Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.


Trump and Biden Tussle Over Reopening Schools, Risk COVID-19 Poses to Teachers

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 22, 2020 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The two presidential nominees sparred briefly during Thursday’s presidential debate about what schools need and the extent to which they can open safely as the coronavirus continues to spread.

President Donald Trump said several times that he wants schools to reopen and downplayed the risk the virus poses to teachers as well as young people. Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden stressed that schools need more resources, and mocked Trump’s comments that children transmit the virus to teachers at very low rates.

Both candidates largely stuck to their primary messages about schools and education during the pandemic. Biden’s campaign has called for additional funding to pay for personal protective equipment and other resources to help schools reopen safely and protect schools and their communities, as well as clear national guidelines to help local school officials. Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly pressured schools to reopen their doors, downplayed the risk the virus poses to children, and over the summer threatened to withhold federal aid from those that didn’t (although he lacks the power to do so).

The short exchange, prompted by a question from debate moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News, didn’t illuminate much about where the candidates stand on students, schools and teachers. That’s despite the fact that the virus has severely disrupted education and the lives of millions of school-age children and their families, and has triggered serious concerns about the long-term impact of closed or disrupted schools on students. Yet it was the most substantive discussion of K-12 education of any of the presidential debates and town halls with Biden and Trump.

‘Not That Many of You Are Going to Die’

Trump made the initial reference to schools early in the debate when he said, “We have to open our schools.” Yet it was Biden who honed in on education when he highlighted the steps the country must take to contain the virus and reopen the economy and society safely. He also highlighted the need for clear national guidelines.

“They need a lot of money to open,” Biden said of schools. “They need to deal with ventilation systems, smaller classes, more teachers, more pods. And [Trump has] refused to support that money, at least until now.” (Biden repeated that call for more school relief later in the debate.)

Some things to keep in mind about that statement:

  • It’s true that for schools holding in-person classes during the pandemic, class size is an important consideration. And amid concerns about how poor ventilation in schools could help spread the virus, a recent federal report estimated that over 30,000 schools need HVAC repairs or upgrades. Yet it’s unclear what Biden meant when he linked the cost of pods—which are essentially unofficial arrangements parents make for their children’s education and care—to additional costs schools face. In fact, parents and others organize them outside the control of local schools.
  • As for Biden’s claim that Trump doesn’t support pandemic aid for schools: Trump did sign the CARES Act that included over $13 billion in aid for K-12 schools. And his administration has in general backed some sort of additional aid for schools. However, Trump’s White House has repeatedly lobbied for K-12 aid to be conditioned in some way on schools holding in-person classes, a position that’s been reflected in Senate GOP relief bills that have failed to cross the finish line. The Trump administration has also pushed for expanding school choice in relief packages.

In response, Trump brought up teachers in the context of his desire to open schools and the economy. “The transmittal rate to the teachers is very small,” he said. “I want to open the schools. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.” He also blamed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for Washington’s failure to pass a new coronavirus relief package in recent months. Much of the education community has been deeply frustrated with the inability of federal officials to reach a deal for more virus aid.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released pandemic guidelines for schools, including a recent set of color-coded risk levels for schools holding in-person classes, based on local spread of the virus. Yet many education officials have questioned why the agency didn’t release clearer guidance much earlier in the pandemic. They’ve also questioned the CDC’s general approach to schools during the pandemic.

Biden reacted by rattling off the need for more testing, contact tracing, and other resources. Then he addressed teachers directly and mocked Trump’s comments minimizing the risk the virus posed to them: “Not that many of you are going to die, so don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it. C’mon.”

Early data suggests that having students in school buildings does not lead to a surge in local cases of the virus. Yet how that data is collected, and the lack of a centralized operation tracking the link between schools and coronavirus cases, remains a concern for many. Since the start of the academic year, schools have struggled to keep tabs on coronavirus cases. And the debate over whether and when schools should hold in-person classes has gotten more intense in recent weeks amid concerns about student learning loss and emotional as well as material suffering.

While young children seem to be at a relatively low risk for getting severely sick or dying from the virus, older teachers and those with underlying conditions have worried about returning to the classroom. And figuring out which teachers can work from home and which must come into school buildings has challenged K-12 leaders. A lawsuit in Florida brought by teachers and teachers’ unions over the summer challenging a push to reopen schools is a prominent example of that anxiety among teachers.

Here is Education Week’s memorial to educators who have died from the coronavirus.

Photo: President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)

Follow us on Twitter @PoliticsK12. And follow the Politics K-12 reporters @EvieBlad @Daarel and @AndrewUjifusa.

Related Tags:

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal White House Launches Hispanic Education Initiative Led by Miguel Cardona
President Joe Biden said his administration intends to address the "systemic causes" of educational disparities faced by Hispanic students.
2 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona writes down and draws positive affirmations on poster board with students during his visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in New York.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits students in New York City at P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school in the Bronx last month.
Brittainy Newman/AP
Federal Feds Add Florida to List of States Under Investigation Over Restrictions on Mask Mandates
The Education Department told the state Sept. 10 it will probe whether its mask rule is violating the rights of students with disabilities.
3 min read
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session on April 30, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session on April 30, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Federal How Biden Will Mandate Teacher Vaccines, Testing in Some States That Don't Require Them
President Joe Biden's COVID-19 plan will create new teacher vaccination and testing requirements in some states through worker safety rules.
4 min read
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site setup for teachers and school staff at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa., on March 15, 2021.
Nurse Sara Muela administers a COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site for at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa.
Matt Rourke/AP
Federal Biden Pushes Schools to Expand COVID-19 Testing, Get More Teachers Vaccinated
President Joe Biden set teacher vaccine requirements for federally operated schools as part of a new effort to drive down COVID's spread.
7 min read
President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room at the White House, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in Washington. Biden is announcing sweeping new federal vaccine requirements affecting as many as 100 million Americans in an all-out effort to increase COVID-19 vaccinations and curb the surging delta variant.
President Joe Biden in a speech from the White House announces sweeping new federal vaccine requirements and other efforts in an renewed effort to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andrew Harnik/AP