Trump threatens to withhold funds if schools don’t reopen

Dive Brief:

  • President Donald Trump, in a series of tweets Wednesday, suggested that federal funding would be withheld from schools that don’t fully reopen in the fall, in addition to criticizing reopening guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for their cost and unfeasibility.
  • In a statement responding to the remarks, House Appropriations Committee Communications Director Evan Hollander clarified that Congress makes funding decisions for federal education programs and that Trump “has no authority to cut off funding for these students,” Bloomberg reports.
  • In a Wednesday briefing at the U.S. Department of Education, Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos maintained pressure on schools nationwide to open in the fall, with DeVos citing plans for a hybrid model and staggered scheduling in Fairfax County, Virginia, as an example of “false paradigms.” She reiterated that “it’s not a matter of if schools will open, but how.” Pence also announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will issue new reopening guidelines next week, Time reports.

Dive Insight:

The heavy pressure from the Trump administration for schools to fully reopen nationwide notably runs counter to the traditional Republican stance favoring local control of school decisions, as well as guidance from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, local health experts and the existing guidance from the CDC

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also weighed in Wednesday on the administration’s pressure to reopen schools, stating that the president lacks legal authority to force reopenings, adding that decisions in his state will be made on an individual district level and based on how safe it is to do so.

While research suggests children and teens are less likely to be infected with coronavirus, administrators’ concerns have also centered around those with preexisting conditions who may be at higher risk, as well as the potential for spread to and from faculty, staff and family members. Last week, more than 40 principals in the San Francisco Bay Area were exposed to coronavirus during an in-person meeting to discuss reopening plans, highlighting concerns.

According to Politico, DeVos reportedly chastised governors regarding those risks during a Tuesday call, saying, “Education leaders need to examine real data and weigh risk. … Risk is involved in everything we do, from learning to ride a bike to riding a rocket into space and everything in between.”

Educators zeroed in on the “space” portion of the comment on Twitter, noting the extensive safety protocols put in place for astronauts.

The battle over reopening schools is still likely to be decided at the local level, given the amount of control Congress and individual states have in the matter. Worth further consideration is high parental anxiety expressed in recent polls, with one USA Today/Ipsos poll finding around 60% of parents would rather continue home learning in fall than send their students back to school. In the same poll, around 20% of teachers said they would be unlikely to return. Data from the American Enterprise Institute also shows 18% of teachers and 27% of principals are high-risk on the basis of age alone, an issue that raises the possibility of shortages amid a return.

Implementing safety measures like social distancing in a full reopening is also a bit more complicated, as there isn’t enough space in most classrooms for 20-30 students to be seated 6 feet apart. Students, particularly younger learners, are also unlikely to keep masks on or refrain from touching each other.

But these concerns are also being weighed with factors like socialization and collaboration, which are difficult to pull off or lost altogether during online learning. Efforts to salvage as much of spring as possible via distance learning were rocky overall, as the transition required teachers and students to embrace an entirely new model they weren’t prepared for practically overnight, and many students lacked access to home internet and devices. 

Schools have had time to work out some of these concerns and provide additional professional development opportunities, improving the odds online or hybrid approaches could see better results in fall. But maintaining access to things like home internet for low-income students will remain a challenge without additional funding — or, in the case of some rural districts, investment in additional local infrastructure.

The argument from educators isn’t that their students are ultimately better off learning online versus in-person — neither side is arguing that point — but that the return to school must have plenty of safety measures in place. And as other countries have shown, pulling off such a return successfully is no small feat.

“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 Tuesday. “It’s the responsibility of doing so safely for staff and students that makes it less likely to reopen at 100% enrollment.”

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