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White House Ratchets Up Political Pressure to Reopen School Buildings

By Evie Blad — July 07, 2020 7 min read
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President Donald Trump made his most forceful push yet Tuesday for schools that closed due to the coronavirus to reopen their buildings to students.

“We want to get our schools open,” Trump said at a White House event focused on the issue. “We want to get them open quickly, beautifully in the fall. As you know this is a horrible disease, but young people do extraordinarily well.”

Trump said he would continue to pressure governors and state leaders to open schools. He spoke as education groups continued to push for more dedicated funding they say is necessary to reopen schools after unprecedented closures.

Trump and his campaign have also sought to use school reopenings for political advantage in the 2020 president campaign, issuing statements challenging former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, on the issue.

Biden, meanwhile, has said schools need more funding and support to reopen, which he included in his coronavirus recovery plan.

“There’s probably a high probability we’ll have to continue with remote learning in some parts of the country for a while longer,” Biden told National Education Association delegates at their annual assembly Friday, which was held virtually.

The White House summit Tuesday came the day after Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an order requiring schools to open buildings for instruction in August. Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised Florida for that guidance Tuesday, even as administrators in Florida criticized the wisdom of the move, citing surging virus rates in the state. On Tuesday afternoon, Texas issued similar instructions to its school districts.

The president has been inconsistent on the issue. He’s regularly said schools should reopen, but he also once suggested he might override Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a fellow Republican, when he suggested he would open them in the spring.

On Tuesday, Trump also suggested leaders may be considering keeping schools closed for political reasons, not practical ones.

“We don’t want people to make political statements or do it for political reasons,” Trump said. “They think it’s good for them politically so they keep the schools closed. No way.”

Hybrid Approaches

“With everything in life, there is a matter of risk,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said at the White House event. “It’s a matter of assessing those risks and taking everything into account.”

Most school leaders around the country have pushed for in-person instruction in the fall, but they say it may be not be possible to fully reopen buildings to all students under protocols recommended to slow the spread of the virus.

Districts are preparing multiple options for the fall, with most anticipating the use of a hybrid plan. Under that model, rotating groups of students would learn from home a few days a week and in classrooms on the remaining days. They are also preparing for possible rolling closures should virus rates surge in their areas, causing the need for additional stay-home orders and remote learning.

Read our special report: How We Go Back to School

While states have released reopening guidance of their own, district leaders have relied heavily on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC called for strategies like face coverings and social distancing in schools, reducing capacity of school buses, closing communal spaces like cafeterias, and grouping students in classroom cohorts to minimize potential for the virus to spread between groups.

“I think it’s worth noting that the CDC never recommended general school closure throughout this pandemic,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said at the White House event. He said the agency would soon issue additional guidance on masks, student health screenings, and preparing schools for reopening.

State and local leaders should not “hide behind CDC’s guidance” as an excuse to not reopen schools, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at that event. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a similar message on a call with governors Tuesday, Azar said.

In deciding whether to reopen school buildings, leaders should consider factors beyond the virus itself, health and education representatives said at the event. Schools are also important for children’s social and emotional development, they said, and they serve as hubs for health care, nutrition, and reporting of child welfare concerns.

DeVos said remote learning hadn’t worked well for all students and that some schools hadn’t pivoted to online learning well.

Health officials at the event noted that children appear to be at lower risk for contracting COVID-19. But teachers and administrators have also expressed concern about the health of adults who work in their buildings. Last week, for example more than 40 school principals in Santa Clara, Calif., were told to quarantine after they were exposed to COVID-19 at a meeting called by their district.

Azar stressed that schools should be able to reopen with “very basic common sense” strategies like spreading desks six feet apart to promote social distancing, requiring face coverings and masks, and promoting practices like hand washing. And students and teachers with health vulnerabilities should be accommodated, he said.

“I think [parents] should expect that schools can deliver a safe learning environment for their kids, even when we experience a pandemic of this sort,” Azar said.

Officials also frequently referenced recent guidance by the American Academy of Pediatrics that leaders should prioritize reopening schools for in-person learning. That guidance includes some restrictions that differ from the CDC’s.

“We urge you to ensure that schools receive the resources necessary so that funding does not stand in the way” of reopenings, AAP President Sally Goza told Trump.

More Federal Funding?

Practices like social distancing in schools are anything but simple, principals and superintendents have told Education Week. Schools around the country lack adequate space to spread desks apart. Dated facilities have led to concerns about issues like ventilation. Wearing masks has become a political issue in some parts of the country, and teachers worry that families won’t comply with the rules. Transportation directors have struggled to redraw bus routes and shuffle schedules with heavily reduced capacity on school buses.

And they’re doing so as they face steep cuts to state and local funding.

Advocates from national teachers unions and education organizations have pushed for additional federal relief funding to help address these concerns, and to help address the learning needs of students after an inconsistent period of remote learning in the spring.

“Educators yearn to look into our students’ eyes and reassure them and give them the dedicated time and attention they need,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García told a House committee Tuesday. “But the safety of students and educators cannot be compromised. ... All of this demands more educators and more resources, not fewer.”

The first federal relief package—the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—included about $13 billion in funding for K-12 school districts and other potential aid from governors. But education groups have said schools need more money to deal with the logistics of re-opening. They’ve offered varying estimates of how much aid is necessary.

The HEROES Act, written by House Democrats and passed by that chamber in May, allocates $58 billion for districts. But the Republican-led Senate has said it won’t consider the bill.

While some Republicans have been skeptical of more spending, Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., recently said it would take from $50 billion to $75 billion for K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities, to reopen safely, lending his support to additional aid. And Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has said he will entertain discussions of further stimulus after a two-week recess due to end July 20, said last week that his priorities are “kids, jobs, and health care.”

Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the administration may push to include targeted funding to help schools reopen in the next federal coronavirus relief package, but he didn’t give any specifics.

Neither Trump nor any other administration official raised the issue of additional federal aid for schools at Tuesday’s meeting.

Photo: President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, in the Brady press briefing room at the White House, last month. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)