President Donald Trump revived his call for schools to resume face-to-face instruction during a White House event Wednesday that featured parents, teachers, and others who expressed concerns about how the lack of regular in-person classes would hurt students, their families, and others.
Despite the Trump administration’s previous support of virtual learning—including in recent grants funded by coronavirus aid—the president criticized it during the gathering saying that, “Virtual is not as good as being there. It’s just not the same thing.” He also questioned why schools should receive funding if they don’t hold in-person classes, saying he’d rather give that money to parents so they can choose how to educate their children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who also spoke at the event, praised a school choice bill from Senate Republicans that isn’t funded by the most recent virus aid proposal from GOP senators.
And Trump slammed Democrats’ approach to the issue, saying, “They want the money to follow the union, to be honest.” He added that teachers’ union leaders have been “disgraceful” about the issue of reopening schools. He’s previously said Democrats want school buildings to close for political reasons.
Hovering over the event was the collapse of negotiations with Congress over a new coronavirus relief package, even as schools plead for federal aid to help them clean schools, observe social-distancing guidelines, and help students learn remotely. Just before Trump’s criticism, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., released a joint statement Wednesday saying they will resume talks with White House officials “once they start to take this process seriously.”
The event, called “Kids First: Getting America’s Children Safely Back to School,” focused on the perspective of parents, teachers, and officials who stressed the benefits of in-person instruction and the harm of remote learning undertaken by schools.
Speaking about her daughter, Lindsay Ammons, a parent in Fairfax County, Va., told Trump that during the spring when the county’s school district shifted to remote instruction, “We watched her education deteriorate. And we also really saw her mental health suffer over the course of the spring.” Ammons said she was setting up a home schooling environment for her daughter in conjunction with other local families. (Click here for more on pandemic learning “pods.”)
Claudia Valladares, a teacher in Lubbock, Texas, said that her district has a successful summer school experience after children were required to wear masks, observe social distancing, and undergo temperature checks: “There were no outbreaks.” She noted that most families in Lubbock want their children back in regular classes.
And Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran stressed many districts that are resuming regular classes in his state have close to 100 percent participation by teachers. “Teachers want to be back in the classroom with their kids, even if they have an underlying condition.” (Florida has been sued for its policies related to school reopening.)
Although Corcoran noted that the Florida Virtual School is the largest online school in the country, he called it a “second-tier education” compared to in-person learning.
Feds Flail as Schools Move Ahead
At a press briefing later in the day, Trump highlighted his administration’s guidelines for schools, which include encouraging masks where social distancing isn’t possible, frequent handwashing, and minimizing large indoor gatherings.
It’s already far too late for any new federal relief money to affect many districts’ decisions about how to start the 2020-21 school year, which is well under way. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, acknowledged that many schools have already made those decisions and urged them to take advantage of guidance and resources provided by the administration. “I don’t think there’s a single parent who think kids need more screen time,” she said.
Trump’s own youngest son, Barron, attends a private school that recently announced it would use a remote-learning model through at least Oct. 9. The county where that school is located previously ordered private schools not to open buildings for instruction, but recently rescinded that order (Barron Trump’s school did not refer to that previous county order when explaining its decision).
By early August, 17 of the 20 largest school districts in the nation, which together educate more than 4 million students, had decided to offer only remote learning to students to begin the year. Many other districts have made the same call. And most states are leaving that decision up to local authorities.
The relatively slow pace which states spent K-12 money provided by the CARES Act—the coronavirus aid package Trump signed in late March—underscores how long it can take for federal money to have an impact on school operations.
In May, the House approved a coronavirus relief plan written by Democrats with $58 billion in direct aid for K-12 schools and more than $900 billion in aid to state and local governments. But Senate Republicans quickly dismissed it. Then there was a role reversal. In late July, Senate Republicans introduced a virus relief proposal that would tie two-thirds of $70 billion in K-12 aid on whether schools resumed face-to-face classes—and Democrats immediately rejected the bill.
Since then, there’s been no real breakthrough in negotiations.
The bill from Senate Republicans specifies that the U.S. Department of Education would have to distribute aid to schools within 15 days of the bill becoming law. But it’s possible that even if a deal is struck relatively soon, schools might not see the money until even fans of pumpkin spice lattes are pretty tired of them.
Last month, the president issued an essentially empty threat to withhold money from schools that don’t do so. DeVos has largely echoed Trump’s demand, despite her statement Tuesday that “education isn’t about school buildings.”
At Wednesday’s event, DeVos stressed how the focus should be on helping children and families, saying, “They can’t be held captive to other people’s fears or agendas.” That’s consistent with what her office told us for our recent story about how DeVos has pushed schools to soldier on and excel during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, many educators grappling with difficult decisions amid the pandemic have felt abandoned by Washington and other leaders.
Photo: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, left, speaks at an event called “Kids First: Getting America’s Children Safely Back to School” in the State Dining room of the White House, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Washington. From left, DeVos, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, Vice President Mike Pence, and President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)