President Donald Trump’s attempts to strong-arm schools into reopening has turned a national challenge into another chaotic partisan debate, pitting his loyalists against teachers, health care professionals and more cautious political leaders wary of rushing the process.
The fight is unfolding as large swaths of the United States report record Covid-19 case counts and some state and local officials consider reimposing the public safety restrictions. Meanwhile, Trump – whose poll numbers continue to lag behind former Vice President Joe Biden – faces a credibility gap stemming from his inconsistent and often counterfactual statements about the crisis, which could do him outsize harm in the already perilous suburbs.
The suggestion that schools are currently on track to open safely has been dismissed as fantasy by top teachers unions and medical organizations. Many of those groups and others have called for a more comprehensive reopening plan, a say in crafting it, and the funding necessary to retrofit American schools and adapt curriculum. The shape of public education, now and in the years to come, could also be at stake as the administration threatens to withhold or divert federal funding if schools don’t fully reopen, despite its lacking that unilateral power.
On Monday, the two largest school districts in California announced that, while classes will begin as scheduled late next month, students will not yet return to brick and mortar facilities.
“Covid-19 continues to spread in the Los Angeles area and the virus is going to impact how we start the new school year,” LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said in a statement. “The health and safety of all in the school community is not something we can compromise.”
Elsewhere, New York City, where cases are down to their lowest figures since mid-March, has proposed a “blended learning” plan that would see a mix of remote and in-person learning. Columbus, Ohio, is pursuing a similar strategy for younger students. But the schools superintendent, Talisa Dixon, has been adamant that those protocols are all subject to change.
Despite the complexities and warning signs, Trump has ignored public worries and declined to offer meaningful guidance on how to reopen schools, instead insisting on forging ahead.
“SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!,” he tweeted last week.
Playing with lives
The threat to coerce reopenings by cutting federal funds – or, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently suggested, giving the money directly to parents in order to seek other schooling options – could open up a fraught new front in the often tense relationship between Washington, DC, and educators. But Trump has made clear that he now views schools’ welcoming students as a tool for projecting a return to normalcy that is, in reality, still out of reach.
“Normally, people don’t play with kids’ lives. They’ll play with adults’ lives, but they don’t play with kids’ lives,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said last week after her union announced that it would spend an additional $1 million on TV and digital ads calling on GOP leaders to pass legislation that would help fund a safe return.
Weingarten, a longtime union leader who has jousted with leaders from both parties, said she was taken aback – if not surprised – by the administration’s hostile tone and its insistence, along with those of leaders in some of the states hardest hit by the virus, on moving forward with limited or vague precautionary standards.
“This new thing from Florida and from Texas of ‘we’re going to open five days a week and we’re going to open as normal’ – this was new in the mix and clearly a pressure campaign by the administration,” Weingarten said, “because they look, frankly, at schools as if it was child care as opposed to education.”
The risks of returning children to schools without adequate protections in place are well-documented – and easy to find. They are spelled out on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own website, along with a detailed set of instructions and best practices for teachers and administrators. (The AFT has also published its own detailed plan.)
“Full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events” bring the highest risk of spread, according to the CDC’s guidance, which warns against situations in which “students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.”
On Tuesday, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said he thinks “a majority of counties” are currently positioned to reopen schools, based on “case counts, the percent positive, the availability of testing and the resilience of the health system they have.” He did not offer any further details.
An analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation released last week found that nearly 1.5 million teachers are at higher risk of serious illness if they contract the coronavirus. That share is comparable to the wider workforce, but filling schools, especially in areas where classes are small and space is tight, will make the usual safety practices, like keeping a social distance, difficult to maintain.
The concerns extend to parents. More than seven in 10 see a large or moderate risk in sending their children back to school, according to a new Axios-Ipsos poll. The worries span partisan lines, but are stronger with Democrats (82%) than Republicans (53%). The anxiety is most prevalent among Black and Hispanic parents, of whom 89% and 80%, respectively, view returning to school as risky. Sixty-four percent of White parents said the same.
Trump’s trust deficit
For a president already struggling in both national and swing state polls, it is not simply the risk of losing the schools battle that could further weaken his position heading into the fall – it is the fight itself. The battle has pitted Trump and DeVos against educators, health experts and, in many cases, concerned parents who, more than three weeks into a “summer” that began for many last spring, are still getting mixed messages from local and national leaders.
“Donald Trump doesn’t make it possible for you to sit on the fence,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, explaining how a clash over schools that divides Americans along partisan lines could further damage Trump in swing suburbs.
With each passing day, the political implications for Trump’s reelection become more stark. Already playing from behind, and at a trust deficit with many voters on his handling of the coronavirus, the prospect of a protracted new fight, Murray said, is likely to further alienate the less committed voters Trump is already struggling with in the polls.
“The folks that are in the middle, the moderate folks, the White college-educated women living in the suburbs, are looking at what is happening realistically. They’re looking at what is happening in their own neighborhoods, whether it’s Covid or whether it’s the marches in support of Black Lives Matter among their own White neighbors and saying (his message) does not comport with how I see the world, and Donald Trump is just trying to divide us,” Murray told CNN. “And I think that just builds on top of it.”
The absence of any feasible working plan from the administration came into stark relief during DeVos’ more than 20-minute-long interview on Sunday with CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”
In passing off the fundamental issue, DeVos cited the success of “other countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world, where students have gone back to school and have done so very successfully.” Many of those places, however, have largely brought the coronavirus pandemic under control – their caseload dropping as the US rate climbs – using more holistic approaches that created an environment in which returning to the classroom posed less of a risk to students and teachers.
The pressure campaign being waged by the administration provoked a response last week, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the School Superintendents Association, AFT and National Education Association, which reiterated their commitment to a safe return, but warned against proceeding without adequate safeguards in place.
“We call on Congress and the administration to provide the federal resources needed to ensure that inadequate funding does not stand in the way of safely educating and caring for children in our schools,” the groups said in a joint statement. “Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person fulltime would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers.”
Vice President Mike Pence on Monday in a call with governors took a softer stand than Trump. He made clear the administration’s desire to see schools return, but assured those listening that the decision would ultimately reside with state and local officials. He also indicated that the White House supported new funding for schools.
“You should also anticipate we’re in active discussions with leadership in the Congress about additional education funding support in the upcoming relief bill,” Pence said.
Democrat Jamaal Bowman, who is leading his primary race to represent New York’s 16th district in Congress, which includes parts of The Bronx, in New York City, and suburban Westchester, said the absence of a plan and funding to back it will disproportionately harm students in underserved communities – even as the electoral hurt to Trump would likely be focused in the wealthier suburbs.
“When you have the resources, you expect the resources to continue to be present and serve your family and your community,” Bowman said of more affluent areas. “When you have less, generally, you tend to just want to have what you need in order to survive and get by. That has been the case historically.”
DeVos’s hinting that she might seek to divert federal dollars to parents whose school districts do not open fully, or at all, in the fall, Bowman added, was a signal that the administration could seek to use the crisis as cover to put a more lasting dent into public schooling.
“It’s the move towards privatization,” said Bowman, who founded a public middle school and served as its principal before running for office. “It’s driven by market-based ideology and the so-called, quote-unquote ‘choice movement.’ So when we talk about vouchers and money moving with kids at the whim of the parents, that’s what we’re talking about. And it’s an example of disaster capitalism within the public education sector.”
Republicans, especially in traditionally red states, have sought to reassure parents but focused more on the economic implications of the re-start.
“We need to get (students) back in,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, said last week. “People have to go to work. Parents have to go to work. Teachers want to go to work. Everybody wants to get the schools started. But we have to be sure that we’re doing so safely.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a vocal Trump acolyte, has been insistent that children return to school despite the state’s skyrocketing number of coronavirus cases and, on July 9, compared the task to re-opening big box stores.
“I’m confident if you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools,” DeSantis said. “I want our kids to be able to minimize this education gap that I think has developed.”