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Coronavirus committee demands DeVos clarify threat to cut funds from schools

The House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosNational reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Women set to take key roles in Biden administration America has a civic education problem — here's how to fix it MORE on Friday to provide specifics on the Trump administration’s threat to cut off federal funds from schools that don’t fully reopen during the pandemic.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE and DeVos have threatened to cut funds if public schools don’t follow their demands to fully reopen to in-person classroom instruction in the fall.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), chairman of the select committee, asked DeVos in a letter obtained by The Hill to provide documents to the panel by July 31 detailing any plans to condition grants or funds on reopening schools.

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Clyburn also asked that DeVos provide documents regarding any action the Education Department has taken to procure and distribute protective equipment for use in schools.

“I am particularly concerned that, contrary to the laws passed by Congress, you have threatened to cut off federal funds from schools that do not accede to your potentially dangerous demands. I urge you to rescind this illegal threat and allow schools to make reopening decisions based on the best available science,” he wrote.

Clyburn added that the lack of specifics on the threats to cut funding added further confusion for schools trying to figure out how they can reopen safely. 

“Your statements have created confusion among state and local officials and school districts that are already facing challenges to plan and pay for accommodations to address the ongoing public health crisis,” he wrote. 

Educators echoed the concern that the administration’s unspecified threats to cut funding have created more uncertainty for schools. 

“Sadly, all we are getting from Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump have been empty threats and radical privatization schemes, like pushing vouchers during a pandemic,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia.  

The Trump administration has a limited ability to cut off funding for schools. Only about 10 percent of public school funding comes from the federal government, while state and local governments provide the rest. 

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DeVos initially said last week that she was “very seriously” considering withholding funds from schools that don’t fully reopen. But she later indicated that the Trump administration is looking into an unspecified voucher program for families to “figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools refuse to reopen.”

A coronavirus relief law enacted in June provided about $13 billion to help K-12 schools respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers in both parties are discussing providing additional funding to help schools adhere to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) if they reopen for in-person classroom instruction as part of a coronavirus relief package expected in the coming weeks.

The CDC guidelines including having students and teachers wear masks, spacing students apart in classrooms and on school buses, sanitizing surfaces and ensuring ventilation systems are up to date.

CDC Director Robert Redfield said last week that the agency would issue additional information to clarify its guidelines, after Trump tweeted that they were “very tough & expensive.”

But as of Friday, the CDC has yet to issue additional guidance. 

The White House has rebuffed a request from the House Education and Labor Committee to hear testimony next week from Redfield about reopening schools. 

Multiple school districts this week announced plans to start the school year with all-virtual learning, while others are planning a mix of virtual and in-person instruction. 

Updated: 10:40 p.m.