On this broadcast of The National Conversation, we'll hear from educators on how the coronavirus has changed their work. We'll also answer your questions about the economy and health disparities, and we'll take a look at pandemic fashion.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Martin. And we're here, once again, to answer your questions.
VICTORIA: Aloha. This is Victoria (ph).
JAY: I'm Jay (ph) from Fort Worth.
KATHY: My name is Kathy (ph), and I'm from Michigan.
MAGGIE: My feeling is that the small business owner is not supported in the United States right now.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What will be the economic impact of a possible second wave?
CATRON: I was wondering in what way this was affecting poor communities in general.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Why is Advil bad to take for treating COVID-19 at home?
KATHY: What's the best way to care for oneself and your loved ones when someone has the virus?
JAY: Do you have any suggestions for me?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you.
VICTORIA: Thank you.
MARTIN: NPR journalists and outside experts are on hand to offer solid facts, to tell you what we know and to correct some of the misinformation that's floating around. And when we don't know something, we'll tell you that, too. You can send us your questions about your health, your economic worries or about adjusting to life in a pandemic. Go to npr.org/nationalconversation. On Twitter, you can use the hashtag #nprconversation. But every night, we begin by answering the question, what happened today?
Nearly 39 million people have been forced out of work over the last nine weeks. 2.4 million Americans filed for unemployment this past week. The job losses are equal to 1 in 4 Americans filing jobless claims. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling for more vote by mail and election security to be included in the next congressional relief package.
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NANCY PELOSI: The fear of getting sick threatens some not to go to the polls. People should not have to choose between voting and preserving their good health.
MARTIN: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer extended the state's stay-at-home order for another two weeks and is encouraging residents to wear masks.
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GRETCHEN WHITMER: What we don't want to do is to reengage as though nothing's changed. Life has changed. And it's important that we change along with it so we can safely get back to some normalcy.
MARTIN: President Trump was also in Michigan today touring a Ford factory now making ventilators. The president was asked if he was concerned about a second wave from the virus.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: People say that's a very distinct possibility. It's standard. And we're going to put out the fires. We're not going to close the country. We're going to put out the fires. There could be - whether it's an ember or a flame, we're going to put it out. But we're not closing our country.
MARTIN: Globally, there are now 5 million confirmed COVID-19 infections. In the U.S., the death toll from the disease is now 94,000. Late tonight, the president ordered flags to be flown at half-staff to honor the victims of COVID-19.
Tonight, we're going to look deeper at those shocking unemployment numbers. Economists warn many of the millions of jobs lost might be permanent. You've sent us lots of questions about unemployment and its effect on small businesses. So here with some answers to those questions is NPR's economics reporter, Danielle Kurtzleben. Danielle, welcome back.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Yes, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Well, jobless claims are now at nearly 39 million. Can you put that into some context for us?
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, absolutely. So that's around 1 in 4 people who were working before the crisis, as my colleague Scott Horsley reported this morning, 1 in 4. That is astronomical and devastating. And just to put this further into context for you, like you said, today it was reported that 2.4 million people applied newly for jobless claims last week. So that's on top of the millions that had already. That 2.4 million number is slowly declining week by week, if you need to find a silver lining here. But before this crisis, 600,000, 700,000 a week was considered very high. That's how high it got during the last recession. Now we have spent about two months blowing past that week after week being in the millions. So this is - we are in really unchartered territory here.
MARTIN: And it is fair to say that small businesses have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, Danielle. Would you agree with that?
KURTZLEBEN: Most definitely, yes. No question.
MARTIN: All right, so our first question speaks to that. And this is Maggie (ph) in Houston.
MAGGIE: Over the last 12 years I've created a consulting business. Pretty much everything has dried up. I applied for one of the SBA loans and was told that they lost my application. And I was turned down for unemployment. My feeling is that the small business owner is not supported in the United States right now. So my question is, are small businesses really sustainable in the future, given the current economic climate?
MARTIN: Danielle, what would you say to Maggie?
KURTZLEBEN: Well, first things first, I mean, that sounds like a terrible situation, so I really hope things look up for her. I mean, one thing to get at there is that she said she was turned down for an SBA loan. I don't know what loan she had applied for. But if she happens to be talking about the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, one that we have talked about a lot here, there is still money left. So while it is very troubling that her application was lost, I would bet that it's possible she can go reapply for that. So there is still hope in that program.
Now, as far as her broader question about the outlook for small businesses, yeah, it's scary. In normal times, when things are good, half of small businesses have less than a month of cash built up - of buffer days - that they could use to ride out a crisis. And we have been in this crisis for well over a month now. So it is quite likely that this crisis is harder on small businesses than on big firms.
So yeah, we don't know how bad this is yet. But there will probably be a lot of small business casualties. And the big question that I'm looking for is this, is that, after the Paycheck Protection Program ends later next month, then what more? What will small businesses need? And will they be able to get it? So we are going to be watching for that.
MARTIN: Another question in the same vein - the Paycheck Protection Program was created to support businesses. And Paul (ph) in Seattle has a question about that.
PAUL: Each week, we hear a staggering number of new claims for unemployment and the total since the pandemic began. But how many of those people are back to work because of the PPP?
MARTIN: Danielle, do we have any idea?
KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) This is one of those unfortunate instances where I have to say we don't really know. I mean, I can tell you what we do know, which is this, is that as of the end of last week, there had been 4.3 million of these loans that were given out. And each of those firms, some of them are one person; many of them are more than one person. So you can imagine that there are multiples of that many jobs that are being supported by this program. And you do - and one other thing that I would say is that, you know, it's not just that that money is putting people back to work. Some of it is just keeping people from being laid off.
So we are going to be - again, this is another thing we're going to have to keep our eye on, especially once businesses run out of that PPP money. They only have about eight weeks to spend it, right? So once that first wave of businesses runs out of their PPP money, the big question is, what do they do then? Do they keep all those workers on that they used that money on? Or do they have to finally lay them off? There are so many question marks here.
MARTIN: And now that a lot of states are lifting their stay-at-home orders, there are going to be lots of questions about, you know, people who are in this gray zone. We have a question that speaks to that. Georgia is one of the first states to release those stay-at-home orders. And this is Marta (ph) in Athens, Ga.
MARTA: In my community, many restaurants took initiative to protect public health and closed for business prior to the county and statewide ordinances that were enacted. If our businesses choose to remain closed until public health professionals suggest resuming operations, will we lose access to state-funded unemployment benefits since, technically, the state has suggested that we reopen?
MARTIN: What about that? Marta cannot be the only person who's concerned about that. So, Danielle, what do we know?
KURTZLEBEN: Right. And I do have a clear-cut answer on this. And that is that if your business doesn't reopen and you work for them, then, yeah, it doesn't matter why your employer says you can't go back to work. If your employer is saying you can't go back to work, you qualify for unemployment benefits. I double checked. I talked to some unemployment experts today. This is pretty cut and dry. You should be OK on that.
MARTIN: And Marta has a follow-up.
MARTA: What happens when PPP grants begin running out?
KURTZLEBEN: Well, that's a good question. Now, first things first, like I said, there is still PPP money out there. As of the last count, there's more than $100 billion left. So while that first pot of money ran out quickly, the second pot that Congress put in, demand seems to have slowed down, so it's still there. Now, once it runs out, once again, that's a great question because there doesn't seem to be the appetite in Washington among policymakers, lawmakers to re-up the program. So if you're a small business, there are potentially some other options for you. You can look into state and local funds, funding grants, that sort of thing. The Federal Reserve is starting this Main Street Lending facility, is what it's called, for small and medium-sized businesses, so some small businesses will qualify for that. So those are a couple places to look. It's not the same as PPP, but it's something.
MARTIN: Let's get this next question in from Shenandoah. And it's about independent contractors.
SHENANDOAH: I'm director of my own dance company, Psychopomp Dance Theater, and I work as a personal trainer for several private gyms as well. What is the state or federal government going to do for independent contractors and freelance artists with financial help? Will we be able to apply for unemployment? And will we be granted benefits?
MARTIN: Danielle, what about that? There are so many people who are in her situation.
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, so short answer is this, yes, you can apply for unemployment, you qualify for it. Congress specifically expanded unemployment so independent contractors, freelancers can apply for it and get it. Now, the long answer is this, that's not to say it's going to be super easy. How fast it goes, what documentation you need to bring in, all of that has to do with what state you're in, how they are processing things. That can really vary.
And freelancers and independent contractors, by the way, also have a higher burden of proof of what they have to show as to their lost work and income. Unlike an employee who has a W-2 who works for a, quote-unquote, "standard employer," so to speak, that employer will have you on their records they're paying into the system. You might have to show invoices, income statements, that sort of thing. My colleagues here at NPR have been doing great reporting on this. And they have reported that you have some contractors saying it's taking forever. So you can apply. It might not be super quick.
MARTIN: That is NPR economics reporter Danielle Kurtzleben. Danielle, thanks so much for joining us once again.
KURTZLEBEN: Of course. Thank you.
MARTIN: Up next, we'll answer questions about the medical disparities the virus has revealed. And this is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Stay with us.
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MARTIN: This is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Martin. A lot of public figures have been telling us how we're all in this together and how the virus doesn't care if you're rich or poor. They're saying it's the great equalizer. But as we learn more and more about the coronavirus, the data is telling us a different story. Lower income Americans are feeling the brunt of the pandemic. The elderly have died in higher numbers. People of color have been disproportionately affected.
You've sent us many questions asking about health disparities and treatments against the virus. So here with answers is Dr. Tracey Henry, an assistant professor of medicine and an assistant health director at Grady Primary Care Center in Atlanta, Ga. Welcome, Dr. Henry. Thanks so much for joining us.
TRACEY HENRY: Thank you for having me this evening.
MARTIN: Well, as a primary care physician, you've been seeing a lot of COVID-19 patients. What are some of the trends that you've observed over the past couple of months?
HENRY: Well, you know, there definitely have been some challenges with COVID-19, especially in our vulnerable population. And since primary care visits have went virtual or audio only, we're only talking to patients via the phone, there were a lot of patients that actually went without reliable access or have reliable access to a phone or Internet. And so they weren't able to engage with their primary care doctor in a regular fashion like many of our other patients. And there were other trends that we also have seen that, on a different note, that some patients, we actually saw a higher show rate for some of our patients because they were virtual visits. And what I mean by that is that virtual visits actually remove some of the barriers that many of our patients face, like transportation barriers. During COVID-19, there was no copay. And so there was a financial barrier that was removed. And then also, many of our patients didn't have to take off of work. And even if they were working, the virtual visits were only 15 to 20 minutes, and so they were able to still have the needed health care access they needed while actually doing it on their job.
MARTIN: Oh, that's interesting. And what about now that the stay-at-home orders in Georgia have been lifted? I mean, we mentioned earlier in this program that Georgia was one of the first states to kind of roll back those restrictions. What are you seeing now? And I think a lot of people would be particularly interested in seeing whether you're seeing an increase in sick patients.
HENRY: Well, you know, there still is a concern since our COVID cases are not negligible. But there - you know, there's always a chance that we can see an uptick in the number of cases. And, you know, as a society, we may become relaxed. So we reopen, and we relax and we stop doing some of the great things we were doing before, like physical distancing, practicing good hand-washing and wearing our masks in public.
MARTIN: So let's jump to the first question. Here it is.
LESLIE GREGORY: Hi, my name is Leslie Gregory (ph). And I practice medicine in Portland, Ore. And I want to know how best as a provider focusing on marginalized communities we can get our action steps into the hands of those who have the power to implement them.
MARTIN: Dr. Henry, you have some advice for your colleague?
HENRY: Sure. Well, certainly, one of the best ways to help our patients, especially those that she mentioned and marginalized communities, and to also have the broadest impact on the largest number of people is health care advocacy. So we need a call to action, as she stated. And we cannot simply wait to study the effects of COVID-19 when all the damage is done. So we need ongoing data. We need ongoing collection of race and ethnicity. And ideally, what I would like to see is that all stakeholders come together - patients, health professionals, hospitals. And so we can there develop a plan with targeted interventions that can be supported by our policymakers.
MARTIN: T (ph) from Massachusetts wrote in to ask, why are more men than women dying of COVID-19? Have you seen that, Doctor?
HENRY: Yes, I actually have seen that in practice. But the quick answer is we do not know. But there have been many, many proposed theories. And so what we do know is that men have a higher prevalence of comorbidities, such a heart disease and high blood pressure. And all of those risk factors together equate to a poorer outcome with patients with COVID-19. But there is ongoing research looking to explain some of that disparity and what we're seeing in men versus women.
MARTIN: And, of course, the data about - showing that African Americans have a higher death rate than whites and even Latinos and Asians as well. What do you - are you seeing that in your practice?
HENRY: Well, in general, I'm not necessarily seeing the higher death rate in my particular practice. But what we have known, at least from the studies that we've seen so far, is that there are a higher death rate. And that has been attributed to some of the issues that are experienced by racial ethnic minorities. Many of them are unable to properly social distance. Many of them are working in places where they're on the front line and they're unable to - they have to take public transit, for instance. And so those are some of the reasons they are seeming to, in particularly, having issues in their community.
MARTIN: Here's a related question. This comes from Catron (ph) in Palmetto, Fla. Here it is.
CATRON: While I'm not wanting to diminish in any way the effect that of COVID-19 is having on minority communities of all types, I was wondering in what way this was affecting poor communities in general, as opposed to better off neighborhoods and communities.
MARTIN: Dr. Henry, what do you think?
HENRY: Yeah, so in general, people in resource-poor communities or from low socioeconomic status are just more likely, like I said before, to have low-paying jobs that do not allow them to work from home. And so they're using public transportation to get to and from work, further exposing them to the coronavirus by being in these public places. Additionally, a lot of these patients are working in service-related industries. So they could be in environmental services, food services, supermarkets, gas stations. And so they're not able to take paid sick leave. So if they get sick or if they're laid off, they're left without health insurance and without the needed access to health care that they need.
MARTIN: I have a question for you from Kathy in Ypsilanti, Mich. And she's asking for a lot of detail. I'm not sure you're going to be able to give her the level of detail that she wants. But we'll do the best we can. How about that? Here it is.
HENRY: (Laughter) OK.
KATHY: What's the best way to care for oneself and your loved ones when someone has the virus? Please go over step by step the way to give someone the best care - food, fluids, over-the-counter meds, et cetera and when to give them. Thank you.
MARTIN: Doctor, what can you tell her?
HENRY: Yeah, so the way I like to approach this is to put her strategy into three different buckets. So No. 1, just providing support to her loved one for their basic needs; and then No. 2, watching for warning signs - is the loved one getting worse? - and No. 3, to protect herself. And then, you know, she wanted some really step-by-step details. But getting more granular, I would say in helping her loved ones most basic needs, do their shopping for them, the groceries, you know, feeding their pet, big things like making sure they're taking their medicine, picking them up from the pharmacy if they need to, making sure they stay hydrated and are eating.
In terms of watching for the warning signs if you're at home with a loved one with coronavirus is checking their vitals. And what I mean by that is their temperature. Make sure you have a thermometer at home. Make sure that you've purchased one of these pulse oximeter where she can check their oxygen levels and her breathing levels at home. We want that number to be above 92%. And then most importantly, if their symptoms worsen in any way, if they see anything out of character, just to make sure that you call 911 and you get your loved one the help that they need...
MARTIN: All right, I think you've given her a lot of help. We appreciate that. That's Dr. Tracey Henry. She's an assistant professor of medicine and assistant health director at Grady Primary Care in Atlanta.
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MARTIN: This is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Martin. Last night, if you joined us for this program, you heard that we talked to kids about what's on their minds. And a lot of what was on their minds had to do with missing school, missing friends and worrying about summer. Well, tonight, as the school year is coming to a close, we thought we'd like to hear from teachers. Millions of educators are trying to wrap up a second and in some cases a third month of distance learning without a lot of clarity on when or how they'll go back to school. So to talk about all that, we've got two of those educators on the line with us now. Anna Jones as a special ed teacher here in Washington, D.C. What do your students call you? Do they call you Miss Anna or Miss Jones?
ANNA JONES: They do. They do call me Miss Anna, actually.
MARTIN: Oh, OK. So we'll call you Miss Anna, too, because I know that you're missing them.
MARTIN: And Wayne Stewart is the superintendent of a small rural school district in Howell County, Mo. Am I pronouncing that correctly, Mr. Stewart?
WAYNE STEWART: Yes, ma'am. Thank you.
MARTIN: All right. Mr. Stewart, welcome to you as well. Thank you so much for being here.
STEWART: I appreciate the invitation.
MARTIN: Well, I'm going to ask - start by asking each of you, how has your school tried to reach students while in-person learning hasn't been possible? And Miss Anna, we'll start with you.
JONES: So my school primarily is keeping touch using - meeting over Zoom. I also try and keep up with parents for email and phone, depending on what they prefer. And I know the general education teachers are using other, like, digital portfolio programs.
MARTIN: Anna, what's that been like for you?
JONES: (Laughter) I'm mostly just trying - what's up in life in general?
MARTIN: No, like, what's that been like with you trying to work with trying to connect with the students that way? Because, I mean, part of being a special ed teacher - right? - is a lot of in-person, personal attention? Isn't that part of what it calls for?
JONES: Definitely. Yeah. I mean, I think that it's been really challenging to kind of keep my students engaged over a webcam kind of. It's a very abstract sort of thing for them to engage with. I've also felt like it's been hard to kind of design lessons that are going to be accessible to them without the kinds of manipulatives and hands-on learning that they're used to.
MARTIN: And what about you, Superintendent Stewart? What has it been like for you?
STEWART: It has been very difficult for us to stay engaged with our students because of the fact that we just have such a lack of infrastructure in the southcentral Ozarks where my school district is. We have appreciably fewer than 50% of our kids who have high-speed Internet access at home. And probably a full quarter of students live in these hills and hollers and don't even have cellphone connectability (ph) at home so we can't do hot spots. But we've been doing what we can with the resources that we have. Our teachers, I think, have been doing a good job of trying to deal with the social, emotional needs of our kids; if nothing else, just calling them on the telephone and, you know, talking to them a couple of times a week and seeing how life's going for them. And for those who, you know, do have Internet accessibility, we're doing our best to continue the education process with them. We've been doing hard-copy packets for those that we could make the connections to either get them to come to school and pick them up or have us run them out and drop them off at their homes. But it's been - just suffice it to say, it's been a really hard thing, and it's shown us that there's just no good substitute for face-to-face interaction and teaching with kids and teachers at school.
MARTIN: We're going to hear from another teacher now. This is Julie Ste. Marie who teaches preschool in Jay, Vt. And she's been reminding parents that their kids might regress because this is such a stressful time. Here's what she had to say.
JULIE STE MARIE: Maybe they aren't toilet trained like they used to. Or perhaps they're not sleeping through the night like they used to. Because any time that routines change or stress comes about in their life, their brains are trying to process that. And we're seeing that across the board with all children of all ages are going to regress, not just academically but socially and emotionally as well.
MARTIN: Miss Anna, what are you - are you seeing this in your work?
JONES: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, regression is on my mind a lot. Anytime that there is a big disruption in students' routines and their educational services, especially for students in special education, they're going to lose some skills. I think it's important for parents to know it doesn't mean they can't recoup those skills. It's just a matter of how long it will take. And I feel like that the degree of regression is really going to be a determining factor in figuring out who will qualify for compensatory services in special education later down the line.
MARTIN: Miss Anna, can I ask you, though - I would imagine - you know, I don't know this, but in your training, I'm guessing you probably didn't emphasize, you know, Zoom meetings or anything of that sort.
MARTIN: I'm guessing this is - so you probably had to learn all this for yourself, right? Would that be fair?
JONES: Yeah. That's been...
MARTIN: What was that like?
JONES: That's been the biggest, I think, change for my style of teaching. I've - one thing that's been nice about the distance education is that there are so many resources available. But it's been a huge learning curve for me to adapt the way that I'm used to instructing to these new sort of resources and tools. Especially for children with pretty complex communication challenges, I'm used to reading their responses in multiple nonverbal ways. They might give me a gesture or a sign or physically move an object. It's harder to gauge a response, like, over the webcam than it would be when I'm in the classroom with them.
MARTIN: Sure. And, Superintendent Stewart, what about you? I'm guessing that when you were planning your career, you didn't think about kids not being able to come to school at all. I'm sure there are - you know, there are times when there are breaks and - right? - like, there are disasters, things like that you don't anticipate - right? - flooding or extreme weather but not for this amount of time.
STEWART: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: So I was just thinking, what's been the biggest thing for you to have to regroup and wrap your head around?
STEWART: Well, just the loss of the fourth quarter of the school year. You know, there have been times that we've missed, oh, collectively up to about a month in snow days but we're able to get back through the last couple three months of the year and catch up and make up lost ground. But this time, it happened so quickly that we weren't able to make the preparations, and we found out that we weren't prepared for this. And it's just been a real eye-opener. And, you know, it's going to teach us a lot of things that will have us a lot more ready to go next time if this kind of thing ever happens again.
MARTIN: We're going to need to take a very short break in just a few minutes. And I hope you're both going to stay with us. We're talking with our two teachers, a special ed teacher from the Washington, D.C., area and a school superintendent from a rural school district in Missouri on THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I hope you'll stay with us.
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MARTIN: And I'm back with special education teacher Anna Jones and school district superintendent Wayne Stewart. He is from Missouri. And we're talking about what educators are going through as they try to adjust to distance learning. And we heard from another teacher, Shawn (ph), who says he's worried about his colleagues.
SHAWN: I'm a middle school teacher in Washington, D.C. I don't have any child care responsibilities outside of normal school. And yet I see so many of my fellow teachers who are now both full-time teachers and full-time parents. And I really wish I could find a way to support them.
MARTIN: So, Superintendent Stewart, what would you say to people who would like to support the teachers in your district as they're, you know, struggling through this. I'm sure this is true of you as well, that many of your teachers are also parents who are also trying to teach their kids while they're trying to support the kids in their classroom. I think they're all their kids. What would you say?
STEWART: It has been tough for teachers doubly because they continue to have the duties that they were contracted for. And that's been made more difficult by the way that they have to go about delivering that education now. And they have their own kids. You know, here, day cares were shut down, and we had rules that, you know, not over 10 people at a time could be in the school. And so one of the things that we have done was to keep the building open for teachers 24/7 around the clock. And we've been able to schedule teachers to come in at times like 10 o'clock at night when they had somebody else at home to take care of their kids. And they could work on the lessons and make packets or put lessons on thumb drives or various things. But it's been especially hard on teachers because it's doubled up on their work.
MARTIN: Miss Anna, what would be helpful to you right now? I don't know if you have additional responsibilities at home as well, but what would help you?
JONES: Well, I mean, I have colleagues who are parents. I'm not a parent myself. They've talked about the challenges that they're facing. I feel like - it's funny. I feel like any teacher who is a parent and working from home is going to be really uniquely sympathetic to the parents of their students who are also doing double duty. But I think that, like, you know, it's very tough. And I think it just is also tough when we think about coming back to school, potentially, in the fall or not in the fall and what that means for child care across the board.
MARTIN: Well, can I just say on behalf of all parents and hopefully people who understand how important an educated population is, I just want to thank you both so much for your work, not just in these times but, you know, all the time. I just - you know, hats off to you. I mean, honestly, this is something that we talk about just every single day and we just appreciate you both. And I hope that people will find a way to express their appreciation for you. Just - if I could just have a brief final thought. Maybe, Mr. Stewart, just as briefly as you can, what's the one thing that you would wish people would know about what's going on right now?
STEWART: I wish people would know that we like infrastructure. And it's almost as great a lack as if we didn't have electricity or water or sewer. We need to find a way on a national level to bring high-speed Internet access to every home in every state so that we're ready to compete.
MARTIN: All right. I appreciate you. That is school superintendent Wayne Stewart and also with us special education teacher Anna Jones. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
JONES: Thank you.
MARTIN: And this is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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MARTIN: This is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Martin. COVID-19 has changed the way we eat, the way we work, the way we go to school and even - and you know this is true because I see you even if I can't see you - the way we dress. And we all know because video calls. Am I right? And if you are into fashion, then you might feel that you're in a bit of a rut. So we've called Robin Givhan to kind of shake us free. She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at The Washington Post who focuses on fashion. Robin, thanks so much for joining us.
ROBIN GIVHAN: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Well, let's start with what we're wearing. Those of us who are working from home (laughter) perhaps we haven't been putting as much effort as we could into our attire. So, Robin, what are you seeing? Is everybody just staying in their sweats?
GIVHAN: Well, you know, this is what I'm hearing (laughter). I'm getting a lot of feedback from people who are essentially dressing from the waist up. And, you know, the bottom half is, you know, sort of yoga pants and shorts and, well, hopefully pants of some sort.
MARTIN: I hear there've been some slip-ups, unfortunate slip-ups, that have...
GIVHAN: There have been some unfortunate slip-ups. Beware the wide-angle shot. And on top, you know, it's a bit more professional. But I think people are getting a little bit - they're tired of that. I mean, even if they are sort of stuck in their rut, they recognize that they are, in fact, in a rut.
MARTIN: In a way, are some people - I'm wondering if you're hearing from this and you might not hear this because people know that you are interested in fashion. Are some people in a way relieved that they don't have to worry so much about or they think they don't have to worry so much about what to wear?
GIVHAN: Well, I think in the beginning, when a lot of people started working from home, there was a sense of relief that they no longer had to, you know, get dressed up and go into an office. But I do think that the relief after awhile started to sort of shift into this sense that - you know, the days were beginning to blur. The time was beginning to blur. There were no boundaries between, you know, personal life and professional life. And I think clothing is one of the markers that helps us to sort of mark the time of day, that helps us to remember, you know, when to step away from work and when, you know, we're in our professional mode.
MARTIN: So let's get into a listener question about bigger changes in the industry. And I'm sure you've been doing some reporting on that. This is Toria (ph) in Miami. Let's hear.
TORIA: I am a recent fashion design student graduate down in Miami. And what the conversation that I've been hearing and floating around and I'm curious about is more not just the fashion industry but the retail side of the industry. I've noticed that there have been announcements of large companies going bankrupt, and it's just a conversation of what's going to happen next in regards to brick-and-mortar stores. We see that people are wanting to shop less and less. Obviously, everything has been closed. So my question is, what's going to happen next in the fashion industry?
MARTIN: What do you see, Robin?
GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, the industry is struggling like so many. And the first retailers to tumble really were the weakest. You know, J. Crew, for instance, filing for bankruptcy, has been, you know, a suffering company for a long while. Neiman Marcus was not in the best shape. I think what was surprising is to some degree was to see a company like Nordstrom announce some closures because it was sort of perceived as, you know, a healthier company within that sort of luxury realm. But, you know, I actually think - and I have heard from some of the smaller independent boutiques - that if they can just survive this, they will be in to some degree a stronger position than some of the department stores. There's really a backlash within the fashion industry with department stores which have for so long had such a big impact and have sort of ruled the roost and have in many ways then the impetus for a lot of the ills that have plagued the industry.
MARTIN: What about for stores that can open or might be preparing to, even some of the smaller stores, the boutiques that you said might be sort of on a meta level in a stronger position? Do we have any sense of how this might work? I mean, do you remember, you know, back in - obviously, this is before your time or mine. You know, back in the day, you know, trying on clothes in a store was a civil rights issue - right? - because certain people were allowed to try on clothes, certain people weren't. Is there some talk about nobody being allowed to try on clothes or things of that sort or any sense of what it might look like?
GIVHAN: Well, you know, my colleague wrote a piece about what some of the stores were doing that have been able to open. And, you know, one of the things they've been doing is trying to display the clothing in such a way that it requires less touch by customers to get a sense of what they really look like. I think that they're going to have to have better, more closely trained sales representatives who can give people a really clear idea of the fit of a garment so that there's less of a need to try things on. But, ultimately, it's something that can't really be avoided, particularly with women's clothes where sizes are not standardized. And so the real question is just going to be, will the stores be able to sterilize those clothes in between try-ons? How long will that take? How long will those clothes be, you know, off the floor? So that's one hurdle. You know, and the other is just the social distancing that has to go on in the dressing rooms, perhaps keeping one dressing room open between customers. But there have been some other things that people have tried, which is to try and rely on artificial intelligence and 3D imagery to give people a sense of how something looks on them without actually having to physically put it on.
MARTIN: Just as briefly as you can, Robin, you know, of course, online is sort of all the news right now. Is there any sense that stores could pivot to that as their primary mode of operations, as quickly as you can?
GIVHAN: Yeah. I think there is absolutely emphasis on that. Amazon is partnering with a lot of smaller brands to sell their merchandise. So I think there will be a focus on it. But I think it's going to be hard for independent brands to do it alone because that requires a lot of back-end work.
MARTIN: That's Robin Givhan, fashion critic at The Washington Post. Robin, thanks so much for talking to us once again, and you stay safe.
GIVHAN: You, too.
MARTIN: And I'll ask - next time I'll ask you what you're wearing. And if you haven't heard, next week is the last week of THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We're going to miss you. But we want to hear your stories and answer your questions before we go. Tomorrow, comedian Retta - you might remember her from her role in the sitcom "Parks And Rec" - she'll be talking about how laughter can help you get through hard times. If you have questions for Retta, send them to npr.org/nationalconversation. Go to social media. Use the hashtag #nprconversation or call us and leave a message at 202-403-0386. I'm Michel Martin. My co-host Ari Shapiro will be here tomorrow. And this is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.