The Trump administration has launched a full campaign to get students back in schools full time—even though the vast majority of states are documenting an increase in coronavirus cases.
President Donald Trump and other administration officials have a clear message for states this week: Open your schools in the fall or else.
A day after the White House hosted a roundtable discussion on reopening schools in the fall, Trump took to Twitter with threats of withholding federal funding from any that do not fully resume in-person instruction in the coming months.
“In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS,” he tweeted. “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”
His tweet came hours after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had a similar message during an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson late Tuesday night. She told Carlson that she is “very seriously” looking at the possibility of withholding funding from public schools that don’t reopen in the fall.
“Kids have got to continue learning,” she said. “Schools have got to open up, there has got to be concerted effort to address the needs of all kids and adults who are fear mongering and making excuses simply have got to stop doing it and turn their attention on what is right for students and for their families.”
The comments come as the Trump administration has launched a full campaign to get students back in schools full time—even though the vast majority of states are documenting an increase in coronavirus cases. As of Wednesday morning, more than 131,000 Americans had died from the novel coronavirus, and the number of infections is approaching 3 million.
“We want to reopen the schools,” Trump said Tuesday during the White House discussion “Everybody wants it. The moms want it, the dads want it, the kids want it. It’s time to do it.” He added that he and other officials would “put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.”
What Trump and DeVos have not offered, however, is guidance on how to do that safely. Ultimately, the decision to reopen public schools is a local one, and many school districts find themselves struggling to find clarity on the issue.
“It’s almost an untenable task,” said Jim Lavender, superintendent of the Kingsway Regional School District in New Jersey, after spending days poring over 104 pages of guidance from the state’s Department of Education.
A statement released Tuesday by six groups representing educators and parents, including National Education Association, National Parent Teacher Association, and others, blasted the federal response on schools.
“The White House and the CDC have offered at best conflicting guidance for school reopening, and today offered little additional insight,” the statement read. “Without a comprehensive plan that includes federal resources to provide for the safety of our students and educators with funding for Personal Protective Equipment, socially distanced instruction, and addressing racial inequity, we could be putting students, their families, and educators in danger.”
“Without a comprehensive plan that includes federal resources to provide for the safety of our students and educators with funding for Personal Protective Equipment, socially distanced instruction, and addressing racial inequity, we could be putting students, their families, and educators in danger.”
Some schools have announced plans to bring students back to the classroom for only a few days a week and rely on distance learning the rest of the time to minimize potential spread. Although COVID-19 cases tend to be mild in young people, they do risk infecting their much older teachers and school staff. Nearly a third of teachers in the United States are 50 and older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
DeVos, however, suggested Tuesday that anything less than a full week of in-person instruction was unacceptable.
“It’s clear that our nation’s schools must fully reopen and fully operate this school year. Anything short of that robs students, not to mention taxpayers, of their future,” DeVos said during a call with governors.
DeVos specifically slammed plans by Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools to have families decide between fully remote instruction or two days a week at school. “A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” DeVos said, according to audio of the call obtained by The Associated Press.
The education secretary also criticized many schools’ attempts at distance education after the pandemic prompted them to move classes online last spring. She said she was disappointed in schools that “didn’t figure out how to serve students or who just gave up and didn’t try.”
The same thing can’t happen again this fall, she said, urging governors to play a role in getting schools to reopen.
In an interview with the New York Times, Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, said pointedly: “The reality is no one should listen to Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos when it comes to what is best for students.”
She added, “Everything is about his re-election. Our No. 1 priority is that we keep our students safe.”
“The reality is no one should listen to Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos when it comes to what is best for students.”
One state that has fallen in line with Trump’s demands is Florida. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced this week that “all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.” The state, where more than 7,300 new COVID-19 cases were announced on Tuesday, is an epicenter for coronavirus.
“We’ve been given no guidance,” Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association told CNN Tuesday night. “We’ve been given no regulations that make sense to reopen our schools, and in the middle of a pandemic, we’re being told we have to reopen schools come hell or high water.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.