By Cindy Long
In a flurry of tweets, President Trump condemned CDC guidance on reopening schools and threatened to withhold funding to schools that don’t reopen for fall, creating more panic for stressed families seeking leadership and assurances that their children can return to school safely during a deadly pandemic. Then he politicized reopening of schools, tying it to the November presidential election.
“They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed. No way,” Trump said of congressional Democrats during a roundtable discussion at the White House on July 8th. “So we’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools…It’s very important for the well-being of the student and the parents.”
The National Education Association’s (NEA) president Lily Eskelsen García says what’s good for students and school staff has nothing to do with politics and the safety and well-being of the student and parents is exactly what is at stake.
After Trump tweeted, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!,” Eskelsen García fired back, “You forgot to add the word ‘SAFELY.’”
Safety does not appear to be a top concern of the Trump administration, who claimed the CDC guidance was too “restrictive” and too “expensive.” The CDC refused to modify what its health experts recommend, and education organizations like NEA are committed to following the science behind their advice.
“There’s no one that wants our kids back more than teachers … but we want to open it safely,” Eskelsen García said on CNN’s “New Day.”
“I had 39 sixth graders one year in my class. I double-dog dare Donald Trump to sit in a class of 39 sixth graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we’re going to bring our kids back safely.”
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos echoed Trump’s call, telling state governors that “School[s] must reopen, they must be fully operational.” She added that how schools open is best left to education and community leaders, yet blasted Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia that proposed a hybrid model with students attending school two days a week and learning virtually on the others until a vaccine and better treatment are widely available.
“A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” DeVos said, according to the Associated Press.
But the real false choice, Eskelsen García says, is what the Trump administration is pressuring parents to make. Choosing to prioritize the health of students and school staff is not a choice to prolong mental and economic distress, as the administration suggests.
Educators and parents agree, our students must get back to school. No one knows better than an educator how much students benefit from face-to-face instruction and interactions with their peers, but they insist we must have the time and resources to reopen safely. There are plans NEA and other organizations have put forward, but neither Trump nor DeVos has acknowledged the urgent need for resources that state, local, education and community leaders have called for.
“None of us should accept the false choice,” Eskelsen García said. “There are ways to mitigate the risk. It will be costly but it’s worth every dime. We will not open an unsafe school. Nothing else is acceptable.”
Last month, NEA released “All Hands on Deck: Initial Guidance Regarding Reopening School Buildings.” Built around four basic principles – health expertise, educator voice, access to protection, and leading with equity – the document lays out what schools need to do to prepare for reopening.
The guidance pinpoints specific actions states, districts, and schools can take to promote equity, health, and safety, and avoid the severe budget cuts that crippled public schools after the Great Recession.
“None of us should accept the false choice. There are ways to mitigate the risk. It will be costly but it’s worth every dime. We will not open an unsafe school. Nothing else is acceptable.”
Lily Eskelsen García, President NEA
It recommends collaboration with administrators, school boards, parents, medical experts, local community, and business organizations to work together to open schools as soon as possible, as safely as possible. It calls for plans to ensure social distancing, rigorous cleaning and disinfecting standards, PPE, testing and contact tracing, and access to internet and devices for all students. To accomplish this, students, educators, and their families need funding from policymakers to make safe school and campus re-opening a reality.
Congress Must Act Now
The vast majority of our schools still have not returned to funding levels from before the 2008 financial crisis when more than 300,000 school employees lost their jobs as states decided to balance their budgets on the backs of our students, García says. The country now faces a revenue crisis that experts project will be worse as additional funding is urgently needed for response to COVID-19, such as personal protective equipment, class sizes conducive to social distancing, and ensuring social and emotional needs are met — particularly in Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Also missing from the Trump administration’s demand for reopening is any mention of the longstanding, vast inequities COVID-19 exposed. Black and Latino families are three times more likely to be affected by the virus and two times more likely to die. There is also a disparate economic impact with more people of color losing their jobs or housing due to the pandemic. And then there is the educational impact. Lower-income kids can’t participate in distance learning if they can’t access the internet or have no device. Even if they do, many have working parents who were unavailable to support them during online learning.
To address inequities as well as safety concerns, we need a robust response, which is included in the HEROES Act (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions), passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, and now sits in the U.S. Senate. Money from the roughly $3 trillion House coronavirus bill will go directly to local and state governments and school districts.
The proposed bill includes $915 billion that can be used to pay vital workers such as educators and $90 billion in additional education funding that could save more than 800,000 education jobs at all levels from kindergarten to postsecondary, help cover the additional costs of providing personal protective equipment, sanitizing and cleaning schools, and providing support—including counseling and mental health services—for impacted students, families, and staff. It would also give direct dollars to nutrition programs and help address the technology gap.
“The American economy cannot recover if schools can’t reopen,” said Eskelsen García. “And we cannot properly reopen schools if funding is slashed and students don’t have what they need to be safe, learn, and succeed.”
Cindy Long Cindy Long is a Senior Writer/Media Specialist at the National Education Association.
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