The Memo: Trump gambles on school push

The Memo: Trump gambles on school push
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE is going full-steam ahead in pushing for schools to reopen in the fall. It’s a political gamble that could pay off, edging his support up from its current low ebb, or go disastrously wrong.

“We want to reopen the schools. Everybody wants it. The moms want it. The dads want it. The kids want it. It’s time to do it,” Trump said at a White House event Tuesday at which first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate GOP, House Democrats begin battle over trillion bill Melania Trump announces plans to renovate White House Rose Garden Trump tweets photo of himself wearing a mask MORE and Vice President Pence also spoke.

The schools issue resembles Trump’s general approach to reopening after the coronavirus lockdown. In both cases, Trump has positioned himself as a loud advocate for a return to normality, even as the final decision lies with state or local authorities.

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But his broad enthusiasm for states’ reopening has proven highly questionable as COVID-19 cases have soared in some regions, especially in the South and West. 

More than 130,000 Americans have died in the pandemic. Trump’s approval ratings have slid to some of the lowest levels of his presidency.

Could the schools issue be different? Perhaps. 

Trump himself is clearly seeking to nationalize the question to his own political benefit. On Monday, he tweeted that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Hillicon Valley: NSA warns of new security threats | Teen accused of Twitter hack pleads not guilty | Experts warn of mail-in voting misinformation Biden offers well wishes to Lebanon after deadly explosion MORE and his fellow Democrats “don’t want to open schools in the Fall for political reasons, not for health reasons! They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it!”

Some states are following his lead. Florida’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, on Monday instructed schools in the state to open for “at least five days per week” next month. 

At the same time, Florida is experiencing a rapid rise in coronavirus cases. A CNN report noted that Florida now has seen more than 213,000 cases, ranking third overall among all states.

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Florida’s governor, Republican Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisTrump notes GOP governor when asked why he backs mail-in voting in Florida Five people who attended meeting with DeSantis in Florida test positive for coronavirus Journalist covering Trump trip to Florida tests positive for coronavirus MORE, is a close Trump ally — a point that looms in the mind of supporters and critics alike.

Fed Ingram, the president of the Florida Education Association, told The Hill on Tuesday that both DeSantis and Corcoran have “tethered themselves to the president and said we are going to reopen our schools, no matter what.”

Ingram, whose organization represents more than 140,000 members, contended that the decision was provoking “angst, anxiety and anger” among educators in the state. He added, “We cannot turn our classrooms into a petri dish for the nation.”

Public opinion on the specific question of whether to reopen schools appears mixed, and the issue has only been polled sporadically since the crisis began. 

A Quinnipiac University Poll survey in mid-May asked registered voters whether they thought it would be safe to send K-12 students back to school in the fall. At that point, just 40 percent thought it would be safe, while 52 percent said it would be unsafe to do so.

But a USA Today-Ipsos poll released at the end of that month revealed the nuances of the issue. 

It showed 60 percent of parents and 86 percent of teachers saying they were “worried” about the children during the shutdown. Seventy-six percent of teachers and almost half of all parents surveyed said they believed the shutdown was “causing the children to fall behind” in their education.

There are real complexities to the school question. 

Children appear much less likely than older people to suffer grave effects from the coronavirus, as a whole. But they could nonetheless carry the virus to much more susceptible family members.

At the same time, most experts agree that keeping children out of school has huge downsides. The danger to academic learning is especially acute for those from impoverished or chaotic homes. In addition, many poorer students depend on school meals, and there are also broader impacts on behavior and socialization to consider.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is pushing almost as hard as Trump for a fall reopening, citing “negative impacts” from continued closures.

Millions of parents across the country are in a painful dilemma. They don’t want to risk their children’s safety by a premature return to school but they are concerned — and stressed out — from months of home-schooling during lockdown, even as they also try to keep their own lives in order.

One Republican strategist with ties to the White House said, “The president is tapping into an anxiety that many parents have right now. If you are talking about kids K through 12, parents are asking, ‘How am I going to structure their education while I have to work at the same time?’ That is a massive frustration.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests those concerns are close to universal — something that might, perhaps, allow Trump’s view to garner some modicum of agreement even from parents who are not normally supportive of him.

But the issue is an inherently personal one, making it hard to game out the political consequences.

“It is so individualized that it is really hard to categorize it,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communication. “It doesn’t break down in the usual ways, like if you are a conservative Christian you will think this, and if you are a liberal African American you will think that. It breaks down as, how do you as an individual perceive the danger of sending your children to school?”

For now, only thing is for sure: Trump is not backing off.

“We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools,” he said at the White House on Tuesday.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.