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Trump Again Pushes Schools to Reopen, Says Older Teachers Should Stay Home

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 06, 2020 4 min read
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President Donald Trump on Wednesday again lobbied for the nation’s schools to reopen, saying children do relatively well in response to the coronavirus—although he did say teachers of a certain age shouldn’t report to class due to health concerns.

Trump, who doesn’t have the legal authority to mandate that schools reopen or stay closed, repeated a pitch he made more than a week ago that he thinks schools should open their doors again, and that young people seem not to be very affected by the virus—even though there is growing evidence about children’s ability to transmit the virus.

In an Oval Office event focused on nurses, in response to a question about the idea of schools reopening, Trump said that, “I would like to see schools open, wherever possible.” As of Wednesday afternoon, 47 states, four U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia have ended traditional in-person instruction for the rest of this school year.

The president went on to say, however, that perhaps with respect to teachers over 60 or have chronic health issues like diabetes, “I think that they should not be teaching school for a while, and everybody would understand that fully.” He then turned to students: “We see how well children seem to do, it’s incredible. You realize how strong children are, right? Their immune system is maybe a little bit different, maybe it’s just a little bit stronger, or maybe it’s a lot stronger.”

Trump didn’t specify that he wants schools to return before the end of this academic year wherever possible, or later this year. The president made his comments in response to a reporter’s question that did not include a specific month or timeline.

An Associated Press report of Trump’s call with governors on April 27 said the president told them to consider reopening schools before the end of the academic year. And the same day, he said, “I think you’ll see a lot of schools open up, even if it’s for a very short period of time.” During a Fox News virtual town hall a few days ago, in response to a question about whether K-12 schools and universities should reopen in September, Trump said he thought they should. During that event, he also expressed concerns about older teachers.

Some state chiefs have indicated that school closures may extend into the fall. And depending on the possible resurgence of the virus, there could also be rolling school closures.

‘Thousands of Children Together in School Buildings’

Recent data indicates that to the extent the novel coronavirus is especially harmful for older adults, a significant share of the teaching workforce could be at risk. As our colleague Maddy Will reported recently, federal statistics show that about 29 percent of teachers are age 50 or older; 92 percent of U.S. deaths related to COVID-19 were of people age 55 and older.

At least one blueprint for reopening schools notes that older educators are going to need special consideration. Some states have indicated they’ll have accommodations along those lines. Then again, some of those teachers are wondering whether they should return at all.

Then there’s the issue of children, who have generally been less likely to suffer serious harm or death from COVID-19. However, they are still “effective transmitters of respiratory germs,” the National Association of School Nurses told Education Week earlier this year. And two new studies reaffirmed that view, although neither definitely proved it, the New York Times reported.

At the same time, some countries like Denmark and Japan have reopened schools, or are considering doing so in the near future.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García quickly clapped back at Trump later on Wednesday, criticizing the president for his comments and for, she said, trusting his “gut” over the advice of health experts. “Bringing thousands of children together in school buildings without proper testing, tracing, and social isolation is dangerous and could cost lives,” she said.

In White House guidelines to help states reopen on a gradual basis, schools that had been shut down due to the coronavirus would stay shut in the first phase, but reopen in the second phase. Because of the role they play in the economy and society at large, decisions about school closures are complex.

Montana has given schools the option to reopen their doors starting on Thursday, although so far most districts haven’t indicated a strong interest in reopening this year. The Montana schools chief said she’s not pressuring districts to reopen or stay closed, but has given them guidance on things like graduation ceremonies and other activities.

Photo: President Donald Trump participates in a tour of a Honeywell International plant that manufactures personal protective equipment, Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Phoenix, with Tony Stallings, vice president of Integrated Supply Chain at Honeywell, right and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)