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Electric Space Heater In Bedroom Started Deadly Bronx Fire; Novak Djokovic Faces Deportation In Australian Hearing; L.A. Unified School Districts Stopped 50,000 People With COVID From Entering School On Tuesday; Nineteen Dead, Including Nine Children, In New York City's Worst Fire In 30-Plus Years; Atlanta Schools Return Tomorrow After Week Of Virtual Class; 3,000 Russian Troops Deployed To Kazakhstan. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired January 09, 2022 - 19:00   ET




PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN HOST (voice-over): A massive fire inside a 19- story apartment building in the Bronx. Several are dead, dozens are hurt.

DAISY MITCHELL, BUILDING RESIDENT: I panicked. I was scared. I was really scared. I was scared. I mean, that's what really hit me.

MATTINGLY: Right now, an Australia court considers whether or not to let unvaccinated tennis champion Novak Djokovic into the country to defend his Australian Open title. Could he be deported?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Ministry for Health was absolutely, black and white clear, to Mr. Djokovic about what his responsibilities and the expectations were.

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, Omicron is surging rapidly across the country, hospitals struggling to keep up.

DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: We have a large proportion of the population that is not vaccinated. That sets up a large pool of people who as they get infected will end up really straining the resources we have in the hospitals today.


MATTINGLY: I'm Phil Mattingly in Washington in for Pamela Brown tonight. You are in the CNN NEWSROOM.

And we begin this hour with breaking news out of New York City where at least 19 people have been killed in what's being called the city's worst fire in three decades. Among the dead, nine children. It started late this morning in a Bronx apartment building, and quickly spread throughout two apartments. Firefighters were on the scene within minutes, three minutes, battling heavy smoke to make dozens of significant rescues. They pulled several small children from the building as you can see in

this dramatic photo. Right now, more than a dozen people are in the hospital in, quote, "life-threatening conditions." One woman who lived several floors above the fire described what she experienced.


MITCHELL: I panicked. I was scared. I was really scared. I was scared. I mean that's what really hit me. By the time I got to the exit and I had the mask on, I couldn't even see, I thought I went blind. I couldn't even see, so I was banging on my door to get back in.


MATTINGLY: The governor of New York saying New York City is a city in shock right now.

I'm joined by Polo Sandoval who's in the Bronx. And Polo, the fire commissioner says a space heater is to blame for at least the initial fire. What more are you learning right now about the details?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And Phil, the fire commissioner adding that they have physical evidence now that shows that it was that space heater that was supplementing the heat in the building that initially caused this fire about 11:00 this morning that led to that fire that resulted in dozens of injuries and we now know, 19 deaths as of our last update. And nine of them children, and that is why it is a cold and rainy night in the Bronx but also just full of heartbreak with so many families now basically caught in the middle of this and now wondering what will happen next.

More on them in just a bit but in the meantime, though, investigators again, saying that it was that space heater that initially caused it so they're now certainly looking into the possibility that that door in that apartment where that fire started was left open, allowing that smoke to basically fill this entire 19-story building.

I saw some of the images that have been shared with us by some witnesses and you can basically see smoke billowing out of the apartments, even on the upper floors. So that certainly goes with what we've heard from investigators say that it wasn't the fire itself that led to so much damage and death but in fact it was the smoke that billowed throughout the interior of the building and according to the commissioner, even preventing the escape of dozens of people.


GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D), NEW YORK: We are indeed a city in shock. It's impossible to go into that room, where scores of family who are in such grief, who are in pain, to see it in a mother's eyes as I held her, who lost her entire family. It's hard to fathom what they're going through. And I went table to table, helped children make their ramen noodle and eat their pizza and let them know one thing.

And the mayor and I are united in this, we will not forget you, we will not abandon. We are here for you. So your elected leaders from your Senator Schumer on down to our council members are united here to support this community.


To say tonight is a night of tragedy and pain, and tomorrow we begin to rebuild. We rebuild their lives and give them hope, especially those who came all the way from Africa, Cambia, in search of a better life right here in this great borough. The borough of the Bronx. They're part of our family.


SANDOVAL: That was New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who we just heard from, Phil. Some important context about what we just heard there. She's basically describing what she experienced when she walked into a neighboring school that's being used as a temporary shelter for dozens of families right now. As you heard from Governor Hochul, many of them immigrants, searching for a better life and instead caught in this situation right now.

Now we do understand that the Red Cross is here. We've seen them. Members of the faith community are also here to making sure that they -- that these families have as much peace as they can right now as they try to pick up the pieces because it's still unclear whether or not some of these families will be allowed to go back into their apartment so they're certainly going to have to turn to some of those resources that are being made available by the city of New York in terms of temporary housing and potentially even long term -- Phil.

MATTINGLY: Yes, an unspeakable tragedy. It's not just a one-night or two-night thing. This is weeks, months, lifetimes ahead.

Polo Sandoval, from the Bronx, thank you so much.

And joining me now is the First Deputy Commissioner Christina Farrell of New York City's Emergency Management Agency.

Thanks so much for joining us. I guess I want to start, you heard what the governor said at the press conference. You heard Polo's report. What happens right now -- this is 120-unit building -- to those who survived this fire, survived the smoke? What's happening to those who lived in this building right now?

CHRISTINA FARRELL, FIRST DEPUTY COMMISSIONER, NYC EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: Sure, thank you. So right now, there's a middle school right next to the building that we were able to open up working with the principals today and so we have all the residents here. We've been able to give them food, you know, a warm space, water, any other short-term needs they had, people brought their pets, you know, they left the building with their pets. Their pets have been in here with us.

And so we are in the process of finding people shelter for this evening. We work with Red Cross. We have hotel rooms. And other resources available and so we will be providing, making sure that everybody, you know, every family has a safe, warm space to sleep in tonight. MATTINGLY: Can you describe, you know, the scale of the aftermath

here? Obviously, we've talked about the individuals who died, we talked about the individuals who are in the hospital, but for those who you're talking about right now who are seeking housing assistance, seeking warmth to some degree on a very cold night, what's the scale of response necessary for a tragedy like this?

FARRELL: Yes, I mean, you know, we have fires, we have emergencies in New York City every day and so we have, you know, all of our professionals that are ready. Nothing is like this, clearly. This is, you know, everyone is in shock but, you know, we can scale up very quickly, bring in additional people that can help. We'll be setting up a service center tomorrow because people haven't even started to think about some of the needs.

You know, we are hopeful that many of the residents will be able to go, you know, not on the floor that the fire was on but on the other floors, there's 19 floors in the building. Not many of them will be able to go back into their apartments in the coming days but for the people that are out long term, you know, we will work with them, work with the state to get them appropriate housing.

MATTINGLY: And one of the questions, you know, we cover a lot, the staffing issues that hospitals are facing, that emergency responders are facing because of an Omicron variant that has surged in New York City, this fire comes as the city is struggling with this outbreak of the new variant. Is that a challenge to your response efforts at all? Has it hindered what you've been able to do so far?

FARRELL: No. Not at all. I mean, New York City is resource rich with the fire department, with the police department, you know, the hospitals, we have up there, you know, world-class hospital system. We can move people, you know, to different places if we need to so, you know, every resource that has been needed has been here, has been possible, and, you know, while we're still in the middle of the pandemic, that did not affect any response today.

MATTINGLY: And before I let you go I was struck when the mayor, I think several officials were talking about this community, the folks who lived in this complex. It's an immigrant complex. It's a lot of folks who came particularly from Africa, immigrant families, the mayor says that immigrants who asked for assistance know their information would be turned over to ICE. Is that something that you can confirm? Is that kind of the position right now as you continue this response?

FARRELL: Yes, it's 100 percent. We have, you know, laws in place here. You know, this is not about anyone's status or where anyone came from. You know, this is about New Yorkers that are in need, that need services, and we're able to provide those services. You know, while everyone deals with their grief.

MATTINGLY: And just real quick before I let you go, for those who are seeking assistance right now, I know you guys have been out with the numbers that they need to call, the information they need to get out, can you just repeat those if anybody is watching that needs help?


FARRELL: Of course, I'm happy to. If anyone needs assistance, needs a place to stay tonight, they should call 1-800-RED-CROSS. They will get registered and get assistance. If anyone, especially, you know, if people are not local, and they're trying to get in touch with a loved one and they have not been able to, locally you can call 311 or outside of the city you can call 212-NEW-YORK which is 212-639-9675.

And we have a system set up where we can get information to people on what hospital or what the situation with their loved one may be and, you know, in the meantime, we're setting up a Web site for testing services, things hyper local for the residents that they -- as different issues come up we can get them the services they need.

MATTINGLY: OK. Christina Farrell of New York City's Emergency Management Agency, thanks so much for your time.

FARRELL: Thank you.

MATTINGLY: And right now I want to bring in Dave Downey. He's a former fire chief with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

And Chief Downey, fire officials say crews were on the scene within minutes. I think he said somewhere three minutes the first response, and still 19 people dead, 13 others with life-threatening injuries. What does it tell you about the nature of this fire and the smoke that it caused?

DAVE DOWNEY, FORMER CHIEF, MIAMI-DADE FIRE RESCUE: Well, I mean, clearly it was a well-involved apartment. A lot of fire when the crews arrived, you know, based on the time of year, the building is sealed up, trying to keep the heat in and keep the residents warm and so the smoke, there's nowhere for the smoke to travel out of the building and so it travelled through those windowless hallways and those areas where it could extend up higher up into the building. These high-rise fires are personnel intensive, requiring a lot of people to affect rescue and fire suppression.

MATTINGLY: Yes, I mean the scale of the response and the effort from the FDNY I think the mayor said that some of them were operating without oxygen at some point, obviously in a very dangerous situation to save lives. I think one of the questions maybe people who aren't familiar with this kind of thing may have is, you know, we've heard repeatedly at the press conference about an open door that kind of led the smoke to be able to rise the way it did, the smoke spread throughout many floors getting up, I think, to the highest levels of the building. What does that tell you and why is that such a challenge in terms of the response?

DOWNEY: Well, doors are probably the single best protective measure to contain a fire and contain smoke. And we preach in fire prevention, close the door before you go. Sleep with your bedroom doors closed. Keep the apartment doors closed. That door opening into the common hallway allowed all that heat, that fire, and that smoke, to extend rapidly through the hallway. From what I could see, it looked like a windowless hallway. All the

apartments were on the outside and then upwards, and the smoke and the heat is going to rise, so that open door was critical to allowing for the fire to spread.

MATTINGLY: In terms of the response that we saw from the FDNY, the speed with which they did things, the courageous nature by which they did things, can you explain what a firefighter is dealing with when they enter a fire like this, particularly given the scale of the smoke inhalation that was happening throughout the building?

DOWNEY: Well, the common strategy is to obviously try to locate and confine the fire. That was done relatively quickly, and then get firefighters not only on the fire floor where there's going to be the highest amount of heat and smoke, but on the floor above the fire, the top floor of the building, and then working their way down.

Most of the hazard is always above the fire. And so you're going to need firefighters moving in to every one of those floors. They were getting reports of smoke in apartments on virtually every floor. As firefighters encounter victims, they can't pass them up, especially if they're unconscious, so it will take two to three, maybe even sometimes four firefighters to carry one victim down, and you just keep pushing in with more firefighters.

The FDNY is a resource-rich organization, but I'm sure those initial arriving crews were still spent with the amount of effort they had to exert to remove those victims within those stairwells.

MATTINGLY: Yes, a slow-moving process as heroic as the efforts were.

Dave Downey, thanks so much for sharing expertise, I appreciate it.

DOWNEY: Thank you for having me.

MATTINGLY: We'll continue to follow the latest developments on the fire but still to come tonight, tennis super star Novak Djokovic trades center court for federal court. Will he be allowed to stay in Australia for the grand slam tournament despite being unvaccinated? His deportation appeals hearing is under way and we could the decision at any minute. Phil Black will join us live from Melbourne.

Plus, Omicron on the rise. Cases are up and schools are trying to stay open. I'll talk to the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.



MATTINGLY: In Australia, a hearing is under way right now for the number one men's tennis player in the world. Now a court is considering whether to deport Novak Djokovic or let him stay and defend his Australian Open title. Djokovic has been detained in a Melbourne hotel after Australia revoked his visa over his vaccination status. The latest twist? Questions over a medical exemption granted because he says he tested positive for COVID last month. CNN's Phil Black is in Melbourne. And Phil, I've trying to follow this

very convoluted process over the course of the last several days. What will the court actually consider here in this virtual hearing?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, Phil, Novak Djokovic's lawyers are now arguing in this virtual hearing that the process of canceling his visa was flawed at various stages that there were procedural mistakes, that he was treated unfairly throughout. Also crucial to their argument really is their belief that he has the right to be in this country, exempted from vaccine requirements for the same reason that he was granted an exemption to take part in the Australia Open without being vaccinated.


And that was where the independent panel of medical experts for the Australian Open said that he can't play because under the guidelines from the advisory group to the Australian government on vaccine issues, they say there is grounds for exemption when someone has recently recovered from COVID, specifically within the last six months. And we know that from the court documents filed by his lawyers that Djokovic tested positive for COVID back on December 16th.

Now Djokovic will be hoping that this argument at these proceedings today will result in a swift decision that allows him to leave this immigration detention hotel behind us and allows him to begin preparations for the Australia Open in just over a week, but the Australia government's lawyers are going to be arguing and doing everything they possibly can to ensure that doesn't happen -- Phil.

MATTINGLY: A sport story turned geopolitical story. Phil Black, you've been all over it, great reporting as always, my friend. Thanks so much.

And turning now to the COVID pandemic and a dire warning from public health experts about the nation's healthcare system. New data from the Department of Health and Human Services show nearly a quarter of U.S. hospitals have a, quote, "critical staffing shortage," and another 100 hospitals predict they will within a week. Now at least 10 states have deployed National Guard troops to hospitals and testing sites as healthcare workers fall ill or just simply exhausted.

The explosion of the highly contagious Omicron variant has pushed hospitalizations to near record levels. Children are also being hospitalized at record levels, especially kids under 5 who are still too young to be vaccinated. Health experts warn many hospitals have been pushed to the brink.


JHA: The healthcare system is not just designed to take care of people with COVID, of course it does that. It's designed to take care of kids with appendicitis and people who have heart attacks and get into car accidents, and all of that is going to be much, much more difficult because we have a large proportion of the population that is not vaccinated, plenty of high-risk people who are not boosted. That combination sets up a large pool of people who, as they get

infected, will end up really straining the resources we have in the hospitals today.


MATTINGLY: CNN's Natasha Chen in Los Angeles where child COVID cases have been skyrocketing, and Natasha, you've been at a school testing site all day. What's the mood been like there as parents, kids, the country tries to figure out how to deal with this current spread?

CHEN: Yes, Phil, the testing site here just closed about 20 minutes ago, but all day we saw a steady flow of people coming through. This site is one of many and just at this site alone, they could test about 2500 people per day, and from talking to the students and parents here, you know, they're used to this.

L.A. Unified, second largest school districts in the country, did require a baseline negative test in order for students and employees to return to class in August. They're requiring that again now before class resumes in person on Tuesday, and there's required weekly testing for students and employees as well. So the highschooler I talked to said no big deal, we do this every week.

And in fact, the L.A. Unified board president spoke to us about how just this baseline testing in the past week has cost the positive cases and prevented those people from coming into the building in just a couple of days. Here's what she said.


KELLY GONEZ, PRESIDENT, LOS ANGELES BOARD OF EDUCATION: We're so grateful to all of our employees who have come back and gotten tested as of this morning, 85 percent of our employees had done their baseline test and more than 70 percent of students had done their baseline tests. And that's allowed us as you said to protect staff and students on Tuesday because we've caught 50,000 positive cases of COVID using those baseline tests which means that our schools and classrooms will be significantly safer come Tuesday.


CHEN: And that's 50,000 cases out of more than half a million students, more than 70,000 employees. In addition, they anticipate that there could be a lot of staff, you know, not able to come into the buildings because of positive cases so they have 4,000 certified professionals ready to come in to fill those rolls in case people are in quarantine.

This system of protections, including universal masking, 100 percent employee vaccination and now about 90 percent of their students 12 and older vaccinated, has really helped this district keep every campus open throughout this academic year. They haven't had a single school go virtual so they're confident in this system.

Now, as you mentioned, the surge is very serious right now. Children's Hospital L.A. did tell me that they're seeing more than double the positivity rate among the children coming into the hospital for whatever reason, compared to December.


So that is a really quick wave, a really quick increase, and they are really telling people, please get vaccinated, especially to protect those under 5 who are not eligible to be -- Phil.

MATTINGLY: It's so fascinating to compare and contrast how different districts have been handling this moment.

Natasha, you've been doing an amazing job covering it. Thanks so much.

And a short time ago, we learned that another member of Congress has tested positive for COVID-19. New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez says she is recovering at home. She did receive a booster shot in the fall. Over the weekend, Congressman Jim Cooper and Sean Casten also announced they had tested positive.

Still ahead, we're live on the scene of New York City's deadliest fire in more than 30 years. The mayor hailing firefighters who went into that building despite their oxygen tanks running on empty.

Our breaking news coverage continues coming up next.



MATTINGLY: We're back now with our breaking news coverage of what New York City's mayor is calling one of the worst fires in the city's history. At least 19 people are dead, including nine children. That's after a massive five-alarm fire in a Bronx apartment building. Officials warn the death toll is expected to climb.

The fire started on the third floor of a 19-storey structure. Flames and smoke poured out of the windows with families trapped inside frantically calling for help. As many as 200 FDNY firefighters rushed to the scene. More than 60 people are hurt, many of them suffering severe smoke inhalation.

I want to go Polo Sandoval, who has been on the scene now for the last several hours. And, Polo, fire officials are pretty confident about what happened that started this horrible fire, is that correct?

POLO SANDVOAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Phil. It was actually the city fire commissioner that said that it didn't take long for them to actually get their hands on physical evidence that shows that it was a physical space heater that was being used in that duplex apartment that led to that fire that very quickly spread inside that apartment, but it basically was the smoke that was coming from that fire. It quickly started to flow through this entire building, 19 stories, about 120 separate living units and now, as you can imagine, dozens of families that we heard earlier today from Mayor Eric Adams, whose administration was only about a week in. Remember, basically, he took over at the start of the year and now dealing with this first mass casualty incident, and a massive tragedy, basically adding some context about what happened here today.


MAYOR ERIC ADAMS (D), NEW YORK CITY, NY: Thank you to the men and women who went in this building, some of these firefighters, their oxygen, their oxygen tanks were empty, and they still pushed through the smoke. You can't do this if you don't feel attached to this city and this community. And I really want to thank them for putting their lives on the line to save lives.


SANDOVAL: And now we are seeing the community basically coming together for those dozens of families that are now displaced, and many of them perhaps with nowhere to go.

Now, there are still, obviously, a question as to whether or not some of them will be allowed to make it back into their apartments possibly tonight. Authorities haven't answered that, at least at this point. So, what you're seeing is this effort to make sure that some of these families have that housing either short-term or long-term, because, tonight, it is cold, rainy, so many of these families have been through so much, and what you're seeing are even members of the community showing up at a neighboring school with warm meals to make sure that they know that they're not alone.

MATTINGLY: Community coming together in the most tragic of all moments. Polo Sandoval, great reporting, as always, thanks so much.

Now, the Bronx fire tragedy also comes as COVID puts pressure on hospitals and takes its toll on emergency responders across the country and in New York City.

Dr. Saju Mathew joins me now. And, Dr. Mathew, I think this is an interesting moment, the fire chief, the Emergency Services Department said that it's been a challenge but they've been able to fully staff their response, hadn't seen any drop-offs there, but this is a moment that underscores why it's dangerous if hospitals are hitting their capacity to some degree. New York and the city had been hit hard by omicron. How can an incident like this impact a hospital even further?

DR. SAJU MATHEW, PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIAN: Yes, it's like a worst nightmare, right? It's a crisis upon a crisis. And, listen, Phil, a lot of these patients or people, victims of a fire-related illness, it's the smoke inhalation injury that's really dangerous. They need immediate care. They need swift care. A lot of them need 100 percent oxygen, as just we heard Polo talk about in the opening, and also they might need to be intubated because there could be a lot of what we call edema, inflation of the upper airways.

So, now you're taking these very crucial patients quickly to an emergency room that is completely filled with patients that are waiting. The other day that I was on call, there was a 12-hour wait in my city just for a 78-year-old lady with symptoms of COVID. So, this is a crisis upon a crisis, and we have shortages of nurses and firefighters, so a tough, tough situation.

MATTINGLY: Yes, and it's interesting. You talk about omicron variant not being as deadly or as dangerous as the delta variant, but there's a real impact given the transmissibility to some degree, it's not just hospitals in New York. How are hospitals across the country coping with this COVID surge and the need to treat people for other very real medical issues they typically go to the hospital for?


MATHEW: That's exactly right. I've got a family member who is an E.R. resident in Chicago that tells me just how difficult it is when someone comes in with belly pain, appendicitis, and now a good number of hospitals are actually delaying or postponing elective surgeries, whether it's women needing mammograms or cancer therapy that may not be able to be given swiftly and quickly.

So, this is really setting up a situation where if you're not vaccinated, I mean, you have to really get it at this point in the pandemic that the only way to take care of not having to be a victim, if you will, in an emergency room waiting long hours is to get vaccinated, is to get boosted. And also, Phil, I think that the CDC had it right on the isolation guidelines, even though a lot of medical analysts are upset, because if you're asymptomatic and you actually feel fine, you have to be at home for ten days.

When I go into work every day, Phil, the big question is who is out sick today with COVID? And we've lost quite a few nurses and doctors because of this. So, it's crucial for us to realize that this pandemic is unmasking a lot of issues, which is, we need to do the right thing, to get out of this crisis, and we need to do it as an entire nation.

MATTINGLY: Yes, there's a potential for systemic breakdowns, which I think played a role in the CDC's decision-making. Look, the New York fire commissioner said COVID-19 didn't impact their response time, their units are fully staffed, but many ambulances and paramedics are understaffed in other parts of the country.

From an emergency response perspective, what happens if those parts of the country end up getting hit by some type of crisis like this?

MATHEW: Right. So, just imagine, even just talking about the Bronx, you know, which is a huge crisis already, because these patients will need to be taken preferably to an emergency room, like a burn center, where people know how to take care of these victims. And they can rapidly decompensate. So, these are patients that will be waiting in the emergency room for long periods of time. You need specialized care, they might need to be intubated. And then these patients need to be transported then to the ICU.

So, as you can imagine, there's a chain of events that have to be done very quickly, starting from taking care of these patients to transporting the patients to the emergency rooms and then getting the care that they need. MATTINGLY: Yes, there's a chain here, and every stage of all the chain in this moment, people are sick. And even if not dying or even hospitalized, they aren't at work and that's really problematic, particularly at the hospital system, as, Dr. Mathew, you know as well as anybody can explain, as well anybody. Thanks so much for your time.

MATHEW: Thank you, Phil.

MATTINGLY: All right. Tomorrow, public schools in Atlanta transition from virtual learning to in-person learning. How will they keep kids in class and COVID out? I'll ask the district superintendent, coming up next.



MATTINGLY: The Atlanta Public School system has been doing virtual learning since they return from winter break. Tomorrow, schools are reopening in-person with new testing guidelines for staff and students. Staff will be tested twice a week and students, with parental consent, will also tested twice a week.

Lisa Herring joins me now. She's Atlanta Public School Superintendant. Superintendent, I guess I would start with the testing question because this has been -- not every school is different, there are so many different efforts under way to get kids back in the classroom. How many parents have consented to testing for their kids and do you feel like that number needs to increase in order to successfully do this?

LISA HERRING, SUPERINTENDENT, ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS: So, thank you for the opportunity to speak to this. We have approximately 50,000 scholars here in Atlanta Public Schools. At last check, we were tipping above, close to 20,000 consent forms. That's not full capacity for the district at large, and so we continue to make those consent forms available. It's a critical part of the process. It allows for us to be able to return face-to-face after the last four days of having been virtual. So, we continue to promote the parental consent form throughout the process.

MATTINGLY: And what do you say to parents who say, look, I don't necessarily want -- like my kid's asymptomatic, if they're not showing any negative effects here. If they test positive, that puts a lot of burden on the family, it puts a lot of burden on the parents, their kid is out of school, maybe they don't necessarily want to know, what's your response to that?

HERRING: Yes. So, it's important for us to communicate several things given where we are at this juncture throughout the pandemic. Atlanta Public Schools has been executing surveillance testing since February of last year in partnership with Viral Solutions this semester as we return, we've maintained our mandatory testing for all of our employees, that's twice a week, and now we expanded that to students.

One of the reasons why this is critically important is because when students test, it does give us the opportunity to have clear information as to whether or not a student can remain in the building or if they do need to pivot. But that's also tied to the safety and well-being of not just the singular student but the class, as well as our employees. And we want for as much as we can to keep our children inside of the brick and mortar, but we do need that data to effectively support and ensure safety for everyone. That's what I want parents to be thoughtful about as they try to make these very important decisions.

MATTINGLY: And how did this past week of virtual learning go? What's kind of the feedback from parents and staff as you get set to go back to brick and mortar environment?


HERRING: Yes. So, you know, as I've shared, we returned back to school from the holiday break just this past week. So, the last four days, or the first four days of student return were virtual. Although it allowed for us to secure additional data around positivity rates, as well as community spread data, we're very much aware that it's always a challenge when we are virtual because it's tied to the at-home learning experience.

I think there's been a balance of two things. There's anxiety and appreciation from families who do have some angst around returning because of the spread of COVID, while at the same time we are sensitive to the inconveniences that come in that reality, thus the four day span.

So, here, again, to your earlier question, we have put in place several mitigation strategies that we are clear can help us keep children and staff in place when we're able to identify positivity data, to help address those issues that are tied to some of the frustrations with pivoting.

But to be clear, we also recognize that in order to ensure health and wellness, there will be times which within schools or classrooms that pivoting to virtual may be necessary.

MATTINGLY: Yes, it's -- you mention the balance. It's extraordinarily complicated right now. I don't understand how any superintendant is pulling this off at the moment, but I appreciate your time and you sharing what you guys are doing down in Atlanta. Atlanta Public School Superintendant Lisa Herring, thanks so much.

HERRING: Thank you.

MATTINGLY: All right. Still ahead, we're on the scene of a deadly fire in the Bronx.

Plus, thousands of Russian paratroopers deploy to neighboring Kazakhstan. They're trying to provide some stability after protests there turned deadly. Details, next.

And heads up for later tonight, join Fareed Zakaria as he investigates the Fight to Save American Democracy. His new special begins tonight 9:00 P.M. Eastern.



MATTINGLY: In a few hours, U.S. officials will meet in Geneva with their Russian counterparts in an effort to deescalate the growing crisis on the border of Ukraine. For weeks, Moscow seemed to be on the brink of invading Ukraine with some 100,000 troops positioned at the border.

Speaking earlier with our Jake Tapper, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he did not have high hopes that the talks would dramatically reduce tensions in the area.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There are two paths before us. There's a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to revolve some of these differences and avoid confrontation. The other path is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine.


MATTINGLY: Now, this all comes as Russian troops are also being sent into Kazakhstan but at the request of that country's president, that's after protests over rising fuel prices turned violent, leading to chaos in the Kazakh government.

Our Fred Pleitgen has more.

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Several days after those protests began in Kazakhstan, the scale of the crackdown that happened there is becoming ever more clear. Kazakh authorities are now saying that more than 5,000 people have been detained in relation to the protest, of course, are being accused of being part of those protests.

The Kazakh authorities have also now said the death toll is 164 and they say a hundred of those killed or more than a hundred of those killed were in one city, and that is Almaty, which, of course, in many ways, was the hardest hit city by those protests.

At the same time, it seems as though after what was possibly somewhat of a struggle for power, that the current president, Mr. Tokayev, appears to be cementing his grip on power. In fact, a spokesman for the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has come out and said that Mr. Nazarbayev, he voluntarily gave up his seat as the head of the National Security Council and also now fully supports Mr. Tokayev and is urging the Kazakh nation to rally around Mr. Tokayev.

Now, it certainly seems as though the Kazakh government, in no way, is looking to speak to the protesters or to try to give in to their demands. In fact, Mr. Tokayev is saying that he believes that the protests were at least, in part, steered from abroad. And, of course, he's saying there will be a very, very tough crackdown.

Now, of course, that's also one of the reasons why the Kazakh government has called in for outside help, especially from Russia. The Russians very quickly moving in around 3,000 troops, mostly paratroopers, using a lot of planes to do that. There was a phone call between Mr. Tokayev and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, with the Kazakh president thanked the Russian president for moving those forces in and for moving in them very quickly.

At the same time, cross-border traffic between where I am right now Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan that was completely shut down. The Kazakhs are saying that they are not going to allow foreigners into the country at this point in time.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, at the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border.

MATTINGLY: A tense moment continues there. Fred Pleitgen, thanks so much.

Boaters flee as a massive rock crashes in front of them. Now, we must warn you, this video is disturbing to watch.

My goodness. At least ten people were killed in that collapse and more than 30 were hurt. Now, this happened Saturday at Lake Furnas, which is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful waterfall views. Officials say heavy rains that loosened the rock made the cliff rock collapse. Wow.

Still ahead, a live report from the scene of New York City's deadliest fire in more than three decades.


The Bronx borough president joins me live, next.