I have two younger sisters. One will be a senior in high school, and the other will be an 8th grader. In our town, there is only one public school. There is also one private Catholic school, but it only goes up to eighth grade, and we’re not catholic. By default, then, my sisters attend the public schools. Every high schooler in my town goes to the same building.
Until the pandemic hit, of course, at which point nobody was going to school. That is, physically. The district attempted some remote education, but it’s extremely difficult in rural Iowa where not everybody has the same access to internet and technology. Also, remote learning is just not as effective, especially for young students.
So as we enter into August, the question on everybody’s mind is: will schools reopen?
And what will be the effects if they do? If they don’t? At the moment, the district in my town is planning a hybrid approach, much like many districts throughout the country. But the issue of reopening schools has become extremely controversial, thanks to President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Ms. DeVos is one of the most contentious members of President Trump’s cabinet. With her views of public schools as a “dead end” and her overall lack of experience, she isn’t what many educators would believe to be a good fit for running the department.
One thing about her approach has been pretty clear— she is a proponent of conservative values, such as small government and local control. In education, this meant leaving decisions up to states, cities, and parents. When the pandemic hit, she advocated for loosening federal control. Now, however, she has demanded that public schools reopen, contradicting the approach she has taken thus far. It’s clear that this flip is thanks to President Trump, who has been pushing for schools to reopen.
The rational for this is obvious.
Reopening schools is essential to reopening the economy. Trump views revamping the economy as essential to his reelection. Ever since the nation first shut down due to COVID-19, he has had one goal: open everything back up. He seems to care very little—or not at all—what the consequences might be. Even for the cost of human life.
It’s clear that Secretary DeVos, like just about everyone Trump surrounds himself with, has become another puppet. In April, Ms. DeVos was singing a different tune, one of creating more options for schools and families, advocating (even if problematically) for private schools and tutoring as alternatives to in-person public schools, and a grant competition for states to create virtual learning options. Now, as Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute puts it, she has been “handicapped by the president.”
And Ms. DeVos isn’t the only one who has bent to the will of Trump.
The CDC, which had earlier released guidelines stating that a full reopening of schools would be dangerous to students and staff, released new guidelines on July 23, titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall.” The initial guidelines had emphasized the high risk of a full reopening; the revisions claim that transmition rates among students are low and emphasize the social and psychological importance of in-person schooling.
Both the Trump administration and Ms. DeVos have threatened to withhold funds from school districts if they don’t reopen. However, neither of them have the power to carry out this threat. The department can only revoke funds if schools don’t meet the minimum number of hours for teaching.
It’s true that public schools provide essential services to many students.
This is especially the case in low income districts and communities of color. These families rely on schools for meals and social services, and they have already borne the brunt of the pandemic.
However, for in-school teaching to resume safely in the United States, we would need have the pandemic under control (infection rates dropping). Schools would also need to alter their normal conditions to be safe: smaller classes, extra nurses, improved sanitation and ventilation, and PPE for everyone involved. These things cost money, and the funding available to public school districts has decreased, not increased. Due to the economic recession, tax revenue has gone down. This also causes a structural inequality between districts—wealthy areas are likely to have safer schools.
Meanwhile, the virus is still running rampant in the South and West of the country.
The heavy politicization of reopening schools could have drastic consequences, as states will be under pressure from the President to take steps that may not be safe. This is especially the case in conservative states with Republican leaders. Iowa is one such state. I have every reason to be worried for the health and safety of my family.
NYR: How Trump Politicized Schools Reopening, Regardless of Safety
NYT: DeVos Abandons a Lifetime of Local Advocacy to Demand Schools Reopen