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The Educator Online

Trump and DeVos Have No Plan to Reopen Schools

Union leaders want to know what Trump will do to keep students and teachers safe in the fall

Kris LaGrange's picture
Jul 13, 2020

Last week, Trump announced that schools would reopen in the fall regardless of the situation around COVID-19. He even took to Twitter to threaten states with a reduction in funding if they do not open with full in-person classes. To defend his policy, Trump sent Education Secretary Betsy DeVos out to defend the policy.

On the Sunday shows, DeVos demanded that schools reopen in the fall for in-person classes. On Fox News, DeVos said "American investment in education is a promise to students and their families. If schools aren't going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn't get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.” Of course, forcing schools to reopen in the fall puts them in a precarious situation. It will likely cost millions to pay for the changes that will be needed, but the federal government is refusing to kick in any extra money and is instead threatening to cut funding. Without the HERO's Act getting signed, it is likely that schools will not have enough resources to pay for the needed safety equipment, but will also be forced to begin laying off teachers.

The problem with Trump and DeVos's plan is that there is no national plan to protect students and teachers. When asked by CNN’s Dana Bash about the US Education Department’s guidance for reopening schools, she responded saying:

Well, the Department of Education has been working hard for the last several months. All of my team, we have been working closely with state school leaders to ensure that they had maximum flexibility. Waiving tests, providing student loan relief, all things that have helped local education leaders and state leaders do the right things for their students. But we know that far too many kids didn’t have any learning experience. Going into the fall we need to ensure that kids are going to be learning full time, no matter how that looks.

That, of course, is not a national policy that will guarantee schools safely open in the fall. Rather it's politician speak, to say that the Education Department did very little to help teachers and school districts who were trying to figure out how to educate students online and how to get them back into the classroom in the fall.

In response to Trump and DeVos, education leaders and union leaders have spoken out. “This weekend in interviews on Fox News and CNN, DeVos showed us that she can’t answer even the most basic questions about getting students and educators back in the classroom safely while confirming that her department has no plans or guidance to help states and school districts reopen,” said the National Education Association (NEA). “Since March, when teachers and students transitioned—practically overnight—to online distance learning, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education has been largely absent. During the months that school buildings have been shuttered, DeVos has largely ignored the nation’s 51 million public school students, instead working to further her extreme agenda to privatize public education and divert public school dollars into unaccountable and often discriminatory private schools. Rather than working to get laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to the 8-12 million students—largely from Native, Black, and Hispanic communities—who don’t have the resources to participate in tele-learning. And as the economic crisis puts nearly 2 million educators’ jobs at risk, DeVos is doing nothing to ensure that the teachers and education support professionals our students need will be there this fall.”

While much of the focus has been on getting students back into the classroom, schools cannot reopen in the fall without teachers. In places like New York and Los Angeles, schools closed in March because teachers said they were concerned about their health in the classroom. This fear hasn’t gone away as a Kaiser study estimates that about 24% of the country’s teachers would be in a “high risk” category. This means that they are older or have an underlying health condition that could make them susceptible to long term health problems or death.

While Trump and DeVos may want schools to open full time in the fall if a quarter of teachers can’t or won’t teach due to COVID-19, it may become impossible to open schools for in-person learning. Schools will also face a logistical nightmare. According to Fairfax County Virginia Superintendent Scott Brabrand, reopening his district, which is one of the largest in the nation, under social distancing guidelines would require the district to purchase an additional 200 locations. This is because the district has no where near the space needed to ensure that their 188,000 students are spaced at least six feet apart. Currently, Brabrand estimates, the average social distance available currently would only be 18 inches. Since buying 200 new schools isn't feasible, Fairfax schools are planning to open with two days a week of in-classroom learning. Other large districts like New York City are proposing a similar schedule, while Los Angeles and San Diego have announced that they will begin the year with online-only classes due to cases spiking in California.

Both Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and The School Superintendents Association say that reopening schools in just a few weeks will require a huge influx of funding. “Not only is there a [need] for retrofitting, for ventilation systems, but also for buying the damned masks for the cleaning equipment, for the nurses that we’re going to need,” Weingarten said. “That’s why we’ve been pushing really hard… To get the [federal] money that states need… to re-open schools.” The School Superintendents Association estimates that on average it would cost $1.8  million per school district to put in the necessary protective measures.

While politicians like Florida’s Ron DeSantis like to say that if it is safe to go to Walmart or Home Depot than it is safe to go to school, the reality is that schools pose a much larger health threat. While the average customer doesn’t spend more than an hour in a store, teachers will be asked to spend upwards of 4-6 hours a day with their students. They will also be forced to deal with students who are too young to keep their masks on, unlike the average customer at Walmart, and may not understand the importance of social distancing.

With just a few weeks left for schools to finalize their reopening plans, they are once again asking the Trump administration for help, and once again, Trump is telling them to do it alone. Another failure from the Trump administration that could be putting your kids and their teachers at risk.

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