(Bloomberg) -- When Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris to be his running mate, it sparked a frenzy on the other side of the globe to track down her connections to Chennai, the southern Indian city where her mother was born.On Twitter and Facebook, a flurry of users chronicled every minute link including her grandparents’ home in the Besant Nagar neighborhood, from where her mother Shyamala Gopalan set off as a teenager to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of California Berkeley. Undated photos surfaced of Kamala and younger sibling Maya in saris, smilingly posing with their grandparents during a visit. Many saw Harris a step away from the White House, and the de facto Democratic Party front-runner in four or eight years.Writer Cauvery Madhavan captured the hysteria in a tweet: “If you’re wondering what that loud windy up sound is - it’s all of Chennai cranking the SixDegreesOfSeparation machine!! Any moment now my mother is going to triumphantly reveal that her pharmacist’s father was @KamalaHarris’s grandma’s preferred tailor.” Another Twitter user, Priya Ravichandran, jested, “I was asked to Google and find which relative lives in besant nagar. People are this close to renting party bus and do drive by near their house and celebrate kamala.”Senator Harris is the first person of Indian descent and the first Black woman on a major ticket in a U.S. presidential election. Indian media outlets, analyzing the geopolitical impact of her rise, argued a Biden-Harris win would further shore up a U.S.-India relationship that had already improved markedly under Narendra Modi.The closer ties between Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump culminated in two giant stadium events in front of tens of thousands of supporters -- one in Houston last September that saw the two leaders walking hand-in-hand to a rock-star like reception, and the other in Modi’s home state of Gujarat in February. Still, the warming relations have not yet led to a long-anticipated U.S.-India trade deal, although New Delhi is now purchasing more weapons from the U.S., including a new defense agreement worth more than $3 billion signed during Trump’s visit to India earlier this year.Chasing AuntsLocal outlets and TV crews raced to hunt down an assortment of Harris’s aunts and even a great-uncle who detailed her visits to the sprawling metropolis and her strolls on its humid beaches discussing democracy and equality with her grandfather, a retired government official.A prominent local newspaper, The Hindu BusinessLine, carried the headline: “Kamala Devi Harris and the destiny-changing coconuts from Chennai.” The story described Harris’s aunt praying for her victory in the California Senate elections nine years ago by breaking 108 coconuts, a popular religious ritual, at the local temple. The paper quoted Harris phoning her aunt to say, “Chithi (aunt), please pray for me and break coconuts at the temple.”Twitter users highlighted her Indianness beginning with the name Kamala, which means lotus in several Indian languages. CNN’s local partner tweeted that “Kamala Harris loves idlis. And, sambhar” -- fluffy rice cakes and spicy lentil stew often eaten for breakfast in India.The fuss over Harris’s political elevation this week far outstripped the excitement over the rise of other Chennai-connected personalities such as actor Mindy Kaling and Alphabet Inc. Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai.While hundreds of Twitter users in India posted laudatory messages, some rued that Harris’s nomination would inflate the already lofty expectations of Indian parents for their kids. Indian lawmaker and prominent opposition Congress Party member Shashi Tharoor tweeted, “‘Beta (son) what are you doing these days? Oh, just a Harvard Professor? Not even Mayor yet?’”Harris, whose father is of Jamaican ancestry, has downplayed her family’s India ties although she has spoken of how the deep conversations with her grandfather during India visits helped shaped her political views. But social media users were quick to appropriate her as completely Indian. A video from last year in which she’s seen with Mindy Kaling cooking a masala dosa, a south Indian savory crepe filled with spicy potatoes, is circulating wildly on WhatsApp groups in India.(Updates with detail on U.S.-India ties in fifth paragraph)For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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On Monday morning, hundreds of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders filed through the doors at Grenada Middle School in north Mississippi. Looking out of her classroom, math teacher Suzanne Alexander saw kids huddled together, giddy at being with friends for the first time in months. As she walked the halls, students she hadn’t seen since they moved to remote learning in March surprised her with big, enthusiastic hugs. When the bell rang at the end of the day, those same students hung out around classroom doors, waiting on friends—perhaps too intimidated, in normal middle school fashion, to be seen walking out alone. It was, she said, a very typical first day of school. And that was the problem.“Right now is not normal by any stretch of the imagination,” Alexander told The Daily Beast. “And they don’t even think about it. But I’m thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, there are 50 kids huddled up around me.’” “We keep preaching, ‘Don’t gather in groups.’ Well, when you’ve got kids, they’re going to gather in groups. That’s just the nature of kids.”Morgues Are Overflowing in Mississippi and Coroners Are TerrifiedLast week, as Mississippi led the country in per capita deaths from the coronavirus, schools around the state began holding in-person classes in defiance of the state's own medical experts, who had pushed for a delayed start to the year. As has frequently been the case since he took office in January, the opinion of the one person able to mandate delaying the start date for schools statewide, Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, has largely tracked with that of President Trump, who issued an all-caps edict on Twitter last month that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” A slew of red states have begun moving forward with in-person classes. As of Thursday, Alabama, Indiana, Georgia and Oklahoma had started to reopen schools and, in some cases, quarantined students after reopening classes, with an Atlanta-area school’s packed hallways—and subsequent mass contagion—going, well, viral.But in Mississippi, the results have been remarkably dire. By the end of its first week, the Corinth School district had been forced to quarantine over 120 students and staff. Later that week, a longtime football coach at Lafayette High School died after quarantining with coronavirus symptoms. And on Monday, just as another group of school districts opened their doors, the state confirmed COVID cases in 22 schools. One day later, Gulfport High School sent 100 students to quarantine at home after a teacher there reported symptoms. On Wednesday, the Rankin County School District, which will begin holding in-person classes next week, announced its superintendent had tested positive for COVID-19.And these aren't even schools in the region of the state with the highest rates of coronavirus infections. The governor ordered those middle and high schools to delay reopening until Aug. 17. “What these numbers let me know is that we did it too soon. And it’s going to get worse,” said Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, the biggest teacher’s union in the state. “All it takes is one student to come in with the virus and ‘boom,’ the spread is there.” As states around the country weigh the merits of in-person learning, Mississippi is becoming a lesson in how quickly reopening schools could turn a first wave into a tsunami. For teachers, this is a terrifying prospect: Many of them are locked into contracts they signed back in February, before the virus was even a major threat in this state. And reneging on them isn't an option. In Mississippi, breaking a signed contract can cost teachers their license.“I feel like a guinea pig,” said Summer Nation, a ceramics instructor at Germantown High School in Gluckstadt. “The rest of the country is looking at us, saying, ‘Let’s see what happens with Mississippi.’ And I can see it already. It’s a tidal wave, and the floodgates are about to open.”Representatives for the Madison and Grenada School Districts did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Gov. Reeves has defended the decision to allow in-person classes even as schools continue to confirm new cases, noting that the risk of viral spread among children is low. And last week, as the Corinth School District, which was the first in the state to open its doors, swiftly moved to quarantine over 100 students, Reeves admitted in an interview on Fox News that “we recognize that we're taking risks. But in today's world, in 2020, there is no scenario whereby we can eliminate 100 percent of the risk.” To support this position, Trump and Reeves have argued that the risk of viral spread remains low among children. But earlier this this week, the American Academy of Pediatric and the Children’s Hospital Association released a study showing that cases of coronavirus in children had risen 90 percent in the last month. Mississippi had the fifth-highest number of childhood coronavirus cases per capita.“If you make a big decision like reopening schools, you have to get your ducks in a row,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “If the state doesn’t do a good job controlling community spread, I think one school after another will have outbreaks and kids, of course, will take the virus home to their families. And then the schools will become an accelerant of this virus.” The University of Mississippi Medical Center, the biggest hospital in Mississippi, announced last week that its ICU was beyond capacity. Schaffner said expecting to safely open schools in a place like Mississippi, which leads the country in nearly every indicator of viral spread, was akin to “magical thinking.” Last month, the Mississippi Association of Educators surveyed 2400 teachers statewide, finding that the vast majority, 86 percent, feared returning to in-person instruction. But their efforts to lobby the Department of Education—which oversees the state’s 138 school districts—and Gov. Reeves did little to move the needle. Reeves even defied the advice of his own state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, who had publicly urged delaying physical school reopening until at least September, noting in a July 31 Facebook Live discussion that “there’s nothing special about August.” In an email to The Daily Beast, the Mississippi Department of Education responded to criticism by saying that only the governor has the legal authority to delay school reopening statewide. And while they said “there is no authority given to the State Board of Education” to direct school reopening plans, the same email noted statewide changes that the board had made, from granting districts the flexibility to implement a combination of traditional, remote, and hybrid learning, to reducing the number of class hours required each day by nearly a third.Last week, with some districts already holding classes and new coronavirus infections up over 250 percent since the start of summer, Reeves ordered middle and high schools to delay all classes until Aug. 17—but only in eight of Mississippi’s 82 counties, where the spread of the virus was highest. He also issued Mississippi’s first statewide mask mandate. It expires next Tuesday, the day after schools in those eight counties are allowed to reopen.In response to criticism, Renae Eze, communications director for Gov. Reeves, said in an email that there were also health benefits to keeping schools open.“The risk of keeping schools closed becomes a decision between public health vs. public health, as Dr. [Robert] Redfield of the CDC said recently, with millions of children across our country not having access to mental health services, food and nutrition, abuse reporting, the effectiveness of in-person learning, and socialization—all of which they receive at school.”But she also noted Reeves and state health experts would continue to monitor the situation and planned to step in should “a school or district need additional guidance and resources. All options in our response efforts for this pandemic remain on the table.”Teachers said the lack of response from state leaders felt familiar. For years, Mississippi teacher salaries have been among the lowest in the nation. Last year, lawmakers boosted salaries by $1,500—to just below $34,000 for new hires, still one of the five lowest salaries in the country.“It not only speaks to undervaluing teachers but it also speaks to undervaluing public schools and public school students,” Alexander said. “This feels like an experiment,” she added. “And I know a lot of other teachers who’ve been saying that when it gets bad enough, they’ll send everyone home again to do remote learning.”Reeves’s office did not respond when asked if there would be a threshold at which the governor would order schools to resume remote-only instruction, as he had done in March. In his Facebook Live discussion, Dobbs said the decision to close right now would likely be based on individual schools or districts, with some schools moving to remote-only learning when positive tests reached five percent. Dr. Alan Jones, who leads the clinical response for COVID-19 at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, called testing “one prong that could be used for safe reopening.” But rather than ramping up testing, as students returned to schools last week, the number of tests statewide actually dropped 13 percent. Nation, who teaches ceramics in Gluckstadt, said she’s preparing to move to online-only instruction, ordering tools that she can send home with each student. She just doesn’t know when that will be.“But how bad does it have to get? Is it a certain number of cases? Is it one death? Well, we’ve already had one teacher who died.”Read more at The Daily Beast.Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast hereGet our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.
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