As coronavirus cases continue to climb across the U.S., Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration are demanding that public schools reopen in the fall. Sec. DeVos received heavy criticism after announcing she was “very seriously” considering withholding federal funds from public schools that don’t fully reopen for in-person classes in the fall. She, along with other administration officials, continue to pressure local officials as the White House works with congressional Republicans to attach aid dollars for schools to their reopening plans.
By forcing school to reopen prematurely, and conditioning assistance on hasty compliance with this federal mandate, the Department of Education may put students, teachers, and families at overwhelming risk. But throughout this crisis, Sec. DeVos has put the agenda of the Trump administration before the needs of public school students and staff – including diverting public funds away from public schools and toward private, often religious, institutions.
Prioritizing School Vouchers Over Student Safety
In March, as the impact of the coronavirus became increasingly apparent, Sec. DeVos campaigned to divert funding to private schools and implement voucher-like programs. She eventually announced more than $300 million for the “Rethink K-12 School Models Grant” plan through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, nominally designed to assist families make the adjustment to home-based learning. The Department of Education guidance for distributing these funds,however, directed aid intended for families served by underfunded public schools in part toward more affluent private schools.
Interfaith Alliance strongly denounced this program, as it would hurt public schools by diverting public funds to private institutions. But this idea has only gained steam, with presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway confirming that a sizable share of school funding a new coronavirus assistance bill will go toward funding a federal school voucher system. And with a new academic year on the horizon, public schools remain dangerously ill-equipped to keep students and staff safe.
Downplaying a National Crisis
The Trump administration has consistently dismissed the advice of public health officials and downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump and his spokespeople have been clear that their ultimate goal in reopening schools is to enable parents to reenter the workforce, thereby reopening the economy that is the cornerstone of the president’s reelection campaign. President Trump has gone so far as to suggest that guidelines for reopening schools issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are a lie spun by Democrats to keep “the economy from coming back” and to keep him from reelection.
By pressuring public schools to fully open despite safety concerns, Sec. DeVos is serving this administration’s agenda on two fronts. If schools are forced to reopen, then the Trump administration can continue with their premature push to reopen the economy. If schools heed the advice of public health officials and do not fully open, Sec. DeVos will be able to further her long-term agenda to divert public dollars into private, often religious, schools by giving families the option to use tax dollars to fund private, in-person education.
The Trump administration’s push to reopen schools involves ignoring inconvenient science – science that calls attention to the risks and requirements of opening schools for in-person education. Underfunded public schools don’t have access to the kind of resources required for in-person learning. Schools in areas where infection rates are high could not open safely, even with adequate funding.
Sec. DeVos asserted on July 7th, 2020, that there is no evidence to suggest that reopening schools is “in any way dangerous.” But, while children generally appear less likely to experience more severe symptoms of the coronavirus, thousands of students are at high risk due to underlying conditions. Students are also capable of spreading the disease to others, endangering educators, family members, and the surrounding community.
Teachers Fear for Their Safety – and the Health of Their Students
Public schools are an American treasure, yet Sec. DeVos is doing everything in her power to cast public educators as the enemies of children and their families. Many students have struggled to keep up with online programs, or lack the ability to participate at all, and the need for social interaction is very real. Parents and teachers continue to grapple with these challenges as they weigh the consequences of reopening prematurely.
Educators have expressed fear for their health and the health of their loved ones, as plans to reopen schools remain incomplete, inconsistent and underfunded. In a statement, the National Parent Teacher Association criticized the lack of leadership by the administration, and their failure to listen to the concerns of public school educators. As the fall semester quickly approaches, many educators still do not have a clear idea of what they will be expected to do, and whether or not they will have the materials necessary to keep themselves and their students safe.
This Moment Calls for Leadership, Not Bullying
As students, teachers and families prepare for a new school year, we cannot allow the federal Department of Education to exploit this crisis to further an economic agenda. If public schools are forced to resume in-person classes prematurely, they will risk the health and wellbeing of their community in exchange for federal funding. Should they decline, Sec. DeVos may attempt to make good on her threat to divert much-needed taxpayer support to private, often religious, institutions.
Decisions about when and how to reopen schools should be guided by the CDC and other experts, implemented by local officials and educators. Providing more, not less, support to public schools is the key to keeping students and teachers safe.
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