries? Do you need mental healthcare? Do you need anything? Do you need food?” And that was put together in about 30 days in New York City out of necessity. People have been talking about that for five or 10 years. And they’ve got to leave that in place. We brought free telemedicine to New Orleans in the middle of this crisis, and we’re now trying to leave it there. We had DeRay Mckesson on last week talking about police violence and reform, and the conversations are so similar to the ones in health care. Listening to you about education, listening to José Andrés talk about the food crisis and feeding people, it seems like these things are following a thread where all I can ask myself is how willing are people to be uncomfortable? Because if people are going to swim back to comfort the first chance they get, then I have less confidence. But if people are willing to really question why we’re here, and turn some things over, then I see leadership emerging around these issues. I see action emerging. And I think people — and this is maybe one of the shames of this administration and this opportunity — people want to be called to be part of the solution. I think President Obama had that in him. I think other presidents of both parties have had that in them. But at a moment like this, people being asked to do something for their community and to sacrifice, we know it’s in them. And now people are seeing things. The commissioner of the NFL is seeing something that was right in front of him that he couldn’t see before and now he sees it. 


[41:42] Arne Duncan: I still think the NFL is fundamentally blind. I hope they are seeing more. What they did to Colin Kaepernick, they black-balled him. So I’m not convinced. You’ve got to show me. You can’t tell me. Until some fundamental things change there, I’m going to be highly, highly skeptical of the NFL. To your other point, you and I happen to be Democrats. Nothing about what we’re talking about in these conversations for me is Democratic or Republican. What we’re talking about is trying to be empathetic, trying to understand our common humanity, trying to come up with creative solutions, trying to innovate in a time of crisis. And none of us have a monopoly on good ideas. And so we all have to do this work with great, great humility. The idea I said about tutoring at scale, do you know who is doing it best right now? Not just talking about it? It’s my real good friend, the former governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam. He’s just doing this, funding it himself. He and his wife. We talk a lot about free community college. The guy who actually did it for the state of Tennessee, Republican Bill Haslam. He made that happen a couple of years ago. And so for me, none of this has anything to do with politics. This is not about left versus right or whatever. This is about what are we going to do to create opportunity and try to address injustice?


[43:08] Arne Duncan: And again, the total lack of leadership, the evil leadership coming out of D.C. that is costing lives and supporting white supremacists in Charlottesville. You know, good people on both sides. You’re seeing a level of evil that was maybe underground. It always existed here, but it has emerged and is empowered. You know, humans are complex. I say all the time. This is bringing out the best of us and it’s bringing out the worst of us. I see both of those every single day. This has been one of the hardest weeks of my life. One of my staff was shot and killed. Two of our young men were shot and killed. We had two of the young people we work with who were shot but survived. We have an amazing young woman, a senior in high school, just graduated, has been in this antiviolence movement with us for two years. An absolute leader. She had her, you know, virtual graduation ceremony last Sunday. And she was shot at the gas station getting water Sunday afternoon. She survived. No ambulance came. No police came. She almost bled out. Talk about lack of resources and injustice. Mother scooped her up, took her to hospital. It wasn’t a trauma center. Luckily, they gave her a blood transfusion. But that’s what we’re dealing with. So will some people fly back to comfort as soon as they can? The honest answer is yes. And I understand that. I try not to judge. I think for all of us who are trying to practice every day being uncomfortable, we have to become more uncomfortable, and have to keep stretching ourselves and not think that we’ve done enough. I’ve seen things on the streets this week that I hope to never see again. It’s like a nightmare that’s real and you can’t quite wake up. And we have to keep being out there. We have to keep seeing things, just bearing witness, but working to fix some of those things, to counter things. And we have to continue to stretch ourselves in ways that are mentally uncomfortable in terms of our own physical safety. More scary than we might like because it’s important to be out there. 


[45:23] Andy Slavitt: Let me talk about college, if I could for a second. So this guy right here. Does he have any hopes of escaping his dad and getting the college experience? What do you think? 


[45:35] Arne Duncan: For his sake and my daughter’s sake, I sure hope so. I think most not all colleges will go back this fall, but it will look very, very different. The school year is fundamentally changing. Why is our school year based upon the agrarian economy? How many of our kids are working in the fields? It doesn’t make any sense at all. So some universities are going to go back early, are going to go through Thanksgiving and then let out early. They worry about a flu or second wave of Covid coming later. Let’s just say you have a class, you know, Monday, Wednesday, Friday in college. I’ll bet you go to class a third of the time. You will go to physical class on Monday or on Wednesday or on Friday. And the other two days, you’ll take a class virtually. I think you’ll see sort of all the big, big classes as lectures — we’re actually seeing this in high schools now. You think about an algebra teacher teaches five classes of algebra. Places like Broward County, Florida, they’re teaching one big class of algebra in the morning and the rest of day is office hours, more individualized instruction is important. 


[46:40] Arne Duncan: So I think your son and my daughter and most kids around the country will go to a physical college. But how they go to classes, how they eat their meals, how they’re housed, how they socialize is going to be fundamentally different. And again, I keep pushing, this is not just for this fall. This is at least for this academic year and probably go into the next academic year. So for me, I’ve been thinking of getting to the end of this school year, which is basically about now for most places. Been thinking a lot about the summer, then got to think about August, September. Then we gotta think about December, January, then we gotta think about the spring. So sort of two or three month increments in which everything is changing and we have to keep making adjustments. How long your son and my daughter and others can stay at school, that’s going to vary place by place. 


[47:29] Andy Slavitt: If we have better public health infrastructure, if every kid can take a test before they head home for Thanksgiving so they know they’re not going to be infecting their parents, parents are going to feel a lot more comfortable with them at school. If we persist in a situation where we’re told we have enough, but we don’t really have enough for the things that allow people to live their lives, not just for people who are the sickest of the sick. We have enough tests for them. If we have the ability to make some rules, close campuses and know how compliant these kids are. I mean, if you’re told not to socialize, not to go off campus, you’re going to listen, right Zach? You’re all over that. He’s on board. I’m sure your daughter is, too. We can’t leave the top of a college without talking about 17 and a half, five and three, which you may remember are your basketball stats from Harvard.


[48:25] Arne Duncan: I actually don’t remember that whatsoever. I don’t know where you got that from. 


[48:30] Andy Slavitt: The fact that I once got to play on the Camp David basketball court where you and the president played, that’s probably the only thing my kids remember that I actually did in Washington. So, first of all, did you used to let the president win?


[48:45] Arne Duncan: Never. You understand as a player that if you’re not playing hard, it actually ruins the game. And that the point of game is to compete. So when we are playing against each other, I’m trying to kill him and he’s trying to kill me here. The truth is, most of the time we played on the same team. He plays to win. You know, he’s not out there to try and score a lot of points or to get a sweat. He’s out there to win. And, you know, I’ve known for years and very early on, I think people were a little fool because he’s such a nice guy. But he’s an unbelievable competitor. And at the end of the day, as you know as well as I do, he’s an amazing person, but he’s a regular human being. Deeply, deeply loves his family. And just to have a chance to let all that —  both the trappings and the weight of that office, to let go of that. And so you got to play at different places, including Camp David and White House and FBI and some military things. And we played both election days. And just to see him have that release, I know how much it meant to me. And it had to have meant 10,000 times for him because of the weight of what his job was.


[50:02] Andy Slavitt: Serving in the Obama administration, which was one of the privileges of my life, and I imagine you’d say the same thing, having the ability afterwards, for a variety of reasons, to continue to have the impact that you’re having and to focus on the passions that you have, we’re a better country for it. And it was a treat to hear you not just talk about what you believe, but that your hands are still so dirty in this. And that the issues of health, racism, justice, food, they’re all brought to a head in this crisis. And they’re all so connected. So thank you. 


[50:37] Arne Duncan: They are. And it’s funny, I guess theoretically we could have done some different things, but Chicago shaped me, you know, educationally, athletically, socially, culturally. I always say we’re motivated by our successes, but we’re haunted by our failures. And during my time running Chicago Public Schools, lots that I’m proud of, lots I could talk to you for an hour about. But on my watch every two weeks, we had one of our students killed due to gun violence. 


[51:03] Arne Duncan: I know we failed to keep our kids safe as a city. And when our family moved to D.C. in 2009, I thought we were rock bottom. I thought we couldn’t get any worse. And for a whole host of reasons, things got a lot worse in seven years we were in D.C. So for me to come home, a city that protected me, a city that protected my mother working in the inner city for 52 years. I played basketball in all the neighborhoods. And the fact that I was never touched once. She was never touched once. In fact, the community protected her and then protected me. For me to move some other place and not come back and not try and help our city. I just want our kids to have a chance to be kids, to play and to be free of the fear and trauma. And every kid here, every single kid on the south and west sides, knows multiple people who have been killed, multiple people, not one, every single kid. And it’s not right. It’s not fair. And it’s not it’s not their fault. 

[51:57] Arne Duncan: And so, yes, it was an amazing privilege to be in D.C. I would do it again in a heartbeat. But for me to be back in the community and back on the block and back spending time with, you know, families that deserve so much more is good for my soul. And as much as I love D.C., and as much, I still want to work on policy, and we’re both trying to do what we can, to be in real community with real people, I needed it more than I can tell you. 


[52:25] Andy Slavitt: Well, I’m inspired, renewed just listening and talking to you today. So thanks for coming on and talking to us. 


[52:31] Arne Duncan: Keep doing what you’re doing. I know nothing about health care. I’m just trying to learn everything that you’re putting out there every single day. I can only start to imagine how hard you’re working and just that the information for those of us that aren’t health experts, don’t know anything, but our lives and our families lives depend on it. Having someone who I trust, someone who I know, not just their intellect, but their heart, having you out there working so hard. I know it’s a sacrifice for your family. And they have to give up some things to allow you to do that. I want to thank your family for doing that. But please keep doing what you’re doing because we need that. I need that information. And we’re going to continue to need it for a long time to come. 


[53:20] Andy Slavitt: I hope you learned as much as I did from that interview. I’ll be honest, I was expecting to learn about how to think about the question of whether or not people should be heading back to school. And I found myself during the course that interview, really feeling like I hadn’t thought about all the issues right. That the issues of privilege and equality and our own expectations are very much on display when we think about those issues. And he did a great job opening me up to what’s at stake, and what we’re all going to be dealing with in the fall. Besides just a cut-and-dried decision of whether or not schools are going to open, but how all of us as parents and as people in the community are going to approach a very complex set of issues. And so what I want to do next is talk to Sonal Gerten. Sonal is a mom of two kids in the Minneapolis public schools. She has two boys that are younger than our boys here at our bubble, but are about the same age gap as Zachary and his older brother. She and her husband both work. And let’s get her perspective on the question of going back to school. 


[54:47] Andy Slavitt: Hello, Sonal?


[54:48] Sonal Gerten: Yes, this is Sonal. Hi, Andy. 


[55:07] Andy Slavitt:  You have two kids and your husband both work. Your kids attend, if I’m not mistaken, the Minneapolis Public Schools. So tell me, how has homeschooling gone for you? 


[55:19] Sonal Gerten: Homeschooling was a challenge. I think initially it was a little bit of an adventure for the boys, but I think by the end of it, it was far from an ideal situation, that’s for sure. 


[55:32] Andy Slavitt: What are their names and ages? 

[55:34] Sonal Gerten: So Devin is 10 years old, and Asher is six. And they both turned 10 and six during quarantine, actually.


[55:45] Andy Slavitt: So how do you think about what happens next in the fall? And presumably everybody wants their kids back in school. But what do you see as some of the issues, the concerns either way? 


[56:00] Sonal Gerten: Yeah, I mean, I wish there was some consensus in terms of best practices. I feel like I’m constantly searching for information every day, and making decisions about how much risk to take. And I feel like that’s taken a lot of mental toll on all of us. You know, we’re making so many more decisions now than we used to. And I just want somebody to tell me, OK, here’s what we’re gonna do in the fall. The kids need to do X, Y, Z. You need to take their temperature every day. I want some consensus from sort of an authority person or body to kind of guide us in that process.


[56:44] Andy Slavitt: So let’s say school opens in the fall. I want to run through a couple of scenarios and see how you’d react and also how you think your kids would react. What if they could go back to school, but they were required to wear masks? Do you think that would work at their ages six and 10?


[57:01] Sonal Gerten: I think it would be hard and challenging, but I think any improvements to what we just experienced in March, April and May would be welcome. So I think just getting them in that environment of school and that routine, I think I would welcome that and I appreciate that. 


[57:25] Andy Slavitt: Do you think your kids just speaking as representatives for every six year old and 10 year old in America would actually wear masks? Or do you think that that’s really too much to ask of kids that age?


[57:38] Sonal Gerten: I think it’s a lot to ask of my six year old. I think my 10 year old would be more likely to comply simply also because he is a rule follower. But I think it’s a hard ask for kids. 


[57:51] Andy Slavitt: But if they have grandparents or older relatives, if part of going to school meant that they were advised, or you were advised, that they should keep some distance from grandparents or other older relatives, do you think that people would be compliant with that? 


[58:06] Sonal Gerten: I think people would be compliant with that. I think the hard part also with our family is I also have an autoimmune disease. And so I think that puts me in a little bit of a higher risk category, too. But I also don’t want my limitations to impact their learning experience. You know, so it’s trying to find that right balance.


[58:30] Andy Slavitt: Right. So all things considered, if the science was what it was today, and they said, OK, you’re free to send your kids back to school, but you’re also free not to, and have a third option where they homeschool through a combination of parent and technology. Do you know what you would do?


[58:51] Sonal Gerten: Goodness. I think I would likely lean towards the online option, given the information that we have today. I think just the safety of our family and grandparents would probably, you know, obviously sort of trumps everything else. And that would be a really, really hard tradeoff to make. Yeah, for sure. 


[59:17] Andy Slavitt: Tough decision. Tough decision. 


[59:19] Sonal Gerten: Yeah. You know, I think one of the things I’m curious about is kind of this slide that we’re seeing with kids, you know, academic slide, mental slide, physical slide. You know, if we continue in this online or remote modality, how do we recover some of that? I’m seeing my kids become a lot more moody. And, you know, just the other day, my six year old, we tried going for a bike ride and we were just a block away from the house. And he goes, my legs are tired. And I was thinking, oh, my gosh, you need more physical activity. So I think that’s kind of a real concern, is how long is this going to last and how to mitigate those slides.


[01:01:07] Andy Slavitt: Yeah, well, I think that’s really well articulated actually. I hadn’t heard that expression before. The final thing, I guess I would say is that all of us know that we should be prepared for what I will call, for lack of a better term, a weird year and a weird set of solutions. And we’re not going to be creating a perfect situation either for ourselves or our kids, but we’re going to figure it out as a society. And to some extent, while I relate to your point that you want to just hear what the consensus is, I tell you, I find it absolutely fascinating to be in the middle of a process that nobody knows the answer to and people are working on together and to observe that process. And I think there’s lessons in that for everyone to see, probably including kids. And so my hope is that there are compensating balances, if you know what I mean. So for everything lost, or for everything that slides, even if we can’t exactly replace that specific thing, is there something else that they can learn as a human being, as a curious person in the world, that they would never be able to learn if they weren’t in this moment? 


[01:01:22] Sonal Gerten: Yeah, that’s so true. That’s really well said. I completely agree with that. That’s a great perspective. 


[01:01:28] Andy Slavitt: Well, thank you so much. Best of luck. We’ll stay in touch. 


[01:01:31] Sonal Gerten: Sounds good. Thank you. 


[01:01:36] Andy Slavitt: So now finally, we have a conversation with higher education expert Zach Slavitt. So, first of all, congratulations on making it through high school. I just want to say for the public record, you did an amazing job making your parents proud of who you are. And even the way things finished I know was disappointing, you showed so much character in getting through a really difficult time.

[01:02:01] Zach Slavitt: Yeah. Thank you. I think everybody did a good job just stepping up and doing what they had to do.


[01:02:09] Andy Slavitt: So what are your feelings about school in the fall? Do you really, really hope it happens? Do you hope that happens only if it can be a certain type of experience? How would you feel about kind of a situation where it was less than ideal there, or staying home for part of it? What’s your general thought? 


[01:02:29] Zach Slavitt: Well, my opinion, and I would say the majority of people my age’s opinion, if I had to guess, is that we just want as much of the experience as possible. Whether that’s being there and being restricted, or being there and not being that restricted. People just really don’t want to be online school for college. 


[01:02:53] Andy Slavitt: You’re saying that you would have to transfer your co-host duties to somebody else and get to the work of being a student again? That’s the goal. I can’t blame you for that goal. If you are asked to wear a mask, but it’s not mandatory, or you’re asked to not socialize or keep socially distant, how realistic is that for college kids?


[01:03:27] Zach Slavitt: If it’s not mandatory, I think it’s very unrealistic for the vast majority of kids, especially since once, you know, like the majority of kids don’t wear them, then those kids, even the ones who want to wear them will get a little bit of peer pressure and they won’t end up wearing them. So I don’t think it’s very realistic unless it’s required. And they should probably plan on the fact that it’s not going to do much if they don’t require it.


[01:03:53] Andy Slavitt: So if you go back to school and they have a second wave and people start to get sick, you think they should close it down and send kids back home or quarantine them? 


[01:04:03] Zach Slavitt: It really just depends more on the outcomes of the illnesses. If people aren’t getting symptoms, if people aren’t dying, obviously, if people aren’t going to the hospital, especially teachers, then people will care less about having to go home if they’re not really having symptoms or anything worse than a bad flu. But it really just depends on the outcome of the cases, I think more than just the total number.


[01:04:31] Andy Slavitt: Makes sense. Well, I really hope you get what you want. I’m hopeful that things open up with his furious restrictions as possible. And I know that whatever the answer is, we’ll work through it. And so thanks. Thanks for allowing me to interview you. So that is our education episode. I think I did a good job with the Arne Duncan interview. I think I did a pretty good job with the interview with Sonal Gerten. I think I did only a fair job trying to interview my son. But I think what you said was really smart. Next week we have two great shows. The first one is with writer, director, actor Judd Apatow. And we are going to talk with Judd about life at home and new habits during this time in the bubble. And then on Wednesday, we have an interview with Pete Buttigieg. And that’s going to be incredibly exciting. I hope you listen in to both of those. And in the meantime, I really hope you have a great week. Thanks for listening. 


[01:05:34] Andy Slavitt: Andy Slavitt: In the Bubble is a production of Lemonada Media. Niccole Galteland is our producer and Ivan Kuraev is our editor. Music is by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill. Zach Slavitt is our co-producer and my co-host. You can find out more about our show on social media @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me on social media at @ASlavitt on Twitter, @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you liked what you heard today, tell your family and friends, but tell them at a distance. For now, stay safe. Share some joy. We’ll get through this together. And #StayHome.


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