WASHINGTON — Speaking to members of Congress on Thursday, former federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan put the matter bluntly. “We have chosen to open bars,” Duncan said, “rather than to be able to start school on time.”
It was a bracing reminder of the priorities that elected leaders at all levels of government have chosen to accentuate throughout the last six months of the pandemic. And the reminder was especially bitter because in many places around the country, businesses like bars and restaurants have been forced to close again, or at least to stall their reopening efforts, because the mythical viral curve never quite flattened the way it was supposed to in May and June.
That means that schools in many parts of the country will remain closed this fall, depriving both parents and children of the relief they’d been hoping for after months of living under lockdown orders. Many are dreading months of remote learning, interrupted by Netflix binges and bouts of boredom and dread. Managing schooling at home will almost certainly fall on women.
Lawmakers, however, have few options available to them, since schools are mostly controlled on the local level. What they are mostly able to do is express frustration at a situation in large part beyond their control.
“The first question is, can you safely reopen? And the answer to that question is a clear yes,” Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., told Yahoo News. Scalise is a member of House Republican leadership and is the top Republican on the coronavirus subcommittee that hosted Duncan and other educators on Thursday.
“It’s not safe if you don’t make it safe,” Scalise told Yahoo News, arguing that it is imperative for in-person instruction to resume. “We owe it to our children to go get it done.”
President Trump has argued that Democrats want to keep schools closed in order to hurt his reelection chances in November. Accordingly, he has made reopening schools for in-person instruction a signature issue, sending tweets such as “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!” But he has not provided any federal guidance on how, exactly, schools can reopen safely and what the federal government will do in order to ensure that they are safely able to do so.
“Everyone is looking to our federal government to show some leadership here,” Duncan told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that it was unfair to ask school superintendents to make “life-or-death public health decisions.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did issue a nine-page checklist for schools, but it contains broad, sometimes obvious recommendations, such as appointing a person to consult “local health officials about the school’s approach to planning for COVID-19.”
As far as the president’s critics are concerned, not enough was done to slow the spread of the virus throughout the summer. And now, many of those critics say, not enough is being done to ensure that teachers and students will be safe if they do return to the classroom.
“We have lacked discipline,” said Duncan, who served as President Barack Obama’s education secretary for more than six years, and whose reformist tendencies sometimes alienated the same powerful teachers’ unions that are now resisting the push to reopen schools. “We have lacked a willingness to listen to science,” Duncan continued witheringly, “we have lacked a willingness to invest in our communities. We have not socially distanced.”
Duncan made his remarks to a coronavirus-related House Oversight subcommittee. Also at the hearing were two teachers and one administrator, who asserted that the nation is not ready to reopen schools for in-person instruction.
“Yes, teachers want to be in their classrooms,” said Angela Skillings, a second-grade teacher from Winkelman, Ariz., after describing how one of her colleagues had succumbed to the coronavirus. “But teachers also need to think of themselves and their families. Our jobs, our careers, are not just about our students. We also have to worry about our community, and the people we work with, and our own families at home.”
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, answered Skillings on Twitter. “Democrats are doing what’s best for the Teachers Union, the Teachers Union is doing what’s best for themselves & neither are doing what’s best for the students or their families,” he wrote in one of two messages about what Skillings said at the hearing.
Democrats have traditionally been close to teachers’ unions, including the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and the American Federation of Teachers. But in some places, Democratic leaders have been at odds with union leaders who have resisted returning to the classroom. That has added complex political fault lines to a public health crisis.
Some studies have suggested that schools are not significant sites of viral transmission because, for reasons still not entirely understood, children appear to become sick with and spread the coronavirus less than adults. That appears to be especially true for young children, according to a French study from June.
Yet it is impossible to craft policy from academic studies, especially in a country as large as the United States. And with the nation still experiencing more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases daily, American educators are not convinced that the nation’s public schools — which are frequently overcrowded and lacking the kind of ventilation that would help the virus from spreading — are prepared for the challenge.
Many have been spooked by what happened in Israel, which had to close schools shortly after reopening them in June. That nation, unlike the United States, had been seen as a coronavirus success story, at least early on.
Even as the coronavirus continues to kill hundreds of people daily across the Sun Belt and parts of the Midwest, the nation’s top public health officials agree that schools should try to reopen in communities that can maintain positivity rates below 5 percent.
“In the areas where we have this widespread case increase, we need to stop the cases, and then we can talk about safely reopening,” White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx recently said on CNN. She, like other federal officials, has tried to enjoin districts to open schools responsibly.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, who is trusted by the majority of Americans, said earlier this week that “we should try as best as we possibly can” to reopen schools while also warning that doing so without the proper protections could be dangerous.
Fauci cited the “psychological welfare of the children” in making his argument, which has been seconded by CDC Director Robert Redfield, Birx and others. They have all tried to make the argument without coming off as cavalier, while also recognizing that education is largely an issue that is debated on the state level.
States have largely acted on their own. Florida, with a positivity rate in the double digits, is reopening its schools for in-person instruction in much of the state next week even as a new report in the Palm Beach Post described how the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis allegedly pressured health officials to deny permission to districts that wanted to conduct remote learning.
Trump has praised governors like DeSantis, which has led to criticism that governors are manipulating or downplaying data in order to please the president.
At the same time, Trump has alienated public school educators and the unions that represent them (and that generally back Democrats). At a White House event on school reopening, not a single public school teacher was featured. That led Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, to accuse the president of “incompetence” and “narcissism.”
As he campaigns for reelection, Trump has tried to paint Democrats and their presumptive presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, as obstructionists whose continued support of teachers’ unions is damaging the nation.
“It’s shameful that Joe Biden and his Democrat allies are perfectly OK with obstructing children’s access to quality education and their parents’ return to the workplace just for political purposes when there is so much more at stake,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Samantha Zager.
A spokesperson for Biden’s presidential campaign pointed to the former vice president’s plan to reopen schools. That plan says that reopening should be “based on science and in consultation with communities and tribal governments” and describes massive infusions of funding to school districts across the country.
Weingarten and others have called for Congress to provide $200 billion to help schools prepare for reopening. To do so safely, school districts will need testing supplies, ventilation upgrades and other resources. But negotiations over a new coronavirus relief package have turned into a slog, with the White House at an impasse with congressional Democrats.
Scalise, the Republican leader, downplayed the need for additional funding, pointing out that the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March included $150 billion for state and local governments. States say they badly need more money, while Republicans like Scalise say they haven’t spent that original apportionment.
“Nobody can say we don’t have the money to do it,” Scalise told Yahoo News. “We got that number right. We gave them the money.”
For some educators, however, no amount of money, or data, can offer sufficient reassurance. “I think about the emotional impact of our students, and them not being in the classroom. I also think about the impact of them losing Miss Byrd,” said Skillings, the Arizona teacher, referencing Kimberly Byrd, a 61-year-old fellow teacher who died from the coronavirus in July. “She was here for 38 years. She was my son’s teacher for second and third grade. She was a dear colleague, a mentor and a friend.”
It does not help matters that Democrats and teachers’ unions also distrust Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary. A conservative education activist from Michigan, DeVos has spent the last four years battling public school educators on a variety of issues. Most recently, she tried to pressure states to use a larger portion of their coronavirus relief funds to help private and religious schools, as opposed to designating most of those funds to public schools.
“They don’t care about the 90 percent of kids who go to public schools,” Weingarten told Yahoo News, referring to Trump and DeVos.
In his opening remarks, the subcommittee’s chair, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., one of the top Democrats in the House, noted that DeVos had been invited to the hearing on reopening but declined to participate. Later a committee staffer told Yahoo News that Clyburn “sent a formal invitation to the Secretary two weeks ago, and subcommittee staff followed up repeatedly, offering to move the hearing to a different day or time this week to accommodate the Secretary’s schedule. But the Administration declined, suggesting instead that we delay the hearing by multiple weeks and accept a different witness.”
Angela Morabito, a spokesperson for DeVos, said Clyburn “mischaracterized the situation,” describing how the Education Department had offered to have Frank Brogan, an assistant secretary in charge of K-12 education, testify instead of DeVos. She said that “the subcommittee walked away from the offer” as the two parties were trying to set a date for Brogan to appear.
Morabito described Thursday’s hearing — at which no federal officials were present — as a “partisan hack job.”
Overlapping powers between state and local leaders, distrust of science and the spread of misinformation have only complicated the issue. Schools opened in parts of Georgia this week, leading to social media postings showing students disregarding social distancing measures and not wearing masks. And in one Mississippi school district, 122 students were placed in quarantine after returning to class because they were thought to have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Many of the biggest school districts in the country did not wait for such discouraging developments to declare that school would resume with remote-only instruction. Cities that will not open for in-person instruction come September will include Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., among many others.
In his opening remarks — delivered from behind the wheel of a parked car, in keeping with Congress’s new way of doing things — Scalise wondered why the District of Columbia, which reported only 75 new coronavirus infections on Thursday, was keeping kids at home. (In Washington, D.C., the most recent seven-day positivity rate has dropped to below 5 percent.)
“Those kids are going to suffer, and we all know it,” an impassioned Scalise said, claiming that no child under the age of 18 had died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. “The data is there, the science is there, the reports are everywhere about what damage is being done to those kids if those schools are not open.”
New York City, which has by far the biggest school district in the country, with 1.1 million students, will try to partially reopen for in-person instruction in the fall. Once the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic, the city has seen its positivity rate fall to 1 percent.
The city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has been criticized for his handling of the pandemic. Opening the nation’s biggest school district in the nation’s biggest city would give him the national attention he has long sought.
But the city’s challenges mirror those of the nation at large. For one, de Blasio, like Trump, does not appear to have a detailed reopening plan for schools to follow. And the relentless bickering between de Blasio, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and combative teachers’ union head Michael Mulgrew have only further hampered any possibility of a coherent response.
Together, the combination of a virus tearing through the nation and politicians tearing at each other has made educators understandably cautious. “We will not compromise the health and safety of our students, teachers and staff,” said Broward County, Fla., school superintendent Robert Runcie at Thursday’s hearing of the coronavirus subcommittee. “That’s our highest priority. Period.”
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