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Checking Back With A Teacher, College Student and Mother After A Year At Home

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For the next few minutes, we're going to mark the anniversary of the unthinkable. It was around this time one year ago that a cascade of school and university closures sent most students home to finish the academic year. In many places, like my home, they are still home. And over the past 12 months, NPR's education team has been telling the stories of these students and their pandemic challenges. Today, we have asked reporters Cory Turner, Anya Kamenetz and Elissa Nadworny to check back in with one person they met along the way whose story stayed with them and maybe stayed with you, too. We begin with Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Kendra Mendoza lives in Providence, R.I., with her two kids, both teenagers. She's a single parent and works long hours as a home health care provider. During our first interview back in August, I was struck by her openness and her laugh.

KENDRA MENDOZA: (Laughter) I have a lot to say, a lot of opinions. And I don't got any answers (laughter).

TURNER: Mendoza's 17-year-old son, Joshua, has cerebral palsy and a cluster of conditions that put him in a wheelchair and fragile health.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MENDOZA: His name's Cory. Can you say hi, Cory?

JOSHUA: Hi, Cory.

TURNER: Mendoza told me in August that all of Joshua's therapies had stopped because of the pandemic, but she had recently been told he could go back to school in the fall. At the time, she was wrestling with whether to send him. She told me because of his physical challenges, if Joshua got COVID, he could die. It's now six months later, and I recently caught up with Kendra Mendoza on a Saturday morning Zoom.

MENDOZA: Oh, I can't see you. Hold on. How do I get back to see you? (Laughter).

TURNER: The laugh was still there, but Mendoza told me life has gotten harder. Her rent's gone up. And even though she pays her bills on time, her water got shut off for two weeks in December. Her focus, though, is on Joshua. After we spoke in August, she decided to keep him home. COVID was just too scary. But it's not quite working anymore. Normally, she says, Joshua is incredibly social.

MENDOZA: Making all kinds of jokes and noises and trying to bring up conversation and just - he's so sociable and happy. He loves music.

TURNER: But out of school now for a full year, she says Joshua has become increasingly lonely. He misses his best friend, Kobe, who also has special needs and communicates with Joshua with a thumbs up or thumbs down.

MENDOZA: He brings up Kobe. They like to, like, hang out together, and Kobe would always give him a thumbs up.

TURNER: So Mendoza was thinking recently, maybe it's time for Joshua to go back to school. But when she asked him, what do you want, to her surprise, he said he wants to stay home.

MENDOZA: It's making me open my eyes that I need to let go.

TURNER: Like so many parents, Mendoza has fought hard for a sense of control in this pandemic. One year in, though, she's realizing she can't control everything, and she's trying to be OK with that.

MENDOZA: I'm working on it. I'm working on it, Cory (laughter).

TURNER: It's time, she says, for Joshua to be able to choose his happiness and for her to worry less.

For NPR News, I'm Cory Turner.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: I'm Anya Kamenetz. A full year ago in March 2020, I talked to Robin Nelson, a first-grade teacher in Jacksonville, Fla. Schools there and all over the country had just shut down.

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ROBIN NELSON: I had one little girl and her family that live in the neighborhood drive by, and she left little, you know, love notes and pictures on my doorstep. And, you know - so yeah, that's the heartbreaking part.

KAMENETZ: Why?

NELSON: Well, because I can't see my kids. I'm sorry.

KAMENETZ: You really miss them, don't you?

NELSON: I do. It's - you're not a teacher if you can't be with your kids.

KAMENETZ: Florida has been one of the most aggressive big states in the country in returning to in-person school. By October 1, Nelson was back in the classroom.

NELSON: Glad to have my hands on them (laughter). Yeah, computer teaching is not the same. It's just not (laughter).

KAMENETZ: Hands-on, in a socially distanced way, of course.

NELSON: The, you know, desks have at least one desk in between each other, so everybody has a little bit of elbow room. We have the hand sanitizer, and we wear face masks.

KAMENETZ: Nelson used to give kids the option of a hug hello. Now, she says...

NELSON: We do toe-tapping. We do hip-bumping.

KAMENETZ: Or take a big step back, pull down your mask and smile.

Her school is small and close-knit, and there have been no outbreaks. But not everything is back to normal. Some of her students have had to miss weeks at a time for quarantine because their families are frontline workers. Others are still struggling to catch up from the year before.

NELSON: They didn't learn what they needed to learn to enter first grade. And then if they were more behind, they're more behind even still, you know, so there's definitely that loss of - you know, loss of learning.

KAMENETZ: It's stressful. And on top of that, she knows some of her colleagues are scared to come in in-person. But Nelson says she's letting it all roll off her back.

NELSON: I'm going to do my job. I'm not going to - you know, you want to fire me because a 7-year-old didn't go to school last year? Go ahead. Whatever, you know? (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: And on the day we talk, there is one big bright spot.

NELSON: Just got my first vaccination, so we're ready to go.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: I'm Elissa Nadworny. I cover higher education. And I first met Alexis Jones about a year ago, when she was a high school senior in Washington, D.C.

ALEXIS JONES: Hi.

NADWORNY: Hi. Is this Alexis?

JONES: Yes, it is. (Unintelligible).

NADWORNY: Alexis is a top student. She has a passion for art and social justice, and she's spent a lot of time dreaming about college. In late April, she had some news.

JONES: Well, today I committed to Cornell, so that's fun.

NADWORNY: But by May, the delight of getting into an Ivy League school with full tuition covered was overshadowed by the uncertainty of the pandemic.

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JONES: I don't know how to feel because I don't know if I'm going to be going, you know, immediately in the fall.

NADWORNY: When fall finally came, Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., was among the roughly 20% of colleges that opened up in person.

JONES: The first day I got there was with my dad. And we pulled up to the school, and as I was signing in, my first step was to get tested. So I got tested, got my I.D. I got my key, and then I went to my dorm, and nobody could come - nobody that isn't going to Cornell can come into any of the Cornell buildings. So I had to carry all my stuff up to my room by myself.

NADWORNY: And so with a dorm room to herself and weekly testing, Alexis has felt safe on campus. Her classes are all online this semester, but she's thriving.

JONES: And I got on there, and I said konnichiwa and she said, konnichiwa (speaking Japanese).

NADWORNY: This week started with a virtual meeting with her Japanese language professor.

JONES: And then she asked me if Japanese was hard, which is (speaking Japanese). And I said, hi, yes, it is hard.

NADWORNY: In high school, she would spend her free time making art, reading books, so the stunted social life on campus hasn't really been a problem.

JONES: I'm not like a social, social, social person. This is the most social I think I've ever been in my life.

NADWORNY: She's made a few friends through social media and study groups. She has yet to go to a college party. Instead, social highlights include having a few people over to her dorm room. But even that comes with COVID stress.

JONES: I still think that even that is a risk, you know? Like, I am letting my friends' new friend into my room. Like, I don't know these people. I don't know where they've been.

NADWORNY: Looking back, she's glad she landed on a campus that invested in testing to make in-person possible. She's hopeful she'll get to that college rager someday.

JONES: I know I haven't gotten the typical freshman experience. But luckily, I am a freshman, so I still have three more years before I'm graduating to see what college is actually like.

NADWORNY: She tells me she is looking forward to all the social stuff. But really, she's here to learn, to get resources and to graduate.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUTUAL BENEFIT SONG, "TERRAFORM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.