DeVos blasts school districts that hesitate at reopeningJuly 7, 2020
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday lashed out at school districts that haven’t promised to fully reopen their schools this fall, blasting education leaders who won’t accept risk and “gave up and didn’t try” to launch summer instruction.
During a call with governors, she slammed the Fairfax, Va., district for its distance learning “disaster” in the spring and offering a choice of only zero or two days of in-person instruction moving forward, according to notes of a call with governors obtained by POLITICO. Earlier in the pandemic, DeVos had been more open to kids learning both online and during in-person classes.
“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,” she said.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar separately backed up DeVos, saying parents should expect schools to deliver a safe learning environment for their children, even during a pandemic.
“We must reopen,” he said during a White House event on reopening schools. “We’ve got to get people back to work, back to school, back to health care, because we can’t stay locked in our homes forever. It’s bad for our physical and mental and emotional health — us as adults, as well as for our kids.”
DeVos spoke during a call, led by Vice President Mike Pence, between administration officials and governors on the administration’s push to reopen schools. Her comments prompted a strong and immediate reaction from teachers unions.
“The reality is no one should listen to Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos when it comes to what is best for student,” said Lily Eskelsen García, National Education Association president. “Trump has not once proven credible, compassionate or thoughtful when it comes to this pandemic.”
The White House is hammering a message of reopening schools even as coronavirus cases spike throughout the country, insisting it’s okay to move ahead and that decisions last spring to close doors came from states rather than health experts at the CDC.
The push to reopen comes as parents agonize over whether it will be safe to send their kids back to school this fall and districts wrestle with whether and how to conduct classes. The reopening of schools is vital not just to getting the economy going, but to Trump’s reelection prospects. The campaign may be banking on the issue as a way to revive his appeal among disaffected suburban women, whose support will be key.
The Trump campaign is also seizing on Joe Biden’s support of teachers unions that are stalwarts of Democratic politics and challenging whether Biden is committed to helping parents get their kids back to school. The campaign’s “question of the day” on Tuesday for Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is “Will you side with union bosses who want to keep schools closed or parents who want their kids to keep learning?”
After Trump tweeted, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!,” García fired back on Monday, “You forgot to add the word ‘SAFELY.’” Biden, speaking to the NEA on Friday, pledged his administration will have a “teacher-oriented” Department of Education.
The White House is hosting events throughout Tuesday on safely reopening, culminating with a roundtable discussion with Trump, first lady Melania Trump, administration officials and teachers, administrators and students from around the country. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, wrote an op-ed for USA Today advocating liability protections for schools in any upcoming emergency relief package and underlining GOP support for helping parents with their child care problems.
DeVos, in a slight departure from Trump, last spring suggested through a spokesperson that schools may have to stick with virtual learning if they’re not ready to fully reopen. But on Tuesday, during a panel discussion at the White House, she praised Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for issuing a “very comprehensive” reopening plan, which orders all of Florida’s public schools to reopen in August for at least five days per week for all students.
“There may be other states and other communities that want to look at that, but again, with the expectation that students are together and that families will be able to count on a five-day school week if that’s the right answer for them,” she said.
The White House is leaning on CDC reopening guidance and a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics that details the importance of in-person learning and “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
CDC Director Robert Redfield said during another White House panel discussion that reopening plans should minimize the risk of Covid-19 while providing students the critical services, academic resources and social and emotional support they need. And plans should anticipate that Covid cases “will in fact occur.”
“The CDC encourages all schools, all schools to do what they need to reopen,” he said, adding that guidance the agency has issued should be viewed as guidance 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.”
He added: “I think it’s worth noting that the CDC never recommended general school closure throughout this pandemic” and that civil leaders made that decision.
“I’m not critical of it,” he said. “I’m just saying that from a public health point of view, we didn’t see that schools needed to be closed, generally.”
“We’ve been concerned that students, particularly our most vulnerable students, have lost the support services they need in order to meet their child development goals and their educational attainment goals,” a senior administration official said during a call with reporters.
“Finally, we recognize that our education officials need the guidance and leadership of our public health officials and that they are eager to return to the classroom, particularly those receiving federal support in response to this crisis.”
The CDC said in updated guidance issued June 30 that schools should not conduct universal testing for the coronavirus when school reopens and that school staff should not be expected to directly administer tests.
On Monday, the administration made another move in favor of in-person classes with a new rule that bans visas to international college students in online-only programs.
An administration official during the call dodged questions about whether the administration would withhold federal funding from K-12 schools without in-person instruction. The official pointed instead to “flexible” emergency aid that had already been provided to schools and states through the CARES Act, H.R. 748 (116).
“School decisions are local decisions,” an official said.
During the call with governors, Pence and DeVos emphasized that only 1.5 percent of K-12 CARES dollars — $13 billion — have been drawn down to date and called on governors to work with state education agencies to increase distribution of funds, according to the notes of the call.
In Congress, Republican leaders are focusing on liability protections in education.
“K-12 schools across the country have asked for Congress to provide meaningful, targeted protection from frivolous claims and lawsuits resulting from possible exposure to the coronavirus on school facilities and property,” McCarthy wrote.
“A wave of such lawsuits threatens to prevent child care providers and schools from reopening, which would undermine the economic and social recovery of our country.”