Most Americans to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by July, CDC chief expects

(Reuters) – A top U.S. health official told a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday that he expects COVID-19 vaccinations to take place over many months and that most Americans could be vaccinated by July of 2021 at the latest.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Robert Redfield said he expects there to be about 700 million doses of vaccines available by late March or April, enough for 350 million people.

“I think that’s going to take us April, May, June, you know, possibly July, to get the entire American public completely vaccinated,” Redfield told the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Redfield, U.S. Food and Drug Administration head Stephen Hahn, U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Anthony Fauci and Health and Human Services official Brett Giroir were testifying on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused more than 200,000 deaths in the United States.

There is no vaccine for COVID-19 yet, but there are several in late stage trials here, including from Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson. Companies have begun manufacturing the vaccine in anticipation of a fast regulatory authorization once they are shown to work.

Fauci said he expects 50 million doses to be available in November and 100 million by the end of December. He expects a total of 700 million doses by April.

Health officials and President Donald Trump have presented different views about when the vaccines will be ready for most Americans. The process for deciding how to distribute vaccines falls largely to the CDC.

Redfield said Operation Warp Speed, the government group with officials from the departments of Health and Human Services and Defense, will ultimately decide how to allocate the vaccines.

PLAYING DEFENSE

Senator Patty Murray, the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, pointed to some reported examples of Trump administration pressure on the health agencies, including FDA authorizations of hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma as treatments for COVID-19 and changes in the CDC’s guidance on testing for asymptomatic individuals.

“Any of these examples of political pressure would be alarming on their own. But together they paint a clear pattern of interference that is downright terrifying,” she said.

Redfield and Hahn defended their agencies against criticism of their handling of the pandemic, telling the committee they were using science as their guide, not politics.

“FDA will not authorize, or approve, a vaccine that we would not feel comfortable giving to our families,” Hahn said.

Redfield said the agency’s change to guidance for testing for asymptomatic individuals with close contact to a COVID-19 positive person was poorly written. It has since been updated to make it clear that such individuals should get a test, he said.

The CDC will release new guidance on the role of aerosolized coronavirus in its spread, Redfield said. The agency took down a Sept. 18 update to its transmission guidance that mentioned airborne virus for the first time, as it lacked the needed technical review.

Redfield also said that based on an antibody testing study, about 90 percent of Americans are still vulnerable to the virus.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Manas Mishra in Bengalaru; Writing by Caroline Humer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bernadette Baum and Howard Goller)

Senate to vote on COVID-19 aid as soon as this week: McConnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-led U.S. Senate will introduce a new proposal on coronavirus relief legislation on Tuesday and could schedule a vote as soon as this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

He said the new proposal would target “some of the very most urgent healthcare, education, and economic issues.”

“It does not contain every idea our party likes. I am confident Democrats will feel the same. Yet Republicans believe the many serious differences between our two parties should not stand in the way of agreeing where we can agree and making law that helps our nation,” McConnell’s statement said.

Earlier, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said he was hopeful there would be another round of federal COVID-19 stimulus funding before the Nov. 3 presidential election, but signaled no breakthrough in talks with congressional Democrats.

Interviewed on Fox Business Network, Meadows said he hoped legislation put forward by Senate Republicans would provide a basis for a future agreement with Democratic lawmakers and that negotiations were ongoing.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Howard Goller)

U.S. families could use federal funds elsewhere if pandemic closes schools, DeVos says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration will not cut federal education spending but could allow families to use funds elsewhere if their school does not open amid the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. education secretary said on Thursday, a day after Trump threatened to cut funding.

“If schools aren’t going to reopen, we’re not suggesting pulling funding from education but instead allowing families … (to) take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open,” Betsy DeVos told Fox News in an interview.

It was unclear how the administration planned to redirect funding, which is directed by U.S. lawmakers. Any change in appropriations would face resistance in Congress, now split between Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, and President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans, who control the Senate.

U.S. schools are scrambling to prepare for the upcoming academic year as the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to surge across the country, topping 3 million confirmed cases. Trump has called on schools to reopen but there is no federal plan to coordinate the effort.

Most public schools are run and funded by local governments, with supplemental funding from the federal government.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

Special Report: U.S. school closures dramatically shrinking public education, Reuters finds

By M.B. Pell, Kristina Cooke and Benjamin Lesser

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Jennifer Panditaratne’s third-grade daughter had been seeing a reading specialist once a week before her Florida school closed abruptly in March due to the novel coronavirus.

Since then, her child has had no contact with the specialist. Panditaratne is left to download her daughter’s special education material and sit with her as she does her school work—in between her own calls as a maritime lawyer in South Florida.

“Is it the same material? Sure,” she said. “But is it being administered by a professional who knows what they are doing? No.”

More than two months after schools across the United States began closing in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the shutdown is taking a profound toll on the nation’s system of education, Reuters found by surveying nearly 60 school districts serving some 2.8 million students.

Almost overnight, public education in the United States has shrunk to a shell of its former self, the review found, with teacher instruction, grading, attendance, special education and meal services for hungry children slashed back or gutted altogether.

The survey encompassed school districts from large urban communities, such as Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Houston Independent School District, to the smallest rural settings, including San Jon Municipal Schools in eastern New Mexico and Park County School District 6 in Cody, Wyoming. The survey reflects what is happening only in those districts that responded.

Reuters found:

– A large majority of responding districts, 47 of 57, reported they are providing elementary and middle school students with half or less the usual face time with teachers. Eight of those districts said students receive little to no direct instruction. In Philadelphia, tens of thousands of elementary and middle school pupils receive little to no live instruction—and high schoolers receive none at all.

– Fewer than half of districts even take attendance and many of those that do say fewer kids are showing up for class. Riverbank Unified School District in Stanislaus County, California, no longer takes attendance. But educators there learned through Google Classroom and phone calls that only about half of their 3,000 students are participating in virtual school and completing assignments.

– Public schools play a crucial role in feeding America’s poor children—but the lockdown is gutting that role. About three-quarters of districts reported they served a cumulative 4.5 million fewer meals a week. In Washoe County, Nevada, the school district provided 251,000 meals a week before the shutdown. Since then: Just over 39,000 a week.

– About a third of districts aren’t providing federally required services to their special needs students, such as physical and occupational therapy like they did before schools were closed. “One of the many things keeping me up at night is, how are we providing education to those who most need it?” asked Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of the North Shore School District 112 outside Chicago.

In the School District of Philadelphia, superintendent William Hite already sees young children falling behind, including those missing critical face-to-face teacher time through the district’s early literacy program. For older students, he worries that the loss of the school structure’s safety net could lead to delinquency and crime.

“This is in no way a sufficient replacement of teacher instruction of students in classrooms,” Hite said. “I think the impact has already been felt here.”

Several education researchers who reviewed the survey results said that, if anything, the responses likely represent a rosy picture of what is actually happening in the nation’s schools.

Betheny Gross, associate director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, believes the results reflected more “optimism” than may be warranted. “This is reflective of what superintendents think is happening,” Gross said, while the reality may actually be worse.

Gross cited the high percentage, 84%, of districts reporting that at least some students are still receiving at least some live instruction. She said her own review of material posted online detailing what administrators across the country expected instruction to look like during the closure revealed that only a “small share” of districts were setting a standard that included live instruction.

While few children have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and serious complications for them have been rare, public officials shut down schools to prevent the disease from spreading. Nineteen children under the age of 14 died from COVID-19 from February 1 through May 23, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a figure hovering just above 0% of all U.S. virus deaths.

Data on how school closures affect the disease’s spread in the community is limited because the pandemic is still under way. But researchers at University College London found evidence from past epidemics, previous research and modeling of coronavirus transmission in other countries that closing schools has only a slight impact on preventing contagion.

To be sure, public schools, like businesses and governments, were forced into a sudden new world with the pandemic’s spread.

Teachers, parents, researchers and district administrators told Reuters that while distance learning can improve, for the vast majority of students it will fall far short of in-person instruction. If students are not in front of teachers next school year, the public should expect only a fraction of the live instruction, special needs services going unfulfilled and far fewer meals served.

“I just don’t know how we call off school next year,” said Gregory Cizek, who studies education at the University of North Carolina.

For students, parents and educators, the Reuters survey shows, the loss of live instruction has been significant.

LIMITED HOME RESOURCES

Eliza McCord, 16, wasn’t able to participate in her math class for the first six weeks after her Fort Wayne, Indiana, high school went virtual, because her sister had a college class at the same time. Inside their home, there weren’t enough devices to go around.

Even now, her family writes a class schedule on a white board. Also in the rotation for devices and WiFi: Her mother, an elementary school special education teacher; her father, a librarian; and her younger brother, in sixth grade.

Many of Eliza’s classmates have told her they don’t have regular access to a computer to download files, or reliable access to the Internet to join Zoom calls. That said, Eliza thinks some students are not participating because their grades for the final quarter of the year don’t count.

“There are students who just have essentially given up on the rest of the school year,” she said.

Charles Cammack, chief operations officer for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the majority of students remained engaged after schools were closed. Still, he acknowledged that after the system announced grades would not count for the fourth marking period, some students checked out.

“It would be naïve to say we didn’t know there was a risk some kids would take that position, but given the circumstances I don’t know how we could avoid that happening,” he said.

Special education services such as occupational and physical therapy are challenging to provide remotely, and some services can only be provided face-to-face, survey respondents said.

Schools also rely heavily on parental support. “For any therapy, the parents will need to follow the instructions of the teacher to complete the exercises with the students,” said Dr. Jason Lind, superintendent at Millburn School District 24 in Illinois. “This works well if parents have time to spend helping their children. If parents are also working full-time, this does not work.”

When Fort Wayne’s public school district shut down, Eliza’s mother, special-ed teacher Dawn Cortner-McCord, called the parents of her students. She gave them her personal cell number, and talks with about a third of her students daily, dropping off books and other learning materials at their homes.

But talking on the cell phone is no match for in-class teaching, Dawn said. She cited the example of twin third-grade girls who do math at a first-grade level and had been making progress with hands-on learning. Now she worries they, and other students, are falling back.

“We are just trying to maintain the skills that they have,” she said. “A lot of my students still need that sensory input.”

In Broward County Public Schools in Florida, where Jennifer Panditaratne’s daughter has not seen a reading specialist since schools closed, the district found not all teacher engagement is equal. Panditaratne said her third-grade daughter has a daily 15 minute group Zoom call with her class teacher, going over assignments for the day. Her daughter in fifth grade is getting more live video instruction, but it varies by teacher.

In March, the teacher’s union and district agreed teachers would provide at least three hours a day of deep engagement with students. Many teachers conducted live video instruction, while others used email, phone calls or discussion boards, said Daniel Gohl, the district’s chief academic officer. That left a sense of inequity. So starting this summer, all teachers will provide at least three hours of live-video instruction daily.

“We now know students and teachers need to see and talk to each other,” Gohl said. “We acknowledge we did not get everything right and we are committed to improving.”

MISSING MEALS

By law, U.S. public school districts are required to provide free or reduced-cost meals to children in need. With schools shut, getting those vital meals to the qualifying students has been hindered, in several instances, by significant hurdles.

Despite school districts’ efforts, Reuters found children are missing school meals they should have received. Thirty-four districts, or about three-quarters of those that responded, said they were providing fewer meals a week than before the closure, the Reuters survey found.

Miami-Dade County Public schools provided 1.33 million free breakfasts, lunches and after-school meals a week to its students prior to the March 16 closure. As of May 1, the district said it was serving less than one-third of that number, about 420,000 meals a week.

One reason, according to four parents in the county, was that the district made meals available, but limited pickup to twice a week, leading to long lines. Another roadblock: Lack of transportation to reach the pickup locations. Three of the parents said they were forced to find other sources of food, such as a food bank or a state-funded lunch program.

Victoria Lynn Dennis, a 29-year-old customer service agent in Miami, said she hasn’t been able to access school meals for her 5-year-old pre-kindergartner and 6-year-old kindergartner because she doesn’t have a car. A week after the schools closed, someone from a nonprofit program that partners with the district came to her door with macaroni and cheese. There have been no visits since.

“Telling my kids they can’t eat as much, because we have to save it, it kills me,” she said.

Penny Parham, the food and nutrition officer for Miami-Dade schools, said her heart goes out to the students they aren’t serving. But while they are serving many students, the system can feed more young people in school cafeterias than in the district’s 50 remote distribution sites. As unemployment rises in Florida, she’s seen the lines at these sites grow longer.

“How long can it keep up and are you missing the most critical person?” she asked.

BUDGET DEFICITS, QUESTIONS LOOM

As they look ahead, nearly 70% of districts told Reuters they face a budget deficit. The total shortfall of these districts alone exceeds $450 million.

Philadelphia already faces a $38 million deficit, even after receiving federal assistance. With local revenue plummeting, that number could expand in the weeks to come.

Many school districts are now confronting a question most on the minds of parents: Will they reopen schools in the fall, or continue the distance learning?

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA The School Superintendents Association, a group representing school district chiefs, meets every week with a task force on reopening consisting of 30 superintendents from across the country.

Three options are being considered for the fall, he said: fully reopening schools as they were prior to the pandemic; a hybrid model in which some students attend school in-person and some continue with remote learning; and continuing with complete remote learning.

The hybrid option, Domenech said, appears to have the most support. But staying entirely remote, he added, is “beginning to get some traction because the cost of opening schools and following the guidance the CDC has offered is going to be cost prohibitive.” The added costs include more buses to maintain social distancing, protective equipment for students and staff and the daily cleaning of each school.

As districts weigh that question, some parents and teachers worry what comes next.

Portia Hudson, a math teacher at Edwin Fitler Academics Plus School in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, recalls teaching virtually this spring and watching one student, already battling anxiety problems, fall five weeks behind. During another session, a second student played on a swing during class time.

“If we have virtual learning in September, that’s when I’m really going to be concerned, because virtual learning will look like it does now,” Hudson said. “Kids not logging on. Kids on swings.”

(Reporting by M.B. Pell and Benjamin Lesser in New York, and Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

North Korea’s Kim to unveil ‘new path’ in New Year speech after U.S. misses deadline

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set to make a closely watched New Year address on Wednesday which is likely to offer a glimpse of a “new path” he has vowed to take if the United States fails to meet his deadline to soften its stance over denuclearization.

The New Year address is expected to touch upon a wide range of issues from foreign affairs and military development to the economy and education.

In his 2019 speech, Kim said he might have to change course if Washington sticks to its pressure campaign and demands unilateral action, while stressing a “self-reliant” economy, a drive he has launched amid tightening sanctions.

The United States was on track to ignore a year-end deadline set by Kim, which Washington has downplayed as artificial, to show more flexibility to reopen talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

The upcoming speech is expected to be the culmination of an ongoing meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s 7th Central Committee, a key policy-making body, which Kim convened on Saturday. It was still under way on Tuesday, state media said.

Discussions at the gathering remain largely unknown, but official media KCNA said on Tuesday that Kim spent seven hours during a Monday session discussing state, economic and military building. On Sunday, he called for “positive and offensive measures” to ensure the country’s security.

“The Central Committee plenary meeting is meant to legitimize the process behind the policy decisions Kim Jong-un will announce in his New Year speech,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“This meeting is to provide political justification for the economic and security policies Pyongyang will pursue in 2020.”

North Korea has provided few hints for what the “new path” may involve, but U.S. military commanders said Pyongyang next move could include the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it has halted since 2017, alongside nuclear bomb tests.

U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien warned Washington would be “extraordinarily disappointed” if North Korea tests a long-range or nuclear missile, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped it would choose peace over confrontation.

“We still maintain our view that we can find a path forward to convince the leadership in North Korea that their best course of action is to create a better opportunity for their people by getting rid of their nuclear weapons. That’s our mission set,” Pompeo told Fox News on Monday.

The U.S. Air Force flew an RC-135 surveillance plane over South Korea on Monday and Tuesday, according to military flight tracker Aircraft Spots.

Despite mounting speculation over a potential military provocation, any restart of an ICBM test would risk a personal relationship with Trump, which Pyongyang has repeatedly touted while denouncing Pompeo and other aides, analysts say.

Cho Tae-yong, a former South Korean deputy national security advisor, said Kim had few options that can leave the Trump ties intact.

“In any case, North Korea would add a lot of caveats before and after testing to make sure they’re not intent on destroying the negotiating table and it was the Americans who betrayed them,” Cho told Reuters.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Michael Perry)

Danes make welfare a hot election issue as cracks show in Nordic model

92-year old Aase Blytsoe, who has dementia, sits in her apartment in Aarup, Denmark, May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

By Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – The Nordic welfare model, long the envy of many across the world seeking an egalitarian utopia, is creaking.

Aging populations have led to politicians across the region chipping away at the generous cradle-to-grave welfare state for years. In Denmark, next week’s election could prove a turning point as frustrated voters say: No more.

Danes, like citizens of other Nordic nations, have largely been happy to shell out some of the highest taxes in the world, seeing them as a price worth paying for universal healthcare, education and elderly services.

However, spending cuts by successive governments to reduce the public deficit have led to more people paying out of their own pockets for what used to be free.

“We pay very high taxes in Denmark, and that’s alright. But in return, I think we can demand a certain service,” said pensioner Sonja Blytsoe.

Her 92-year old mother, who has dementia, was told by her local council in the central Danish town of Assens that the cleaning of her small apartment at a nursing home would be almost halved to 10 times a year.

Her mother, who lives off her state pension of 9,000 Danish crowns ($1,350) per month, could not afford to pay the roughly 1,000 crowns a month for a private cleaning firm, Blytsoe said.

In an illustration of the simmering public anger at such cuts, the council’s move sparked an outcry on social media that prompted the prime minister to comment on the case in parliament and the decision to be reversed.

The erosion of the welfare state has now become a defining issue in the June 5 general election in a country where people hand over an average 36% of their personal income to the state each month.

Opinion polls indicate Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen of the Liberal Party will lose power to Mette Frederiksen of the center-left Social Democratic Party.

Frederiksen’s Social Democrats have won popular support by pledging to increase public spending, making businesses and the wealthy pay more toward welfare services through higher taxes, and to partially roll back some recent pension reforms by allowing people who have worked 40 years to retire earlier.

However Rasmussen has accused his rival of being in “the business of selling dreams”.

“Either you’ll leave voters massively disappointed, or leave an enormous hole in the treasury,” he told Frederiksen about her pension plans during a TV debate earlier this year.

DANES GO PRIVATE

The Nordic model has been held up as the gold standard for welfare by many left-leaning politicians and activists globally.

It featured in the last U.S. presidential election campaign, for example, when Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders pointed to Denmark as a model for his vision of an ideal American future.

However the tough choices confronting Denmark are reflected across Nordic nations faced with a generation of baby-boomers creeping into retirement. Voters feeling a rising sense of insecurity are increasingly pressuring politicians to safeguard their cherished welfare model.

In Finland, the Social Democrats came out on top in an April election, for the first time in 20 years, after campaigning on tax hikes to meet the rising costs of welfare.

In Sweden, one of Europe’s richest countries, support for the nationalist Sweden Democrats surged in last year’s election on the back of fears over immigration and welfare.

Nordic countries still top other high-spending OECD countries like the United States, Germany and Japan for public spending per capita on social benefits targeted at the poor, the elder, disabled, sick or unemployed.

Denmark itself spends a higher proportion of its wealth on public welfare than most European countries, at 28% of GDP, behind only France, Belgium and Finland.

But many Danes are distressed at the way things are going following two decades of economic reforms.

Cuts to healthcare services, which include everything from free doctor appointments to cancer treatment, have led to the closure of a quarter of state hospitals in the past decade alone.

A recent survey showed that more than half of Danes don’t trust the public health service to offer the right treatment. As a consequence the proportion of the 5.7 million Danish population taking out private health insurance has jumped to 33% from 4% in 2003, according to trade organization Insurance & Pension Denmark.

Other cuts over the past 10 years have led to the closure of a fifth of state schools, while spending per person above 65 years on services such as care homes, cleaning and rehabilitation after illness has dropped by a quarter.

Since the early 2000s, governments have also pushed through unpopular measures to encourage people to work longer.

They include gradually increasing the retirement age to 73 – the highest in the world – in decades to come from 65 currently, phasing out early retirement benefits and cutting unemployment benefits to two years from four.

Click here for interactive graphics illustrating the pressures on the welfare model: https://tmsnrt.rs/2LYT6ME

SPENDING CONTEST

While the policies have generated economic growth averaging 1.6% since 2010 – above the EU average – and sound public finances, the election could mark a change of direction.

Frederiksen says she will increase public spending by 0.8% per year over the next five years – the equivalent of 37 billion Danish crowns in 2025 – to buttress welfare.

“The reason you can’t agree to spend the money needed to keep the current (welfare) level is that you want to set aside money for tax cuts,” she told Rasmussen during the TV debate.

Frederiksen is however bound by a 2012 law not to allow a public deficit of more than 0.5% of GDP, much stricter than EU rules setting the ceiling at 3%.

Her message about increased spending is nonetheless going down well with the public, along with a tougher stance on immigration which has also helped her win voters from the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party.

Rasmussen has argued that an acceptable level of welfare can be achieved in part by technological advances and letting more private players into areas like health and elderly care.

But this month, in a change of tack to address voters’ concerns, he announced a new plan to raise public spending by 0.65% a year – almost the same rate as the Social Democrats.

‘NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE’

With government debt at 49% of GDP, way below the OECD average of 111%, and a budget close to being balanced, there is room to raise welfare spending, according to economists.

However Jan Stoerup Nielsen at Nordea said certain election promises, such as those by both candidates to come up with 1,000-2,000 new nurses, were unrealistic at a time of record high employment of 2.77 million, or 97% of those able to work.

“The problem is that there’s not enough people,” he added. “There is not much politicians can do at the moment. You can say you want a thousand new nurses in the hospitals, but they are nowhere to be found,” he added.

He warned more public spending risked overheating the economy and hurting growth down the line if more people shifted from the private to public sector.

Pensioner Blytsoe said that when her mother’s services were curbed, she did her best to tidy up the apartment when she visited, but refused to do the regular cleaning previously offered by the state.

“If I did that, the municipality would’ve achieved their goal to cut costs and make us fill the gap.”

(Reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; Editing by Pravin Char)

Young Turk voters show deep divisions of Erdogan era

Demhat Tari poses for a picture during an interview with Reuters in Diyarbakir, June 4, 2018.REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Umit Bektas

ANKARA (Reuters) – Eighteen-year-old student Sena Su Baysal, a first-time voter in Turkey’s election on Sunday, can’t remember life before President Tayyip Erdogan took power but she wishes she had grown up in those earlier times.

“Turkey used to be a more modern and secular country,” she says at home in the capital Ankara, where she lives with her parents. “I would have liked to have lived then.”

Mehmet Salih Takil, another student born in 2000, disagrees. He says Erdogan is his idol, and he criticizes the “old Turkey”.

“I was two years old when Erdogan came to power. My family tells me of the pre-2000 years, life was difficult then. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in those years,” he said at an election rally for Erdogan in Ankara.

Like the rest of the country, Turkish teenagers taking part for the first time in elections on Sunday have sharply differing takes on Erdogan – the most successful and polarizing leader in recent Turkish politics.

His AK Party won elections in 2002 and he took power early the next year, ruling the country since then, first as prime minister and then as president.

Polls suggest Sunday’s vote may be close, with the AK Party possibly losing its parliamentary majority and the presidential vote potentially going to a second round.

Erdogan’s supporters, many of them pious conservatives from Turkey’s rural heartlands, say he has brought economic growth and restored Islam to public life. Opponents say he has eroded the secular pillars of the republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and is plunging Turkey into authoritarianism.

EDUCATION SYSTEM

But the young Turks Reuters spoke to, all born in the first six months of the millennium, share an overriding concern for education and employment prospects.

Arman Tihminlioglu has chosen to attend university in Germany instead of Turkey, saying that repeated changes to Turkey’s education system had worried students. A new curriculum adopted last year excluded Darwin’s theory of evolution, university entrance exams were changed, and money has poured into “Imam Hatip” religious schools.

“The education system has changed seven times during my high school years. Morale is low for all young people, but it is the people who are responsible for all this. After all, we are ruled by those we elect,” Tihminlioglu said.

Welat Aydin, a Kurdish citizen in a remote village in the southeastern province of Mardin, is concerned about the status of the Kurdish language, and a lack of resources in schools.

“We did not receive education in our mother tongue. Education is of poor quality anyway. When there is no chemistry teacher, the literature teacher takes chemistry classes. That is why I did not apply for university entrance exams. I didn’t believe I would stand a chance,” he said.

A young farmer in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir, Demhat Tari left education after secondary school, and instead traveled to Istanbul to find work.

“I was earning 1,500 Turkish lira ($320) a month which went to pay rent, water and electricity bills and no money was left. When I realized that there was no way I could save money, I returned to my village,” he said.

“There are no jobs, the dollar is on the rise, gold is expensive. As things are, I will never be able to get married.”

FOREIGN POLICY

Cag Buyurgan, who is studying for university exams and wants to be a dentist, says Erdogan’s policies have been divisive.

“If he does not win these elections, we can once again restore the unity we have lost and together solve our problems one by one,” Buyurgan said in Ankara.

Twin sisters Sinem and Simge Tuncbilek think otherwise. They say that despite Turkey’s problems, things can get back on track, and both believe Erdogan will win on Sunday.

“We stand up for one another. Sure, we have problems but these are nothing that cannot be resolved,” Sinem said.

“The name of Erdogan for us is the name of love. He is a very good father, he has stood up for the whole Islamic world. We believe in his ideal of great Turkey.”

Zeynep Arslan, a volunteer for the opposition Islamist Saadet (Felicity) Party, has been wearing a Muslim headscarf since she was 12 – a right which Erdogan’s government championed – but she faults him for his foreign policy.

“Because I’m wearing the scarf, this doesn’t mean that I must ignore the country’s problems. This government allows me to cover my head, but it doesn’t sever relations with Israel,” she said.

In the secular Istanbul district of Kadikoy, Derin Kaleli says she is losing the freedom to choose how to dress.

“I cannot wear the clothes I like. People in Europe live as they wish. Here I am not as free as I would like to be. We are becoming more and more conservative. We are worried for the future,” she said.

Takil said the new executive presidency which will be instituted following the elections would restore some of the power Turkey enjoyed as the center of the Ottoman Empire.

“This is what the West fears. All plots of the Zionists, the freemasons, and the children of evil against Turkey will be foiled,” he said.

Arslan, however, says Erdogan’s supporters are too quick to condemn all opposition as traitors, making life almost unbearable. “There is immense pressure on us. We are living in a society which is similar to George Orwell’s 1984,” she said.

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Alison Williams)

Venezuelan schools emptying as Chavez legacy under threat

Juliani Caceres, grand daughter of Carmen Penaloza, have rice and platain for lunch at her home in San Cristobal, Venezuela April 5, 2018. Picture taken April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

By Vivian Sequera and Francisco Aguilar

SOCOPO, Venezuela (Reuters) – It is mid-morning on a weekday yet all that can be heard in the once-bustling corridors of the Orlando Garcia state primary school is the swish of palm trees outside in the wind.

The white, tin-roof building in the town of Socopo once held nearly 400 children, yet closed two months ago in a protest by teachers and parents at low salaries and lack of school lunches.

Nearly 3 million children are missing some or all classes in Venezuela, according to a study by universities, in a depressing knock-on from a deepening economic crisis that could cause long-lasting damage to the South American country.

Venezuela has about 8 million school children in total, and free education was a cornerstone of ex-President Hugo Chavez’s 1999-2013 socialist rule of the OPEC nation.

Now, along with hospitals and other flagship welfare projects, the education sector is in crisis, heaping pain on Venezuelans and eroding Chavez’s legacy as his successor Nicolas Maduro seeks re-election in a May 20 presidential vote.

In Socopo, in the agricultural savannah state of Barinas that was once home to Chavez, half of the 20 public schools, including Orlando Garcia, closed completely in February, mid-term.

They have since reopened, but, along with the rest of Barinas’ approximately 1,600 public schools, they are operating just three days a week.

Venezuela’s economic implosion has led to millions suffering food shortages, unable to buy basic goods. Prices double every two or three months and the currency is worth less every day.

Education experts fear a stunted generation.

“Hungry people aren’t able to teach or learn,” said Victor Venegas, president of the Barinas chapter of the national Federation of Education Workers.

“We’re going to end up with a nation of illiterates.”

A major bonus for school children was once free food but state food programs are now intermittent, and when lunches do come, they are often small and missing protein.

The problems are felt across the country, with children often falling unwell or dizzy due to poor nutrition.

“We were singing the national anthem and I felt nauseous. I’d only eaten an arepa (a local cornbread) that day, and I fainted,” recounted Juliani Caceres, an 11-year-old student in Tachira state on the border with Colombia.

“BACK TO THE 19TH CENTURY”

While critics lambast him for incompetence and corruption, Maduro blames Venezuela’s crisis on Washington and the opposition, accusing them of waging an “economic war.”

Officials constantly downplay the social problems.

“There may be weaknesses in the food program in some municipalities, but we are always attentive and looking to improve the situation,” Education Minister Elias Jaua said in an interview in Barinas.

The government insists education remains a priority and says that 75 percent of the national budget goes to the social sector.

“Amid the economic war, the fall of oil prices, international harassment and financial persecution, not a single school has closed,” Maduro said at a Caracas rally last month, referring to U.S. sanctions against Venezuela.

His Barinas governor, Argenis Chavez, however, acknowledged the closures in Socopo, blaming them on the opposition as part of a plan to sabotage the upcoming election.

Despite Venezuela’s plethora of problems and Maduro’s personal unpopularity, he is widely expected to win re-election, given that the opposition’s most popular leaders are banned from standing and the main anti-Maduro coalition is boycotting the vote on grounds it is rigged in advance.

One opposition leader, former state governor Henri Falcon, has broken with the boycott and is hoping Venezuelans’ fury at their economic woes will translate into votes for him.

According to the opposition, prices rose more than 8,000 percent in the 12 months to March.

Teachers in the public sector earn around four times the minimum wage of just over a dollar a month at the black market exchange rate. That is nowhere near what Venezuelans need to feed themselves and their families.

“With my last paycheck, I was able to buy a kilo of meat and a kilo of sugar,” said Roxi Gallardo, a 35-year-old teacher in the Andean city of San Cristobal who, like so many others, is looking to leave Venezuela.

In addition to food shortages, school communities are suffering from a collapse in transport systems and inability to pay bus fares, plus frequent water and power-cuts.

“We’re heading back to the 19th century,” said Luis Bravo, an education researcher at Caracas’ Central University.

Doctor Marianella Herrera, at the same university, said the combination of inadequate nutrition and patchy education would cost Venezuela dearly in the future, depriving it of skilled workers.

“The longer this goes on without reversing the situation, the tougher it will be,” she said.

Eudys Olivier, a 39-year-old homemaker in a poor area of San Felix in southern Bolivar state, and her two children, live off her husband’s bakery wage of just under $5 per month.

“If there isn’t enough food, I prefer to leave the children at home,” she said. “I want them to go to school every day because it’s their future. But I can’t send them hungry.”

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Francisco Aguilar, Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Bolívar and Anggy Polanco in Tachira; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

Oklahoma House approves education tax bill amid teacher walkout

A teacher stands next to a music stand holding a sign during a school walkout in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S. April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) – The Oklahoma House of Representatives approved a $20 million internet sales tax on Wednesday as part of a revenue package aimed at ending a statewide walkout by teachers seeking higher pay and more education funding.

The walkout, now in its third day, is the latest upheaval by teachers in a Republican-dominated state after a successful West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise. More than 100 school districts in Oklahoma will remain shuttered on Thursday.

Lawmakers approved the tax measure as hundreds of teachers, parents and students packed the Capitol in Oklahoma City to press for a $200 million package to raise education spending in Oklahoma, which ranks near the bottom for U.S. states.

“This is a win for students and educators and signals major progress toward funding the schools our students deserve,” Alicia Priest, head of the Oklahoma Education Association, the teachers union, said in a statement after 92 lawmakers approved the sales tax measure.

Across the state, protests were held near schools and along streets, with demonstrators holding signs bearing slogans such as “35 is a speed limit, not a class size.”

The tax bill requires third-party vendors on internet sites such as Amazon to remit state sales taxes on purchases made by residents.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where lawmakers on Thursday will weigh a measure expanding gaming at Native American casinos as part of the $200 million package. Lawmakers are also weighing such options as repealing exemptions for capital gains taxes.

The teachers’ protests reflect rising discontent after years of sluggish or declining public school spending in Oklahoma, which ranked 47th among the 50 states in per-student expenditure in 2016, according to the National Education Association.

Kentucky teachers also have demonstrated against stagnant or reduced budgets by a Republican-controlled legislature. Arizona educators have threatened similar job actions.

“My books were old when I was in high school more than 15 years ago and chances are a lot of them are still being used today,” Oklahoma City resident Ashley Morris said by telephone from a statehouse rally.

“Students just aren’t getting what they need or deserve and that puts teachers in a tough situation,” said Morris, whose roommate is a first-grade teacher who relies on a second job to make ends meet.

(Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Ben Klayman and Leslie Adler)

Saudi Arabia says revamping education to combat ‘extremist ideologies’

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reacts upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 24, 2015. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is revamping its education curriculum to eradicate any trace of Muslim Brotherhood influence and will dismiss anyone working in the sector who sympathizes with the banned group, the education minister said.

Promoting a more moderate form of Islam is one of the promises made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under plans to modernize the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.

The education ministry is working to “combat extremist ideologies by reviewing school curricula and books to ensure they do not reflect the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda,” Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Isa said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

It would “ban such books from schools and universities and remove those who sympathize with the group or its ideology from their posts,” he added.

In September, a large Saudi public university announced it would dismiss employees suspected of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, adding to concerns that the government is clamping down on its critics in academia and beyond.

Earlier this month, Crown Prince Mohammed told CBS in an interview that Saudi schools have been “invaded” by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated by Saudi Arabia as a terrorist organization along with other militant groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State.

INTERNAL THREAT

The young crown prince has already taken some steps to loosen Saudi Arabia’s ultra-strict social restrictions, scaling back the role of religious morality police, permitting public concerts and announcing plans to allow women to drive.

The ruling Al Saud family has always regarded Islamist groups as a major internal threat to its rule over a country where appeals to religious sentiment resonate deeply and an al Qaeda campaign a decade ago killed hundreds.

Since the kingdom’s founding, the Al Saud have enjoyed a close alliance with clerics of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam who have espoused a political philosophy that demands obedience to the ruler.

By contrast the Brotherhood advances an active political doctrine urging revolutionary action.

A political Islamist organization founded in Egypt nearly a century ago, the Muslim Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful activism and reform through elections, and its adherents span the region, holding elected office in Arab countries from Tunisia to Jordan.

Brotherhood members fleeing repression in Egypt, Syria and Iraq half a century ago took shelter in Saudi Arabia, some taking up roles in the kingdom’s education system and helping to establish the Sahwa or “Awakening” movement which agitated in the 1990s for democracy.

The Sahwa mostly fizzled, with some activists arrested and others coaxed into conformity, though admirers and its appeal lingered.

(Adds dropped first name of education minister in paragraph 3.)

(Reporting by Marwa Rashad; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Andrew Heavens)