STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A famous paper, a few months ago, described fighting the pandemic as the hammer and the dance. Officials would put down the hammer, shutting down businesses to slow the disease, and then try various maneuvers to dance back toward normal life.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
California lowered the hammer last spring. Then came the dance. It's been gradually reopening businesses and beaches over the past couple months. But now Governor Gavin Newsom says he's got to go back to the hammer because COVID is spreading again.
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GAVIN NEWSOM: A week or so ago, I was reporting just six lives lost. And then a few days later, well in excess of a hundred lives lost. And so this continues to be a deadly disease.
MARTIN: It's not just businesses closing. The two biggest school districts in California say they won't have kids back in the classrooms for the foreseeable future.
INSKEEP: Which is what we're going to discuss now, focusing on the largest one - Los Angeles. Kyle Stokes covers education for our member station KPCC, which is in Los Angeles. Kyle, good morning.
KYLE STOKES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
INSKEEP: OK. So weeks ago, we were talking about reopened beaches around Los Angeles, and now we're hearing about closed schools. How have things changed in LA?
STOKES: Well, in LA, the rate at which COVID-19 tests are coming back positive has been on the rise. In LA, it's now almost twice the World Health Organization's threshold recommended for reopening. And so LA school superintendent Austin Beutner says that creates a lot of risk.
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AUSTIN BEUTNER: The 10-year-old student might have a 30-year-old-teacher, a 50-year-old bus driver or live with a 70-year-old grandmother. All need to be protected. There's a public health imperative to keep schools from becoming a petri dish.
INSKEEP: Well, that's a very useful analogy there since it's been pointed out that kids generally tend to fare better with the disease but can pass it to more vulnerable people. With that said, though, Kyle, wasn't there also a lot of pressure to reopen the schools?
STOKES: Definitely. The president and several administration officials, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have repeatedly called on school districts all across the nation to reopen full time. And LA Superintendent Beutner said essentially, if wishing made it so - he made it clear his disappointment with federal officials for being, as he said, quick to issue demands and slow to provide additional funding and leadership. But the superintendent also took issue with some of the more sober calls to reopen even on a more limited basis with things like masks and social distancing, as the American Academy of Pediatrics has said. Beutner says the science behind those recommendations is still far too inconclusive.
INSKEEP: How are parents responding to this?
STOKES: There's obviously a lot of disappointment. This has been really hard for working parents. LA - a largely low-income, working-class district so a lot of parents working essential jobs. But on the other hand, a lot of that disappointment is tinged with some relief. There were parents who were really nervous about sending kids back. And LA's powerful teachers union says this is the right call. They came out last week in favor of an online-only start to the school year. They had real safety concerns about resuming in person.
INSKEEP: Well, after doing distance learning on the fly last spring, do officials feel they know how to do it well?
STOKES: Well, LA was actually very quick out of the starting blocks on this last March. They took immediate steps to begin distance learning. And I think the question is how things are going to move forward from here. This year, a new state law in California guarantees, quote-unquote, "live daily engagement" between students and teachers, regardless of whether it happens in person or online. But that said, a lot of school district officials acknowledge online learning has been a poor substitute for what could happen in a classroom.
INSKEEP: Kyle, thanks for the update.
STOKES: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's Kyle Stokes of KPCC.
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INSKEEP: Now let's talk about university students because a hearing today could decide the fate of more than 1 million international students in the U.S.
MARTIN: Yeah, that's right. Here's what's happening. Some colleges and universities, of course, are moving to online learning only in the fall. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, says international students don't need to physically be in the U.S. to learn online and so their visas will be revoked. Now some of these colleges are suing ICE.
INSKEEP: NPR education reporter Elissa Nadworny has been reporting on this ICE rule, and she's on the line. Good morning.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What exactly does the rule say?
NADWORNY: So last week, ICE issued guidance that said if schools were all online because of the pandemic, their students couldn't stay in the U.S. This has previously been the rule. But last spring, the pandemic basically shut all these schools down. They went virtual. So ICE, in that moment, allowed for flexibility for, quote, "the duration of the emergency." The government has said that just because it offered leniency back in March, that doesn't mean they have to extend the policy through the fall. And it comes as part of this Trump administration push to get schools to reopen.
INSKEEP: Well, how are people pushing back in court here?
NADWORNY: So there are several lawsuits at play here from a number of states, cities and universities. Harvard and MIT are behind the first lawsuit. More than 200 colleges have signed on to support that suit. In the suit, they allege the rule creates chaos for colleges planning for the fall. It says sending students home is onerous and in some cases dangerous. There is a hearing later today in that case. The hope is that the judge will issue an injunction on Wednesday. That's the deadline for schools to tell ICE if they're planning to be all online in the fall.
INSKEEP: All right. And we've heard in recent days about why this could be dangerous, students being sent back to authoritarian countries. So what happens to schools and students if the court sides with the government here?
NADWORNY: So if the rule stands, colleges and students will continue to scramble to comply. So in many cases, that means re-evaluating classes and programs. Like, can online offerings now be shifted back to in-person or hybrid? I spoke to Michael Freeman, the director of international students at the University of Arkansas. He talked to me about how international students are crucial for campuses.
MICHAEL FREEMAN: Some of our students from rural towns, you know, have not met people from abroad. And so this gives them that opportunity to have that influence in their lives.
NADWORNY: This is also a financial burden for colleges and for the economy. International students put tens of billion dollars into the U.S. every year. We're also talking about people's lives here. I mean, one big concern I'm hearing from colleges is that they may start the semester in a hybrid approach but then if things go sour or if there's an outbreak, they need the option to shut down campuses and go remote. You know, as it stands now, a student would be sent home if that happened.
INSKEEP: OK. Well, this sounds like a tough situation. So what are the students doing?
NADWORNY: Well, there's a lot of anxiety. Here's the Bilal Madoor (ph). He's a senior architecture major at the University of Wyoming.
BILAL MAJOOR: It's definitely kind of a surreal feeling of, like, being kind of scared, being confused and uncertain on what to do.
NADWORNY: You know, he's worried that if he has to leave the U.S., he'll have to start from square one back home in Algeria. Many students that I talked to feel like they're in limbo. They're anxiously watching what happens with this hearing today.
INSKEEP: OK. Elissa, thanks very much.
NADWORNY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny this morning.
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INSKEEP: Some other news now - the United States is rejecting China's territorial claims over the South China Sea.
MARTIN: This is a strategic waterway bordered by China, Vietnam, the Philippines and some other countries. All of them have claims to minerals there. The United States has insisted on free navigation. And China, for years, has asserted sovereignty over most of it. So what does the latest U.S. accusation actually change?
INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Hi there, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Can you give us a little better picture of the geography here? What's everybody arguing about?
FENG: So the South China Sea is this major waterway that sits in between China and a number of the Southeast Asian countries that you've mentioned. China claims most of the surface area of the sea and the seabed underneath. And it's demarcated that territorial claim with what they call the nine-dash line, which is called that because it's literally this dashed line that China vaguely draws on its map which scoops out the middle of the sea for China.
INSKEEP: Oh. So it's not like a - it's not like any kind of natural landmark. It's just somebody took a Sharpie and drew on a map essentially. That's what this...
INSKEEP: ...Is about. OK.
FENG: Not very accurate. And within that claim are clusters of outcroppings and underwater shoals that China has enlarged into literally small islands on which it's built military fortifications. And it's even created a whole new city out there, which is really just an archipelago of these mostly empty islands that are used for military personnel. And it's these islands and claims that the U.S. is now declaring illegal. Several other countries that border the sea - Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan - they dispute much of China's claims, as well. And in 2016, the Philippines actually won a lawsuit and a United Nations tribunal which said that nine-dash line is illegal, has no legal basis. China, of course, has declared that tribunal illegal itself.
INSKEEP: Given that there's not really even a lot of land out there - there are some islands and shoals and so forth - why do the U.S. and China care so much?
FENG: It's very important for China's national security. I spoke to Wu Shicun. He's the president of a major Chinese state research center on South China Sea issues.
WU SHICUN: (Through interpreter) Without the sea, Hainan would be the frontlines of any military aggression. China also relies on ocean channels for most of its trade, and two-thirds of our oil is shipped through the South China Sea.
FENG: And then for the U.S. and its allies in Southeast Asia, the South China Sea is important because it has massive oil and mineral deposits in the seabed. It's also a major shipping waterway. So for the U.S., they want to safeguard access to these resources. And they also want to push back against expansionary Chinese military strategy.
INSKEEP: Which the U.S. has been trying in various ways for years - so what does this latest announcement really mean?
FENG: Well, it does not change China's territorial claims overnight. Every country in the region has some kind of historical narrative that justifies their, to be honest, somewhat arbitrary claims over the sea. But the U.S. announcement does have strong symbolic value, and it signals greater U.S. involvement in the region. Here's Zhu Feng, who directs a center at Nanjing University, about what this announcement means.
ZHU FENG: (Through interpreter) Since the coronavirus epidemic, we've seen an unceasing amount of China-bashing in the U.S. I'm afraid the next thing the U.S. will bring up is supporting Taiwan independence.
FENG: So Zhu Feng believes this is another front for conflict, potentially military conflict, between the U.S. and China.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.