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Battle over reopening schools heats up

Greg Nash

The battle over reopening schools in the fall amid rising coronavirus cases is heating up as the Trump administration pushes for schools to open while health experts and local officials cast doubt on schools’ abilities to bring students back safely. 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Sunday continued to push the Trump administration’s message that children must return to school in the fall. 

“The rule should be kids go back to school this fall,” DeVos said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” adding that cases in which there are “little flare ups” should be dealt with on a case by case basis.

DeVos would not definitively say if school districts should follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines regarding school reopening, but the secretary insisted on CNN that officials within the federal government are all on the “same page.” 

“The CDC guidelines are just that, meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation,” she said. 

Earlier this week, President Trump called the federal agencies guidelines on opening schools “very tough & expensive.” 

The guidelines regarding schools reopening include recommendations to keep desks 6 feet apart when feasible, shut down communal spaces such as playgrounds and dining spaces, and add physical barriers in areas where it is difficult for individuals to remain at least six feet apart. Some local leaders, such as the superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, said the guidelines are just not feasible to follow. 

Superintendent Scott Brabrand told CNN the Fairfax school district, one of the largest in the country, would need space equivalent to about five Pentagons to accommodate the student population following the CDC guidelines. The district is instead planning to give parents an option of whether to send kids to school. 

Officials in other areas where the virus is surging, such as Phoenix, are hesitant to reopen schools as well.

“We have separately elected school boards and we’re now seeing many of those elected leaders say we can’t open until at least October,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D) said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” 

“With the levels of the virus so pronounced in our community they just don’t feel it’s a safe environment for teachers to go in, and they’re concerned about our students as well the spread of the virus. I hope there will be full financial support for those school districts including digital programming,” she added. 

The issue is also not solely split along partisan lines. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he would not be “rushed in to” reopening schools. 

“I think everybody would like to get our kids back to school, as quickly as we can, but we also want to do it, and make sure that our kids are going to be as safe as possible. So, we’re not going to be rushed into this,” Hogan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“We’re going to come up with a plan that is probably going to be a hybrid that talks about how we’re going to provide the best education we can for our kids and do it in a safe way,” the governor added. 

DeVos, in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” doubled down on the Trump administration’s threat to withhold funding from schools that do not open. 

“American investment is a promise to students and their families,” DeVos said. “If schools aren’t going to reopen and fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds. Then give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.”

Host Chris Wallace disputed DeVos’s comments, saying that the administration “can’t do that” and said it must be done through Congress. The Secretary responded the administration is “looking at all the options.” 

The top Democrat in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), on Sunday also rebuked DeVos and President Trump over the administration’s push to reopen schools in the fall. She called DeVos’s comments pushing for reopening “malfeasance” and a “dereliction of duty.” 

“The president and his administration are messing with the health of our children. We all want our children to go back to school — teachers do, parents do and children do — but they must go back safely,” Pelosi said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” 

Tom Ingelsby, the director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, also questioned the administration’s threat to withhold funding from schools that don’t reopen. 

“I think issuing an ultimatum for schools opening is the wrong approach,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” 

“There are going to be many challenges to opening schools safely and just kind of asserting that schools now must reopen safely doesn’t make it so,” Inglesby added. 

Ingelsby suggested the “right way to go” would be guiding and helping schools financially and urging them to follow both federal and state public health guidance. 

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb similarly said that it is important to give discretion to local districts to put in place measures to limit outbreaks and keep kids safe. 

He also pushed back on DeVos’s claim that it is not dangerous for kids to be back at school. The secretary told CNN there is “nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous for them.” 

CBS’s Margaret Brennan asked Gottlieb about DeVos’s comments. 

“While the balance of the data shows that kids are less susceptible to the infection, and less likely to transmit it, less susceptible doesn’t mean they’re not susceptible,” Gottlieb said. “And sometimes — in some of the studies show they can compensate for their decline in susceptibility by their propensity to spread infection, by their behaviors that are more likely to propagate infection.”

Tags Betsy DeVos Chris Wallace Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Nancy Pelosi School

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