Jul 8, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The coming political brawl over reopening schools

Pence and DeVos
Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Trump administration is engaged in a full-court press to reopen schools this fall: The president threatened this morning to cut off federal funding if schools don't reopen, and claimed — without evidence — that Democrats want them closed through November for political reasons.

What they're saying: "Ultimately, it's not a matter of if schools should reopen — it is simply a matter of how," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said, assailing "elite" D.C.-area schools for their "disaster" of an attempt at distance learning this spring. "They must fully open and they must be fully operational."

Why it matters: Virtual learning isn't as effective, and schools provide critical in-person resources for kids with disabilities, mental health issues and nutritional needs.

  • Millions of parents need their kids back in schools so that they can fully reenter the workforce. The burden of extended closures will hit hardest along class, racial and gender lines.
  • The question is how to reopen safely: So much is uncertain about the role of children in spreading the coronavirus, which could affect teachers and at-risk adults at home.

Driving the news: Vice President Pence said today that the CDC will issue a set of five documents next week on school reopenings, after President Trump criticized the agency's existing guidelines — which include keeping kids six feet apart at all times, if possible — as "very tough & expensive."

Between the lines: How and when schools return will be a decision left to state and local authorities. Pence said the administration will be "looking for ways to give states a strong incentive" as part of negotiations with Congress over a Phase 4 relief package.

  • New York City's 1,800 public schools will adopt a hybrid model that will limit in-person attendance to just one to three days a week, Mayor de Blasio announced today.
  • Others are likely to follow in the footsteps of the nation's largest public school system with an indefinite mix of in-person and remote learning.
  • But unlike New York, which has largely flattened its curve after getting hammered by the virus this spring, states across the South are still seeing a massive surge in infections that could turn schools into a petri dish.

The bottom line: Trump griped on Twitter today that Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are reopening their schools.

  • The U.S. yesterday reported over 50,000 more coronavirus cases than those four countries combined.
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