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News Brief: In-Person Classes, Capitol Security, Pope's Iraq Trip

NOEL KING, HOST:

One of President Biden's top priorities is getting schools open for in-person learning.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

No president has the power to order them to open, but he did issue a challenge this week to every state, every territory and the District of Columbia.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We want every educator, school staff member, child care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March.

INSKEEP: Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has the job of guiding the country's schools through this process. He's just been confirmed for the job, and today is his second day at work.

KING: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner is following this story. Good morning, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK, so President Biden issues this challenge. He says there will be federal help. What does federal help look like?

TURNER: Well, it looks like a few different things. Obviously, the biggest news is him telling states to treat teachers like essential workers and give them vaccine priority. They're already a priority in two-thirds of states, but this would bump them up nationwide. And Biden said he'd help make that happen through the federal government's vaccination program with local pharmacies. But then we also saw yesterday Biden's new Ed secretary, along with first lady Dr. Jill Biden, begin what really felt like a charm offensive touring schools. And it was clearly meant to reassure teachers and parents. Here's Secretary Cardona speaking at a Pennsylvania middle school.

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MIGUEL CARDONA: What I've seen here, what I heard here, really symbolizes America. We come together, we solve problems together. We don't always agree, but we put our students at the center of the conversation, and we listen to parents.

TURNER: Cardona and President Biden have also been talking up Democrats' COVID relief bill. It would send about $130 billion to help K-12 schools. And Cardona also announced he'll be convening a nationwide school reopening summit.

KING: Didn't the CD say - didn't the CDC say teachers don't have to be vaccinated for schools to reopen?

TURNER: Yeah, it did. In its recent guidance, it said teacher vaccination should not be a prerequisite. You know, Noel, this has been a pretty painful political wedge for Democrats because some teachers have made clear they don't feel safe going back to work without the vaccine. And the big teachers unions have been key political allies of Biden's. So the administration is clearly trying to reassure teachers. And it is no coincidence that yesterday when Cardona and Dr. Biden were visiting these schools, they were joined by the heads of the two largest teachers unions. But it's also worth noting that the vaccination question has driven a wedge also through school communities. You know, the push to reopen really seems to be driven by wealthier white parents. A recent Pew Research poll found that lower income adults were much more likely to say schools should wait until teachers are vaccinated. Also, half of white adults polled said schools should wait, while Black, Hispanic, Asian adults all overwhelmingly favored waiting for teacher vaccinations.

KING: OK, so Americans don't entirely agree on this one. Secretary Cardona - he's been on the job for two days now. What do you know about him?

TURNER: Yeah, he grew up in Meriden, Conn., became a fourth grade teacher, a principal, most recently the state's education commissioner. As commissioner, he pushed pretty hard for schools to reopen in Connecticut, and most have. But he also has this reputation as a great listener and a peacemaker. You know, I spoke with Erin Benham. She worked with Cardona as the head of the Meriden teachers union, and she told me about this time he was assigned to work with her to get teachers there behind a new controversial state-mandated evaluation system. And she says because he was listening, he compromised. They worked together, and they found a way.

KING: NPR's Cory Turner. Thanks, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome.

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KING: U.S. Capitol Police are making security preparations because extremists are reportedly plotting to try and breach the U.S. Capitol building again.

INSKEEP: Lawmakers made preparations of their own. The House canceled plans to meet today, choosing instead to hold votes last night. The reason for all this is that today, March 4, is a day that holds significance for some right-wing conspiracy theorists.

KING: NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon has been following this story. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.

KING: What is March 4 about? What's the significance?

MCCAMMON: Well, today has been the focus of online chatter among some Trump supporters, including followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory. And that's because until the 1930s, March 4 was the date that presidents were inaugurated. So some right-wing extremists have formed this baseless conspiracy theory, of course, that President Trump would somehow return to power today, which they saw as the true Inauguration Day.

KING: OK, and so what is the specific threat?

MCCAMMON: Capitol Police are saying they've received intelligence reports involving a specific militia group that has been making plans to breach the Capitol today. They're not saying much more than that, but the acting House sergeant-at-arms has described the reports as concerning, although he has said the significance of this date appears to have declined among some of these groups in recent days. And he's seeing no indication that large groups of people are traveling to Washington. Still, Noel, there is heightened security around the Capitol. Before the attack, of course, it was easily accessible. Now it's surrounded by tall fencing. You can't get within a few blocks of it. And some of the other buildings in the area, including the Supreme Court, are walled off, as they have been since January.

KING: I saw that the other day as I was driving through D.C. for the first time. It's significant. Is it likely to deter an attack, though?

MCCAMMON: Well, law enforcement officials say they're much better prepared now. But, again, they're also saying the significance of this particular date appears to have diminished from some of the earlier chatter. And I spoke to Denver Riggleman. He's a former Republican congressman who now tracks disinformation at the Network Contagion Research Institute. He told me his analysis of online chatter suggests there's a lot of confusion among conspiracy theorists. Yeah, many of them now believe - without evidence, of course - that this March 4 date is actually a trap set up by what they call the deep state.

DENVER RIGGLEMAN: I'm a little worried about March 4, but now the conspiracy theorists believe that March 4 conspiracies are there to capture them after January 6. So I know that sounds absolutely bizarre, but that's how these individuals, you know, live in their rabbit holes.

MCCAMMON: So experts tell me they think large-scale violence isn't likely today, but law enforcement is taking the threat seriously.

KING: The technical term for this is a mess. I mean, look, the bigger picture here is that there are Trump supporters who continue to believe the big lie, that President Biden wasn't legitimately elected. What happens next, based on your reporting?

MCCAMMON: Right. A lot of these extremist groups aren't giving up. Jared Holt at the Atlantic Council tells me based on what he's seeing, he thinks conspiracy theorists will just adjust their narrative and find another date to focus on.

JARED HOLT: I don't really see this kind of calming down at all, you know, that it's just going to - the goalposts are just going to keep moving indefinitely, indefinitely until the people that follow these theories just eventually give up.

MCCAMMON: And we should point out that there are people who profit financially and politically from this. Just one example right now, apparently because of the interest around this date - the Trump Hotel here in Washington is advertising rates about three times what they normally are this time of year.

KING: NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon. Thanks, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

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KING: Pope Francis goes to Iraq tomorrow.

INSKEEP: At the age of 84, he becomes the first pope ever to visit Iraq. The trip puts him in touch with the pre-Christian history of Christianity. Modern Iraq is said to include the historic homeland of Abraham, whose faith is at the root of multiple religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The pope also hopes to deepen ties with overwhelmingly Muslim Iraq, though he arrives at a time when Iran-backed militias in that country have resumed rocket attacks on the U.S. military there.

KING: NPR's Alice Fordham is in northern Iraq. Hi, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Hello. Good morning.

KING: OK, so this is a dangerous time for many reasons - the rocket attacks, the pandemic, too. And yet Pope Francis is like, I'm going. What is he trying to accomplish there?

FORDHAM: Well, Pope Francis says that he is coming because he is the pastor of those who are suffering. And Iraq's Christians and their priests say they really hope he'll give the dwindling community here the strength not to seek asylum elsewhere and to stay in Iraq, where there have been Christians almost since the beginning of the faith. And Christians have been leaving Iraq, especially since ISIS took control of some ancient Christian villages in the city of Mosul for a while a few years ago. It can be easier sometimes for Christians to claim asylum, and many do. And then there's another dimension of the pope's visit, which is that it's part of a long effort to encourage good interfaith relations. He's visited Muslim leaders in other Middle Eastern countries. And here in Iraq, he'll meet a very senior Muslim cleric, the grand ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani. And yes, he'll also visit ancient churches and historic sites, including the scriptural birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, the plain of Ur.

KING: It sounds like a fascinating visit. And yet security has to be a concern, especially now.

FORDHAM: It's definitely not a good time for there to be a ratcheting up of tensions. Yesterday, there was a strike on an air base used by the U.S. military. That was the first one of its kind since American airstrikes hit Iraqi militias just over the border in Syria a few days ago. Yesterday, a U.S. civilian contractor died of a heart attack. And there's precedent for these things to escalate. But I think organizers are hopeful there's no reason the papal visit would be a target. The pattern of these attacks so far has been on military bases and American infrastructure. But I will say that public health experts are worried. Cases of COVID-19 have increased dramatically in the last few weeks. Vaccinations are only just getting under way here, and officials reassure that they've taken lots of precautions. But there are still going to be mass gatherings. You know, choirs have been practicing together. So that is a worry.

KING: The pope says he's going to Iraq for Iraqis, for the people. What do the Iraqi people say about that?

FORDHAM: I would say that Iraqis are very positive on the whole. I've spoken to people from all faiths and areas, but, of course, for Christians themselves, it's really special. I went to church in Baghdad recently and chatted to some of the congregation. And...

TONY FOUZI: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: ...I spoke to Tony Fouzi (ph). He says the news is happiness and a blessing and that he's been waiting for this for a long time. So this trip has the feel of a long anticipated event.

KING: NPR's Alice Fordham in Irbil, Iraq. Thanks so much, Alice.

FORDHAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NITSUA'S "5:21") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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