Trump schools Melania
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump at a discussion, that also included Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, about safely reopening America's schools in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, at the White House in Washington, July 7, 2020. Image Credit: NYT

Washington: President Donald Trump demanded on Tuesday that schools reopen physically in the fall, pressing his drive to get the country moving again even as the coronavirus pandemic surged through much of the United States and threatened to overwhelm some health care facilities.

In a daylong series of conference calls and public events at the White House, the president, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other senior officials opened a concerted campaign to lean on governors, mayors and others to resume classes in person months after more than 50 million children were abruptly ejected from school buildings in March.

Trump and his administration argued that the social, psychological and educational costs of keeping children at home any longer would be worse than the virus itself. But they offered no concrete proposals or new financial assistance to states and localities struggling to restructure academic settings, staffs and programmes that were never intended to keep children 6 feet apart or cope with the requirements of combating a virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans.

“We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open,” Trump said at a forum at the White House. “It’s very important. It’s very important for our country. It’s very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall.”

Education has long been a local issue, controlled by district school boards and state superintendents. Indeed, Trump campaigned in 2016 against efforts to nationalize education through programmes like the Common Core State Standards. So beyond jawboning, it was unclear what power Trump had to force policymakers’ hands. He stopped short of threatening to withhold federal funding, a potentially effective but risky lever.

Instead, the president used his bully pulpit, which has been influential in steering parts of the country where he has support. Trump heaped scorn on Harvard University for “closing for the season” this fall. In fact, Harvard said mainly first-year students and some students in special circumstances would be invited to campus in the fall, then seniors would replace them in the spring. “I think it’s ridiculous,” Trump said. “I think it’s an easy way out, and I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves, if you want to know the truth.”

Focus on schools

During an earlier conference call with governors, DeVos laced into school administrations that have done “next to nothing” to educate students during the pandemic. She also criticised specific districts “playing both paradigms” in planning a hybrid of in-person and online classes for the fall, singling out Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington.

“A couple of hours a week of online school is not OK, and a choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” DeVos said, according to a recording of the call obtained by The New York Times.

The president’s focus on schools and colleges, freighted with campaign-season politics, came as the United States topped 3 million coronavirus infections and the vast majority of states were experiencing new spikes. In Florida, more than 40 hospitals reported having no more beds in their adult intensive care units. In Ohio, the governor ordered residents in seven counties to wear masks in public, including those containing Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Eager to put the virus in his rearview mirror and focus blame elsewhere, Trump’s administration announced Tuesday that it had formally notified the United Nations that the United States would withdraw from the World Health Organisation next year in retaliation for its handling of the pandemic. And in a move to pressure colleges and universities that depend on full-tuition-paying international students for income, the administration moved to bar foreign students from returning to the United States if their schools stick with online classes only.

In demanding the resumption of schools, Trump waded into one of the most fraught issues confronting the country as it grapples with the deadliest pandemic in a century. Many parents, educators and doctors, including the American Academy of Paediatrics, have urged schools to reopen. But concerns remain high, especially among teachers who by virtue of age would be more vulnerable than the students.

Consequences for economy

The issue has enormous consequences for the economy as well as the upcoming election. With children at home, many parents are unable to resume work, hindering the economic resurgence Trump hopes to propel before the November 3 vote. And so, like wearing masks, the issue of reopening schools has become one more battleground in the ferocious ideological wars that divide America.

Trump brushed off the rise in virus cases, pointing instead to lower death rates, and characterized those reluctant to reopen the schools as partisans trying to hurt him politically at the height of his reelection campaign this fall. “They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed,” he said. “No way.”

Critics said Trump was the one playing politics, willing to gamble the health of students and teachers to salvage a flagging bid for a second term.

“The reality is no one should listen to Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos when it comes to what is best for students,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. She added: “Everything is about his reelection. Our No. 1 priority is that we keep our students safe.”

Her organisation joined several others, including the National Parent Teacher Association and the American Federation of Teachers, in a joint statement saying that without a comprehensive plan for safety, “we could be putting students, their families and educators in danger.”

After what amounted to a fitful and largely unsatisfying nationwide experiment in distance learning last spring, many districts are looking for ways to reopen in the fall, perhaps through a hybrid model relying on both online and in-person learning, including New York City, the nation’s largest school district. So far, Texas and Florida have announced that in-person instruction will be a mandatory option in the fall.

Teachers above 50

On a call with reporters, administration officials said they were urging schools to make plans that anticipate cases while minimising the risk of spread and the need for school closures. The officials said the biggest risk with reopening schools and colleges would be infected students transmitting the virus to someone more vulnerable.

Among the vulnerable are teachers: Nearly one-third of the nation’s public school teachers are 50 or older, according to federal data analysed by the research group Child Trends, which also found that teachers have more social contacts than typical adults because of the time they spend with students.

DeVos said education leaders needed to “examine real data and weigh risks,” which she said they did every day in normal circumstances, and went on to cite the other risks, such as widening achievement gaps, posed by long-term closures.

“Ultimately it’s not a matter of if schools need to open, it’s a matter of how,” DeVos said.

Education groups have released an array of plans for safely reopening schools, and some estimate they will need at least $200 billion in additional funding to meet public health requirements and stave off mass layoffs and programmatic cuts.

Those requests are stalled in Congress. But during the conference call with governors, DeVos said that of the $13.5 billion that has been allocated to school districts through the federal coronavirus rescue bill, only 1.5%, or $195 million, had been used by the states.