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Government Watchdog Finds Fault With Trump’s School Reopening Push

By Evie Blad — September 22, 2020 4 min read
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President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talked out of both sides of their mouths on school reopening, a new government watchdog report finds.

On the one hand, DeVos stressed that plans on how to reopen school buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic were “state and local decisions.” On the other hand, Trump and DeVos suggested schools’ federal funding may be at risk if they don’t allow students to return for in-person learning.

In addition, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how schools should minimize the spread of the virus has been unclear and, at times, contradictory, concluded the Government Accountability Office, an independent investigative agency that reports to Congress. And when the U.S. Department of Education summarized that guidance on its website, it left out details about wearing masks and social distancing, the report says.

“As we reported in June 2020, in the midst of a nationwide emergency, clear and consistent communication—across all levels of government, with health-care providers, and to the public—is key,” says the report, which explores many facets of the federal COVID-19 response. “As schools make their plans for the fall and continue to reassess those plans throughout the school year as local health conditions change, cogent, clear, and consistent federal guidance is critical to helping state and local officials make safe, risk-based decisions for their students, teachers, staff, and communities.”

The report’s findings echo concerns school administrators have voiced for months as they struggle to interpret layers of local, state, and federal directives amid changing information about the virus and how it spreads. Their push for clearer federal instructions started as early as March, when governors around the country ordered mass closures of their buildings to stop the spread of the virus.

And some complained that the Trump administration’s push for schools to open in-person added political fuel to an already raging fire.

The GAO report cites comments by DeVos that “American investment in education is a promise to students and their families” and that schools that don’t reopen to “fulfill that promise” shouldn’t get the funds. Instead, DeVos has said, families should to use public funding to cover the costs of private school tuition or alternative educational materials. (The Trump administration does not have the authority to strip schools of existing federal funds, but it has sought to condition additional relief aid on schools’ reopening decisions.)

“Education officials told us these comments were policy or rhetorical statements,” the GAO report says. “Regardless, such statements do not appear to align with a risk-based decision-making approach, and appear incongruent with the Secretary’s own statements that returning to in-person education is a state and local decision.”

Updated Federal Guidance to Schools

Most recently, the CDC released a color-coded chart last week detailing the risk of spreading the virus in schools. The chart, which relies on a few key health metrics, does not instruct schools when to close, but it says it can be a tool to help guide decisions about opening, closing, and returning to remote learning.

That chart was apparently released between the time the GAO completed a draft of its report and when a final version was released to the public Tuesday. It sought to answer one of the GAO’s key recommendations to the CDC to address the lack of “cogent, clear, and consistent federal guidance on the operating status of K-12 schools.”

Previously, the CDC released a big batch of school guidance documents July 23, detailing how to reopen, how to screen students, and how to mitigate the risk of virus transmission in classrooms.

“However, for weeks afterward, its guidance on screening for children and employees for entering schools was internally inconsistent, and sometimes had been shared by [the U.S. Department of Education] in ways that are incomplete, potentially adding to confusion,” the GAO said. “We raised these incongruences with the agencies during the course of our work. Education updated its website to better align with CDC guidance. In response to our recommendation that the Director of the CDC ensure that its guidance related to schools’ operating status is cogent, clear, and internally consistent, CDC said it was in the process of making corrections to eliminate inconsistencies.”

Among the concerns about CDC guidance identified by the GAO:

  • July guidance did not recommend universal symptom screenings for students, but an earlier, contradictory planning tool that recommended daily health checks, like temperature screenings, remained on the website even after the newer directive was posted.
  • In a July FAQ for school administrators, the CDC said a single case of COVID-19 would not justify closing an entire school in most cases. But previous guidance, which remained on the website even after the new materials were posted, suggested that schools “will likely dismiss students and most staff for 2-5 days” if a case was identified.
  • “Relatedly, [the Education Department’s] website and technical assistance center contained incomplete summaries of CDC’s mitigation strategies,” the GAO found. “Specifically, neither summary included wearing cloth masks or staying 6 feet apart when possible—strategies CDC identified as key for slowing the spread of COVID-19. We discussed this with Education, and as of August 7, 2020, the summaries were removed from both websites. The websites still include direct links to CDC’s guidance.”

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 Aug. 12. From left, DeVos, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, Vice President Mike Pence, and President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)