President Donald Trump’s failure to provide clear guidelines and negotiate emergency funding for education duriang the pandemic has badly hurt the nation’s schools, educators, and families, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Wednesday.
In a speech that focused on how to help schools reopen safely, Biden also said “I understand the concern” among teachers about coming back to the classroom, in part because many of them have preexisting conditions that make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Biden’s remarks, delivered in Wilmington, Del., represent his latest criticisms of how Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have responded to the coronavirus in general and to schools’ needs in particular. In his speech, Biden declared the need for students to return to school a “national emergency.” Biden’s remarks echoed an event the Biden campaign held in August that focused on schools.
“Donald Trump and Secretary DeVos haven’t stepped up, and we’ve all seen the results,” he said.
Schools need clear directives from the federal government, as well more funding from Congress to pay for patient protective equipment, improve ventilation, and hire more teaching staff so that classes can be smaller and socially distance, Biden said. “Trump refuses to act, starving schools of the needed funding, funding they need now .. they needed it at the beginning of the summer,” he said.
And Biden criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its decision this week to stop paying for cloth masks and disinfectants in schools, despite pleas from officials.
Biden’s campaign has released a five-step roadmap for schools to reopen safely that focuses on testing, additional funding, and ensuring educators have updated information about the virus, among other things. You can read more about that plan here.
Trump and DeVos have repeatedly and forcefully pushed schools to resume in-person learning this academic year, although DeVos softened that stance somewhat in a recent op-ed by saying, “No one is suggesting that every single child must be behind a desk in a classroom.”
However, Trump has threatened to withhold funding from schools that don’t reopen classrooms (despite lacking any clear authority to do so), and criticized virtual learning that his administration has previously supported, including through recent grants that rely on coronavirus relief aid.
It’s important to note that the Trump administration has supported Republican legislation on Capitol Hill that would provide $70 billion in relief for schools; two-thirds of that money would only be given to schools that provide a certain amount of in-person instruction. Negotiations over that and other elements of a coronavirus relief package between Trump officials and Democrats in Congress have been dead in the water for weeks.
For months, teachers at higher risk of illness from COVID-19 have wondered whether to return to school. Districts face difficult decisions about who will get medical exemptions and be allowed to stay home. And teachers’ fears about returning to classrooms during the pandemic have led to some discussions about strikes. About 18 percent of teachers are age 55 or older, when the risks caused by the virus become more acute.
An Education Week survey published in July found that 1 in 5 teachers said they wouldn’t return to work if their district were to reopen school buildings. Although many schools have begun a new school year since then, it’s unclear how the pandemic has affected the teaching workforce, and the extent to which it has led teachers and other school staff to leave their jobs.
This week, Biden’s campaign also announced a back-to-school tour by Jill Biden, a former high school teacher and community college professor.
Image: Screen capture of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden giving remarks about reopening school safely on Sept. 2, 2020.