WASHINGTON — Even as the president and some governors push schools to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Wednesday that it would likely not work to supply schools with face masks.
There are “other alternatives” that are better equipped to help schools, FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor maintained under intense questioning from Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I learned in this business, never say ‘never,’” Gaynor told a plainly exasperated Richmond, who wanted to know if FEMA would use the powers it has under the Stafford Act to provide states with emergency public assistance to help schools reopen.
A spokesperson for FEMA later explained to Yahoo News that public assistance (PA) grants were reserved for emergency operations. “Normal operation of schools and other public facilities are not emergency protective measures, so PA would not provide funding for these activities in these circumstances,” the spokesperson explained.
Writing in the New York Daily News in late March, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge — who authored the Stafford Act after tornadoes in 1985 devastated the district he represented in Congress — encouraged Trump and Gaynor to use the authority provided by the law to help state and local governments fight the pandemic.
FEMA and other agencies have been operating under a nationwide emergency declaration since mid-March, but Gaynor has not been a visible member of the White House coronavirus task force. His influence on the president’s thinking is limited, if not outright nonexistent.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment about whether and how FEMA should be working on the school reopening effort.
Educators have maintained that schools cannot reopen safely without billions in additional funding to implement protections for both teachers and students. Randi Weingarten, head of the powerful American Federation of Teachers, says the federal government will need to spend an additional $2,300 per public school student on safety measures before in-person teaching can resume.
“It’s going to cost money,” Weingarten told Yahoo News. “I don’t want teachers or students getting sick.” The union boss charged that Trump did not care about public school students; his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a longtime proponent of private, religious and charter schools (charter schools are public schools, but generally operate outside traditional bureaucratic structures).
Gaynor said there were 17 funding streams dedicated to schools, though he did not say what those were, or whether they were to address masks or other aspects of school operation. A spokesperson for FEMA subsequently clarified to Yahoo News that Gaynor was discussing various measures in the CARES Act, the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March.
A report two days ago indicated that FEMA’s own three first-responder academies would not be conducting in-person classes come fall.
And as the U.S. continues to record more than 60,000 new coronavirus cases each day, educators in districts large and small, from Southern California to northern Virginia, have indicated that they will be cautious in their approach, resorting either mostly or entirely to remote learning.
As Gaynor was testifying on Capitol Hill, ABC News revealed it had obtained a FEMA memorandum that described “steadily rising” infection rates in children.
During his appearance, Gaynor stuck closely to the administration’s talking points, praising Trump and repeating several times that localities are ultimately responsible for how pandemic response is executed. At the same time, he acknowledged there remained shortfalls in supplies of personal protective equipment around the nation.
“We have some distance to travel,” he admitted.
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