Contradicting health guidance, White House pressures schools to reopen

Dive Brief:

  • White House health officials, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence ramped up pressure Tuesday for schools to reopen. “We want to reopen the schools,” Trump said during a White House school reopening roundtable. “It’s time to do it.”
  • The roundtable followed a discussion with DeVos, who said schools should expect to open in the fall after blasting districts that she said “frankly just gave up” during distance learning. “And that’s not an acceptable solution going forward,” she added.
  • The push to reopen schools nationwide in fall contradicts what Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and local health experts, who many districts leaders are working with, have said which is that local school districts should make the decision on when and how to reopen based on community level coronavirus spread.

Dive Insight:

The hard-line stance on school reopenings from both the president and DeVos was one of the first times the administration definitively weighed in on the national debate, which is intensifying as coronavirus cases climb in some states and the start of the school year nears.

The formal push follows an all-caps tweet from Trump earlier this week.

At consecutive events Tuesday, leaders raised the closures’ social-emotional impact on students’ well-being and the community supports schools offer as reasons to return to a face-to-face environment.

“We ought to well be concerned about children falling behind academically, and there’s no substitute for in-classroom learning,” Pence said during the event, adding 47 governors have announced plans to reopen schools.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said districts should “do what they need to reopen.”

“Nothing would cause me greater sadness than to see any school district or school use our guidance as a reason not to reopen,” Redfield said. “As you measure the different risks, it’s clear that we would see the greater risk to our society as to have these schools closed.”

While educators acknowledge the psychological toll closures have taken on students as well as adults, they point out there are many different risks including those to teachers and staff to consider.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find any superintendent or district leader who doesn’t want to reopen,” Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, The School Superintendents Association, told Education Dive in an email. “It’s the responsibility of doing so safely for staff and students that makes it less likely to reopen at 100% enrollment.”

Education leaders were also quick to challenge the pressure from Trump and DeVos.

Educators want nothing more than to be back in classrooms and on college campuses with our students, but we must do it in a way that keeps students, educators and communities safe,” Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement. She added Trump “ignores” local and education leaders in his decisions. The reality is no one should listen to Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos when it comes to what is best for students.”

However, while some national leaders during the White House roundtable backtracked on their assertion to reopen and said states will be making the individual decisions, what was left unclear is how safety precautions and mental health supports needed during reopening will be funded.

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers released a survey of 1,200 K-12 educators, paraprofessionals and higher education faculty, suggesting a majority of respondents would be comfortable going back to school if key safety precautions are met.

Reopening schools doesn’t happen with an all-caps tweet,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “It happens with careful planning to meet our students’ well-being and academic needs, methodical attention to preventing virus spread in schools, and sufficient federal resources to help us get there.”

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