Days after President Donald Trump sought to use its recommendations to justify an aggressive push to reopen school buildings, the American Academy of Pediatrics has joined with several education organizations to urge caution on the issue.
“Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools,” the AAP said in a joint statement with the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”
The statement follows a tumultuous week in which the president repeatedly threatened schools’ federal funding if they don’t reopen their buildings for in-person learning, despite concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The administration has provided few details, stirring confusion as Trump sought to leverage the issue for his re-election campaign.
The push comes as school is scheduled to start in less than a month in some parts of the country, and as several states announced plans this week to delay the first day of classes in response to spikes in virus cases.
AAP President Dr. Sally Goza attended a White House event Tuesday in which Trump administration officials repeatedly cited a June policy recommendation from her organization and urged schools not to use guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to justify keeping their buildings closed. (See a comparison of the two sets of recommendations here.)
In that recommendation, the AAP said it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” But that doesn’t mean states should force schools to open against the advice of local health officials, Goza told NPR Wednesday.
In Friday’s statement, the AAP and other organizations sought to pump the brakes further.
“Local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible,” the statement said. “For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.”
The organizations also called for more federal funding to aid schools.
“Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person full-time would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers,” the statement said.
In a virtual meeting with the American Federation of Teachers Thursday, Jill Biden, wife of former Vice President Joe Biden, praised the organization’s support of the HEROES Act, a House-passed relief bill that has not been taken up by the Senate. Trump’s opponent supports re-opening schools, but he believes they need resources and flexibility to do so, she said.
“A generation of students, families and educators are counting on us to prevent the spread of this virus,” Jill Biden said.
A Threat With No Specifics
To be clear, school administrators around the country have planned for months for the start of the 2020-21 academic year, aiming to start classes in-person if at all possible. Education organization also have pushed for more federal guidance for months, and they campaigned for release of the initial CDC recommendations, which were reportedly delayed by the White House before they were released in May.
Because social distancing and other precautions may not be possible in crowded buildings, many districts have favored starting under a hybrid plan—bringing rotating cohorts of students into their buildings a few days a week and offering remote learning on the other days. That idea was included in the CDC recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which Trump slammed this week as impractical and expensive.
The White House has been unclear on exactly what it is asking states and districts to do. Despite urging schools to use federal relief funds to pay for distance learning efforts, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos this week criticized hybrid plans. Reporters pushed White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany two days in a row about whether Trump supported hybrid reopenings, and she did not have an answer.
Also unclear is what funds Trump is threatening to withhold from schools. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said the administration may make education funds in future relief bills conditional on school reopenings. On Thursday, DeVos told Fox News the administration wanted to allow families to “take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if schools are going to refuse to open.” Trump does not have any clear authority to cut off existing funds allocated through federal education programs, and school governance is largely a state and local issue.
But the conversation alone has made the issue even more politically charged, even as many Southern states struggle to control surging cases of COVID-19.
Arizona rescheduled the start of its school year to Aug. 17, and school board members from around the state urged Gov. Doug Ducey this week to delay it even further. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice delayed his state’s school start to Sept. 8 on Wednesday. On Thursday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson pushed back the start date for for Arkansas schools from Aug. 13 to Aug. 24.
Meanwhile, state education chiefs in Florida and Texas, states that have drawn national concern for surging virus rates, have directed their schools to open for in-person learning five days a week. DeVos and Trump held up Florida as an example, even as local leaders there say the plan isn’t safe or feasible for some districts.