The difficulty districts face and the confusion parents feel as schools reopen is a symptom of failed presidential leadership, former Vice President Joe Biden and his campaign said this week.
As Biden announced California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate this week, the duo zeroed in on a message: The fear and lack of clarity that surround the start of the school year came after months of failures by President Donald Trump to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously enough to contain it.
“It’s why there is complete chaos over when and how to reopen our schools,” Harris said as she appeared with Biden for the first time as his vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket in Delaware on Wednesday. “Mothers and fathers are confused and uncertain and angry about childcare and the safety of their kids at school. Whether they will be in danger if they go, or fall behind if they don’t.”
Trump has forcefully pushed for schools to reopen their buildings for in-person instruction, even as states throughout the country confront rising rates of COVID-19 cases. He’s supported a GOP Senate proposal to condition most additional relief aid to schools on their reopening plans. And he’s said blue state governors are keeping schools closed for political reasons because they think it will hurt Trump at the polls.
But in events this week, Biden, Harris, and their surrogates argued that schools aren’t remaining in remote learning simply because of decisions local administrators have made. They say the failure to set up a nationwide contact tracing strategy, testing delays, and the administration’s inability to hammer out a deal with Congress for additional relief funding, have led to significant community spread of the virus and a dire lack of resources.
“Happy talk and threats of withholding funds, that’s not a plan,” Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, said at a virtual Biden campaign event Thursday. “All you hear from the administration is what a good job they are doing.”
Scott stressed that schools need funds to repair facilities that may have been inadequate before the pandemic. He cited a June report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that said that more than 41 percent of school districts need to update or replace their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in at least half their schools.
Scott appeared alongside Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year; former Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton, whose husband, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., was the vice presidential nominee in 2016; and a Virginia teacher, school board member, and student.
Robinson faulted members of the Trump administration, like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, for not giving schools clearer guidance earlier on in the pandemic.
“I wanted to put out a missing poster for her when COVID-19 first started,” he said. “I don’t know if she was out on a yacht somewhere, but we did not see here the entire time... She reappeared four months later and said schools should open up.”
DeVos provided some state waivers from testing requirements and accountability metrics in the spring. She has largely deferred to public health officials on the specifics of how schools should reopen, but has pointed to numerous meetings she’s had with state and other officials to show she’s providing leadership to schools. Under the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released guidance that leaves many decisions in the hands of local administrators, some of whom have criticized if for a lack of clarity about issues like when buildings should close because of virus exposure.
School and district leaders have complained of a leadership vacuum on the federal level, sometimes conflicting state guidance, and a lack of firm answers that have turned local debates over back-to-school plans into emotional, politically divisive struggles. Some have opted to keep their buildings closed because their counties meet the administration’s own definition of a virus “hot spot.”
Biden’s plan on school reopenings, which he released in July, says the CDC should establish “basic, objective criteria to guide state, tribal, and local officials” in reopening decisions that are sensitive to the “level of risk and degree of viral spread in the community.” That guidance should answer questions like when it’s safe to reopen classrooms, what should cause schools to close buildings again, how to accommodate vulnerable students and employees, and who should return to classrooms first, the plan says.
Biden has also voiced support for the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by the House in May. That bill, written by Democrats, would direct about $58 billion in additional relief funding to local school districts and provide additional support to state and local governments.
Trump, meanwhile, has supported the GOP relief package known as the HEALS Act. That plan would provide $70 billion to K-12 public and private schools, along with $5 billion in funds for governors to use on K-12 and higher education. Of that $70 billion pot, a third would go to all schools regardless of their plans for the next year. The remaining two-thirds would be directed to schools with a physical reopening plan that is approved by the governor after consultation with the state education department.
Talks between the White House and Democratic congressional leaders have stalled, and Trump has continued to push schools to open their buildings.
“We are so desperate for leadership,” Holton said Thursday of the Trump administration. “And I can tell you that the leadership we got from the federal government was way late and a dollar short.”
Photo: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., participate in a virtual grassroots fundraiser at the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 12. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)