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White House to States: Reopen School Buildings or Risk Additional Relief Funds

By Evie Blad — July 08, 2020 9 min read
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The White House will seek to condition future federal COVID-19 federal relief funds on whether or not states reopen school buildings, Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday.

The statement presented a possible hairpin turn for states and districts that have relied on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more than a month as they plan for how to reopen schools. Many have already announced hybrid plans under which rotating cohorts of students will learn at home a few days a week to allow for six feet of spacing between desks as the agency recommended.

Pence, who provided few details about possible conditions on relief aid, spoke at a livestreamed briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force hours after President Donald Trump tweeted criticism of those CDC guidelines and made a vague threat to schools’ funding if they don’t reopen in the 2020-21 school year. Those tweets came as Trump’s presidential campaign has sought to make school reopenings a political issue and a day after a White House event on the issue.

Pence and other administration officials—including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos —reiterated a potentially confusing message at Wednesday’s briefing held at Education Department headquarters. They called decisions about school reopenings a state and local issue, but also threatened to withhold federal funds for states that don’t reopen in the way they envision.

CDC Director Robert Redfield said the May guidance from this organization shouldn’t be a “barrier” or an “excuse” that prevents schools from reopening, but they did not specifically say which recommendations schools could safely disregard. And, while the CDC issued additional guidance recently that did not push for universal testing of students and staff, Pence said such mass screening may be an option to help schools reopen.

“Now what we’re hearing is all schools need to open, all children need to be in school, they need to be physically present, remote learning is bad ... And it’s just contrary to all of the plans that we’ve been directed to implement,” Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said at a virtual briefing to Congressional staffers hosted by a group of education organizations Wednesday.

The CDC plans to issue new guidelines for schools next week on issues like student health screenings, masks, and monitoring the virus, Redfield said, even as schools around the country have already started setting conditions and policies for the coming school year.

Funds Tied to Reopening School Buildings?

A majority of federal funding for schools is allocated through programs like Title I, which provides funds for high-poverty schools under congressional requirements and agency regulations. Trump does not have authority to unilaterally add new requirements to that funding.

But he may have more leeway to tie strings to relief funds.

“At this point, 90 percent of education funding comes from the states,” Pence said about Trump’s threat. “Roughly 10 percent, depending on states’ budgets, comes from the federal government. And as we work with Congress on the next round of state support, we are going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and an encouragement to get kids back to school.”

At a briefing a few hours later, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump wants to “substantially bump up funding for education” in the next relief bill, “but at the same time, we recognize that this money should go to students.” That may be a reference to reports the administration will press Congress to earmark money in that bill for scholarships that will allow families to send their children to private schools.

School leaders around the country, facing steep state budget cuts, have pushed for additional federal aid to retain programs and staff and to help them carry out precautions necessary to keep students and staff safe as the pandemic continues. That includes everything from purchasing protective gear for bus drivers to building up technology for students who opt to learn remotely.

The first federal relief package—the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—included about $13 billion in funding for K-12 school districts and other potential aid from governors. But education groups have said schools need more money to deal with the logistics of reopening. They’ve offered varying estimates of how much aid is necessary. The HEROES Act, written by House Democrats and passed by that chamber in May, allocates $58 billion for districts. But the Republican-led Senate has said it won’t consider the bill.

The White House has signaled recently that it may support additional relief funds for schools, but Pence’s comments are the first time officials have suggested there may be new conditions for that aid.

“First and foremost, what you heard from the president was just a determination to provide the kind of leadership from the federal level that says we are going to get our kids back to school, because that’s where they belong,” Pence said in response to a reporter’s question.

In response to that push, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García, called Trump “an idiot.” Speaking to Capitol Hill staff at the separate virtual briefing, she rejected the notion that schools could be incentivized to reopen buildings for federal aid.

“I am beside myself,” Eskelsen García said. “I will channel the four million educators in this country right now who are hearing the President of the United States put children in harm’s way, and to ask them to be complicit in it ... He is saying, ‘Sacrifice your children, sacrifice their teachers, sacrifice their families that they could affect because I need something to sell in November, and it’s not looking good for me.’”

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee that controls education funding, accused Trump in a statement of “playing games with public health.”

“Again, the Executive Branch seems to have forgotten who holds the power of the purse,” she said. “Instead of threatening to strip funding from the children and families who need it the most, I and my fellow House Democrats are working hard to provide schools with the resources they need to safely reopen.”

What Does ‘Reopen Schools’ Mean?

Schools that have planned for hybrid reopenings, which are suggested in the CDC guidance, would dispute the assertion that they aren’t planning to reopen. It’s just not possible to reopen to all students on all days and abide by social distancing guidelines, school administrators have said.

But DeVos has criticized such plans, saying students need in-person instruction for their social and emotional development. On Wednesday, she slammed the “elite” Fairfax County, Va., district, which is just outside of Washington.

“They offered families a so-called choice for this fall: either zero days in schools for their students or two days,” DeVos said. “And their springtime attempt at distant learning was a disaster. This cannot happen again in the fall. ... Fully open and fully operational means that students need a full school year or more. And what it looks like will depends on where you are.”

In an interview with DeVos Tuesday night, Fox News Host Tucker Carlson floated the idea of withholding federal funds from school districts that don’t reopen, an idea DeVos said she was “very seriously considering.” She said talk of not fully opening buildings was a product of “adults’ fear mongering.”

This week, state education leaders in Florida and Texas have directed schools to open to all students who want to attend five days a week, winning praise from DeVos. Those directives came even as rates of the virus surged in the two states, spurring concern from some school administrators.

White House officials, including coronavirus task force Chairperson Ambassador Deborah Birx, point to low rates of severe illness from COVID-19 among children who don’t have underlying health conditions.

But education groups say they are concerned about children with vulnerable family members and the safety of adults who work in their buildings. About 18 percent of all teachers are age 55 or older., an age group that accounts for about 92 percent of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19, according to the CDC. In a survey of principals released by the National Association of Secondary School Principals Wednesday, 35.2 percent of respondents indicated they were “somewhat confident” or “extremely confident” in “their school/district’s ability to preserve the health of staff and students as schools physically reopen in the fall.”

And, while Trump flagged school reopenings in other countries as examples, leaders there have also modified their approaches: using hybrid schedules, masks, and aggressive contract tracing.

So what exactly is the White House calling for? It’s unclear.

Pressed by reporters, Pence acknowledged that some schools in high-risk areas may have to conduct remote learning. But he seemed to push back on broader state plans that included it.

“There may be some states and local communities that, given cases or positivity in that community, may adjust to either a certain set of days or certain limitations, and we will be very respectful of that,” he said. “What the president has made clear, though, is that we think it’s absolutely imperative that every state and territory in this country take steps to get kids back in the classroom to the fullest extent possible. We really believe that every state has the ability to do that.”

A Political Push

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have included shuttered schools in their political messaging. As Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa wrote in May:

In a virtual conference in early May focused on Trump, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and how their decisions about the pandemic were hurting Michigan’s schools, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said the president—not governors or leaders lower down the ladder— should take the blame if schools remain closed or struggle to resume normal operations due to a lack of testing and aggressive tracing of the disease. ‘That’s how we get back to school faster,’ Perez said. ‘This president has exacerbated the crisis.’”

Trump, confronting sagging poll numbers about his pandemic response, has made a full push on the school reopenings issue this week. He’s sought to draw contrasts with the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, who has pushed for more funding for schools as part of his coronavirus response plan.

That effort by Trump was evident as members of the administration, his campaign team, and his own family tweeted about the issue Wednesday.

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