U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos brought little clarity to the Trump administration’s aggressive push to reopen schools in a pair of television interviews Sunday.
Pressed on how schools in areas with high rates of the coronavirus should protect children and communities, she provided few details. Also unclear: the details of repeated threats made by DeVos and President Donald Trump to withhold federal funds from schools that don’t reopen, and exactly what a satisfactory school reopening would look like.
The interviews—on CNN’s State of the Union and Fox News Sunday—come as school administrators plan for health precautions, partial online learning to ease crowding in school buildings, and, in some areas, continued remote learning in response to surging virus rates. This week, Vice President Mike Pence also said schools shouldn’t use guidance on reopenings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—later criticized by Trump— as an excuse to keep their buildings closed.
DeVos on CDC Recommendations
So should schools follow those recommendations, which call for limiting riders on school buses, wearing masks, and spacing desks six feet apart?
CDC Director Robert Redfield “has clearly said these are recommendations, and every situation is going to look slightly different,” DeVos told CNN’s Dana Bash. “And the key for education leaders—these are smart people who can figure things out—they can figure out what is going to be right for their specific situation because every school building is different, every school population is different...”
The guidance includes a caution that “implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of each community.”
DeVos noted that children are far less likely to have severe cases of COVID-19 than adults. Being in school is important for their well-being and emotional development, she said.
When Bash asked if the U.S. Department of Education has guidance for schools about what to do if there is a case among their students or staff, DeVos said only that those issues should be handled on a “school-by-school or a case-by-case basis,” and suggested schools refer to strategies from the private sector.
DeVos also referred to a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics that urged leaders to prioritize plans for reopening school buildings. The organization also released its own reopening guidelines, which differ from the CDC’s in some areas.
But, while Trump officials have used the AAP statement to justify their reopening push, that organization pumped the brakes this week, signing on to a statement that schools shouldn’t be forced to open against the advice of local health officials.
DeVos on Funding Threats
Pressed by Fox’s Chris Wallace on why the administration would threaten schools’ funding during the pandemic, DeVos reiterated previous statements that seemed to allude to a push for a private school choice option.
“American investment is a promise to students and their families,” DeVos said “If schools aren’t going to reopen and fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds. Then give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.”
When Wallace told DeVos she didn’t have the authority to take such an action, she said she is looking at “all options.”
On CNN, DeVos said “there’s no desire to take money away” and noted that states have delivered a small fraction of federal relief aid provided through the CARES Act to schools.
Trump has tweeted repeated threats to “cut off funding” if schools don’t reopen. Schools are largely funded by state and local tax dollars, and Trump has no clear authority to redirect federal funds already authorized by Congress. On Wednesday, Pence suggested the administration would push for “incentives” for schools to reopen in any future relief bills.
DeVos on Hybrid Schedules and Remote Learning
What’s also unclear is what “reopening schools” means to Trump and DeVos. Pushed repeatedly last week, the White House press secretary could not say whether Trump supports hybrid plans, under which rotating cohorts of students learn online for a few days and in-person for the remainder of the week.
DeVos slammed the Fairfax County, Va., district last week for offering a hybrid learning plan, calling its spring remote learning rollout “a disaster.” The district recently delayed re-opening for two weeks to give teachers and administrators more time to plan.
Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand told CNN his district would have to add facilities space equivalent to five Pentagons to seat students six feet apart. The CDC recommended such spacing where feasible.
DeVos said Sunday the district’s plan is still unacceptable because its remote learning plan calls for four days of direct instruction and a fifth day of independent study.
When Bash asked if remote learning is acceptable, DeVos said schools should start with the aim of reopening buildings, but she acknowledged that school “could and may well look different in a certain area that has a flare up of the virus.”
“If there’s a short-term flare of a few days, that’s a different situation than preparing for an entire school year in anticipation of a situation that hasn’t happened,” DeVos said.