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Federal Opinion

Trump Botches a Vital Back-to-School Message

By Rick Hess — July 14, 2020 3 min read
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Last week, President Trump waded into the thorny debate over whether and how to reopen schools in his inimitable five-thumbed style, tweeting, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” Trump explained, “What we want to do is we want to get our schools open. We want to get them open quickly, beautifully, in the fall.”

The president seemed disinterested in the complexities of a responsible reopening, declaring, “I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools ...They are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!” The ensuing back-and-forth helped boost the odds that reopening—like mask-wearing—will be yanked into the culture wars.

The shame of it is that the president had a vital point to make: Schools need to make an extraordinary effort to safely reopen, and there’s not much evidence that they’re doing so. Indeed, the official White House press release (which tends to go understandably ignored in the Age of Trump) had it about right, noting, “The importance of in-person learning is well documented, and continued closures stand to negatively impact the welfare of America’s youth.”

Trump’s eruptions aside, that’s the point. School closures are terrible for kids, and school systems have shown too little urgency in rising to the challenge. Six weeks from the end of summer, I continue to hear from teachers who have no real clue as to what their district will be doing. Parents are confused, overwhelmed, and putting their lives on hold while they seek some kind of clarity.

There are risks to reopening, of course, but we need to also fully appreciate the profound risks to students of not reopening. Social isolation has been devastating to students’ social and emotional well-being. While the full extent of the shutdown’s impact on mental health can’t yet be fully known, early portents are grim. In April, for instance, the Department of Health and Human Services’ “Disaster Distress Helpline” recorded a 1,000 percent (!) increase in text message volume compared to April 2019. Children in unsafe or abusive home environments have also lost access to vital supports. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an alarming drop-off in reporting on child abuse (during a period of extraordinary stress and anxiety), as education personnel are the most common reporters of child maltreatment. One early estimate suggests that more than 200,000 allegations of child abuse went unreported in March and April due to the pandemic.

Continued closure also means, of course, that students will suffer academically. Researchers at NWEA, Brown, and the University of Virginia have estimated that students will begin the next school year with just two-thirds the learning gains in reading and as little as half of the gains in math that we would normally expect.

Meanwhile, too many educational leaders seem more focused on demanding additional funds than on figuring out how to open schools responsibly. After a spring in which districts barred teachers from teaching new content (so as not to run afoul of federal law), signed memorandums of understanding with teachers’ unions which entailed no expectation of synchronous instruction, lost track of 20 to 25 percent of their students, and in which just 1 in 5 was found to have offered even remotely “rigorous” remote learning, there’s been little assurance that things will be better in the fall.

As the school year wrapped this spring and all throughout the summer the response to this has been, “Yes, but remote learning will be better this fall.” Well, maybe. But there’s much cause for skepticism that instruction or delivery will be noticeably improved. After all, for all of the struggles, teachers started remote learning with one big advantage this spring: They already had well-established relationships with their students. For students who barely know their teachers, are already behind due to the spring, and have parents who are back on the job, virtual learning could actually be worse this fall.

The truth is that the president is right that we need to see more evidence that school systems are doing everything possible to get kids safely back in classrooms this fall. Doing so will certainly require urgency, careful attention to trade-offs, and diligent planning. Schools should not rush to adopt five-day-a-week in-school instruction or give short shrift to the dictates of public health. And, of course, some parents will choose not to send their children back to school this fall, and they’ll need to be accommodated as part of the necessary hybrid offerings. But planning and deliberation cannot become excuses for inertia.

This is a message the nation needed to hear. This was the message Trump needed to give.

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