Trump Back-to-School Threats Pressure Educators Fearing Covid

School districts across the U.S. face a common challenge as President Donald Trump pushes them to re-open in the fall: Students won’t have a typical classroom day.

The need to maintain adequate social distancing and protect students and staff from contracting the coronavirus is forcing schools to figure out how to stagger class schedules, limit student attendance, and continue online instruction.

Those plans clash with Trump’s recent push to send pupils back to school. The president, facing a tough re-election contest in a year of a global pandemic, millions of job losses, and with those still employed quarantined at home juggling home-schooling their children, has accused Democrats of wanting to keep campuses closed for political reasons.

In a tweet Wednesday, Trump threatened to cut off federal funds to schools that fail to re-open. Vice President Mike Pence later said Congress should use additional virus relief aid to push schools to re-open. Those demands that regular classes resume could complicate efforts to restart classes while guarding against new infections, experts say.

“It’s terrible that the administration is politicizing this decision,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a conservative education researcher. Pointing to Republican areas, he added: “You can imagine superintendents in deep red communities now who are going to feel pressure to open full-time.”

At Clayton County Public Schools district in Georgia, officials are grappling with how to re-open amid a surge of coronavirus cases in the state. Families have been put on notice that schools could operate under one of three options depending upon public health data and the severity of the pandemic: with traditional face-to-face classes, a mix of in-person and online classes, or entirely online.

“Everybody needs to be nimble and be prepared to pivot,” said Morcease Beasley, the district’s superintendent.

Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, listens during a hearing in Washington, D.C.

Not ‘If,’ but ‘How’

Lawmakers such as Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, have insisted for weeks that schools must plan to reopen in the fall.

“The question before the country today is not whether to go back to school or college or childcare or work but how to do it safely,” Alexander said in a June hearing on school re-openings.

School leaders say they want to get students back in physical classrooms as well.

“We know that we do our best work when we have our students with us every day in our classrooms and our schools,” said Paul Cruz, superintendent of Austin Independent School District in Texas.

The Austin district will offer families and teachers the choice between returning in person or continuing classes online. That option reflects concerns of many families about sending their children back to campuses as coronavirus cases surge in Texas and other states.

At the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, CEO Eric Gordon said students will likely attend classes in-person for only part of the week or in morning and afternoon shifts to comply with social distancing.

“The opportunity we have is to figure out how to create a much more customized model,” he said.

That kind of creative scheduling is one of the tools school districts should use to reopen safely, in addition to masks and social distancing, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told lawmakers in hearing last month.

Debate Over Federal Support

Pulling off that hybrid classroom model comes with complications. Parents returning to work outside the home as well as many teachers themselves will need child care when their children aren’t in class. School districts will also need to spend more for technology such as laptops, tablets, and wireless devices so students can learn at home.

Educators are calling for Congress to provide more money for public education to support online learning and health measures on campuses, and to protect schools from cuts to state funding.

Gordon, the CEO of Cleveland schools, called a House coronavirus package passed in May (H.R. 6800) that provided $58 billion for K-12 schools “a good start,” but said public schools will need closer to $200 billion in federal aid.

Democrats, ahead of Senate talks, have proposed a $430 billion education relief package for colleges and schools, including $4 billion for internet connectivity and $50 billion for a childcare stabilization fund.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos meanwhile has echoed White House calls to condition additional emergency relief on schools physically reopening in the fall. Schools “must fully open and they must be fully operational. How that happens is best left to community leaders,” she said.

No ‘One-Size-Fits-All’

DeVos doesn’t support a “one-size-fits-all” approach and schools could choose a hybrid teaching model as one possibility, Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said.

“Students and families need options based on their personal situations and the local health realities,” she said in an email. “Schools should continue to rethink their approach to education to be more student-centric and deliver a more personalized education.”

DeVos this week has also repeatedly criticized Fairfax County Public Schools outside Washington for allowing students to attend classes fully online or in-person two days a week this fall.

Many school districts didn’t rise to the challenge of offering quality online learning in the spring, Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center, said. Still the Trump administration’s push to re-open schools “doesn’t make a lot of sense,” she said.

The Education Department instead could help schools address health and safety on their campuses and expand online connectivity for students learning at home, she said.

“This administration, I thought, was in support of local preferences and options for families,” Lake said. “That doesn’t really square with what they seem to be saying.”

Beasley, the superintendent of Clayton County schools, said his district won’t change its reopening plans in response to White House pressure or threats to federal funding.

“We only get so much in federal aid. It’s not enough to make us or break us,” he said. “This is a local matter. We’re going to make decisions that are in the best interest of our community.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergtax.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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