Democrats look to go on offense in debate over reopening schools

The national debate over if and how to reopen schools this fall has provided a new avenue of attack for Democrats up and down the ballot who are eager to peg their GOP opponents to the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

President Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill have made it clear that school reopenings are a top priority for them, with Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos threatening to withhold funds from schools that do not have in-person classes, despite alarming spikes in COVID-19 cases across the country.

But with polls showing both widespread dissatisfaction with the White House’s pandemic response and apprehension over sending students back to schools, the GOP’s gung-ho stance could provide Democrats with an opening to go on offense. 

“Trump and the Republicans want to take big risks, but Americans want to be cautious, and that’s the basic problem here. Americans feel Trump and Republicans are trying to push them into situations where their health is in danger, and it’s causing them big problems,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “This absolutely is an area where Democrats can take advantage from Trump’s failure to fight the pandemic effectively.” 

Republicans in Congress have doubled down on Trump’s adamance that schools reopen later this year, tying billions of dollars intended for schools in their coronavirus relief proposal to the return of students and teachers for on-site learning.

But that appears to fly in the face of how most voters feel about the issue, which strategists say is less theoretical and more immediate than the release of a vaccine or testing availability.

According to an Associated Press/NORC poll released earlier this month, only 22 percent of Americans said schools should be reopened with no or “minor” changes, while 46 percent said schools should be only be opened after “major adjustments,” and 31 percent said schools should not be reopened at all.

“Can you assure anybody of anything?” Trump asked reporters on Thursday in response to a question about how he could assure people that schools can safely be reopened. 

“I think it resonates so clearly with people because this is something that directly affects your children, which people are obviously very protective of,” Democratic strategist Eddie Vale told The Hill. “And then the school is a block, five blocks up the street, so this is something that’s immediate to your neighborhood, immediate to your family, so I think it really resonates with people.” 

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden released his plan for reopening schools two weeks ago, calling for increased access to remote learning as well as improvements to contact tracing and the national supply chain, among other guidelines, before class is in session.

The debate over reopenings is likely to only heat up in the lead-up to the November elections, with school districts making ongoing decisions — and families seeing the results — just weeks before voters cast their ballots.

“These decisions are going to be happening continuously all September, October, November, so it’s definitely going to be happening all throughout the election,” Vale said.

Democrats and education activists have called for a more cautious, district-by-district approach to school reopenings.

Candidates and educators have rolled out a laundry list of things they say need to happen before schools can safely reopen, including increasing testing and contact tracing, additional funds to help with cleaning and hiring more teachers to accommodate smaller class sizes and more. The risk of failing to implement adequate safety measures, they warn, could turn schools into sources for further community spread of the virus. 

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the federal government could have to spend upward of $600 billion to safely reopen the country’s public schools to provide things such as plexiglass, masks, improved ventilation and more.

Rita Hart, a former public school teacher who taught in Iowa for about two decades and is now running as a Democrat in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, told The Hill Americans have to “get back to school in a way so that we can stay back to school, and not face a situation where we didn’t plan correctly and then we go back to school for a period of time only to have to shut it down and go back home again. That would be another tragedy.” 

Democratic candidates have already started previewing possible lines of attack, maintaining that the White House is “anti-science” and failed to provide leadership and a set of national standards as parents are looking for guidance on where they can safely send their children this fall.

“Care should come before economics, care should come before finance. And we continue to be losing in this ideology of the economy and market share and finance and wealth generation while our kids and the majority of the American people continue to suffer,” said Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal and the Democratic nominee in New York’s 16th Congressional District. 

Cameron Webb, a university professor and physician running in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, said the administration chose to “lean into the rhetoric” and has now lost “some of that public trust that they have their best interest at heart.” 

“The urgency that he’s expressing I understand, but the resources simply aren’t there to support it,” added Amy Kennedy, a Democratic former public school teacher running to unseat New Jersey Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (R). “It’s OK to really feel like we adamantly need to do this, but then we have to back that up and put in place everything that makes that possible, and I think that’s where there’s a disconnect.”

Republicans have swatted away concerns that the party is too eager to reopen schools, pointing to remarks from experts warning of the pitfalls of extended remote learning and saying that it’s not too soon to start discussing how to send students back to classrooms.

The White House has also maintained having children present in classrooms is a critical line of defense against abuse, noting that educators are often relied upon to spot issues students may be facing at home.

While medical groups have said precautions must remain in place, many have urged local officials to reopen schools, with American Academy of Pediatrics President Sara Goza saying earlier this month “we really strongly advocate that the goal should be to have students physically present in the school.”

“President Trump puts American students’ wellbeing first and is working tirelessly to ensure that parents can safely send their kids back to school,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Ken Farnaso. “While Democrats, led by Joe Biden, continue to call for schools to stay closed indefinitely, President Trump will work to find innovative solutions to allow students to go back to school and parents to return to work.” 

Not all Republicans are taking hard-line stances on school openings, with some maintaining the decision should be made on the local level in consultation with educators.

“Reopening schools is vital to educating our children and returning as many Americans back to work as possible. Decisions on reopening schools should be based on data and decided by local school districts. There is no more essential business than educating our children. We need to respect each other as parents, education professionals, and medical professionals in determining how and when children return to in-person instruction responsibly,” said Tony Gonzales, a Republican running in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District who also teaches at the University of Maryland system.

But down-ballot Republicans will still likely have to answer for an increasingly unpopular coronavirus response from the White House. An ABC News/Ipsos poll this month showed two out of three Americans disapprove of the way Trump has handled the pandemic.

And in an era of nationalized elections and declining ticket splitting, Democrats will likely wield the issue as a cudgel in their efforts to defend the House and capture the Senate and White House. 

“Trump is still trying to push forward with all of it,” said Vale, “and it’s just going to be an anchor on everybody.”

Tags Betsy DeVos Coronavirus Donald Trump Jeff Van Drew Joe Biden school reopenings
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