Jul 9, 2020 - Health

How Trump's push to reopen schools could backfire

Illustration of a book as the bottom of a padlock.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Trump administration’s full-steam-ahead push to fully reopen schools this fall is on a collision course with the U.S.' skyrocketing coronavirus caseload and its decades-long neglect of public education.

Why it matters: Getting kids back to school is of paramount importance for children and families, especially low-income ones. But the administration isn’t doing much to make this safer or more feasible.

“They’re sort of asking schools to do the undoable — ‘just make it work, get all the kids back, and get them in five days a week, and keep their distance and do all the hygiene…but if you can’t do it, that’s not our fault, that’s up to the locals,’” said Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

The big picture: How to handle schools and daycare centers amid the pandemic is one of the most vexing questions around the world.

  • Keeping kids at home risks learning setbacks and prevents them from getting much-needed services, like food or special needs assistance. It also removes some 40 hours of weekly child care that working parents rely on.
  • But there’s no scientific consensus yet on how much children contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. In a worst-case scenario, schools could become one of the most effective ways the virus travels from family to family.

One of the best ways to reduce the risk of reopening schools is to reduce the virus' spread — but in several states, caseloads are instead skyrocketing.

  • Florida — one of the new epicenters of the pandemic — announced earlier this week that it’s requiring all "brick and mortar schools" to open "at least five days per week for all students,” per CNN.
  • In contrast, New York City, where the case count is low, announced yesterday that children will only be able to physically attend schools between one and three times a week, and there will most likely be no more than a dozen people in a classroom at one time.

Driving the news: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that all school staff wear masks, and that students are kept six feet apart at all times. But teachers, schools and some politicians have deemed the guidelines unrealistic, and President Trump criticized them as “very tough & expensive.”

  • Both Vice President Pence and CDC director Robert Redfield said Wednesday the guidance is not meant to be a “rationale to keep schools closed.” The CDC will issue new guidance next week, Redfield said.

Yes, but: Implementing strong safety measures will require resources that many school districts don’t have, especially as the coronavirus economy depletes tax revenues.

  • The cost of stringent sanitation, personal protective equipment and new personnel would be astronomical.
  • “We want children to be back in schools,” said Will Hite, superintendent of Philadelphia’s school district. But the cost of additional cleaning and sanitizing alone could be an extra $60 million to $80 million.
  • Estimates show state budget shortfalls of about $555 billion over the next two calendar years, Wesley Tharpe, the deputy director of state policy research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, tells Axios, meaning states don’t have any extra cash to throw at the problem.

The bottom line: There’s no dispute that schools are incredibly important to children. “But the idea of sending kids back to indoor public places with large numbers of [people]... when the outbreak is raging at the level it was in April in New York and New Jersey — I feel like there is a disconnect there,” Cicero said.

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