Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)

Photograph Source: Tomash Devenishek – CC BY 2.0

“Stable genius” Donald Trump knows as much about schools as he does about epidemiology.

The man who reportedly is said by his niece to have paid someone to take a college entrance exam when he was in high school suddenly has become an education expert and has urged that schools reopen physically at their scheduled times, regardless of the severity of the coronavirus epidemic raging through the United States that has killed more than 130,000 people and infected more than 3 million.

He threatened to cut off federal funding to school districts that don’t reopen as states and school superintendents nationwide wrestle desperately with whether to return students to the classroom, continue online distance learning from home or combine them both at the same time by splitting a school week – some days in class, others at home.

“A couple of hours a week of online school is not OK, and a choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” Education Secretary Betsy de Vos said in a conference call with governors Tuesday, The New York Times reported.

Trump doesn’t control school funding directly but the Department of Education received $13.5 billion under the $2 trillion congressional stimulus package. De Vos said only $195 million of that has been used so far, the Times reported.

Medical experts agree that the biggest threat to spreading the virus is indoors, particularly in areas of poor ventilation that could include older school buildings. And younger school children in particular, who don’t seem to be as vulnerable to the disease as older people, nevertheless are more prone to cough and sneeze near others without concerns about covering their faces. They, in turn, could spread the virus to their teachers.

The blanket demand to get students back into school comes from a president who advised Americans to swallow bleach or disinfectant as a cure for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. And he agitated repeatedly for businesses to reopen as rapidly as possible in a return to normal life. That attitude apparently gave license to many Americans to ignore social distancing guidelines as they shunned wearing masks when they swarmed in the warming spring and early summer weather to beaches, parks, bars and restaurants. Masks, which have become a symbol of political polarization between conservatives and liberals, were few and far between in many cases.

The result of what obviously was the wrong advice by a president who doesn’t wear a mask in public has been a surge of infections that has begun filling hospitals nearly to capacity, especially in Republican-led states like Florida, Texas and Arizona.

“We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open,” Trump told a White House forum Tuesday, the Times said.  “It’s very important.  It’s very important for our country. It’s very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall.”

What Trump omitted from saying is what has been very important to him since he began urging Americans in the spring to reopen businesses as soon as possible to get the staggering economy back on track, regardless of the dangers posed by the persistent deadly disease: his reelection.

“The reality is no one should listen to Donald Trump or Betsy de Vos when it comes to what is best for students,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, the Times reported. “Everything is about his reelection. Our No. 1 priority is that we keep our students safe.”

It hasn’t been enough that Trump abrogated responsibility as president to safeguard Americans from the coronavirus by attacking it from a centralized federal headquarters, leaving it to individual states to fend for themselves in grappling with the crisis and vital equipment shortages. Those shortages are returning because of the surge in the number of infections.

There were 50.8 million children in public elementary, middle and high schools and 5.8 million kids in private schools as of 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended policies for schools in May that included staggered student arrivals to classes, desks set six feet apart, eating lunch in class, cloth masks for faculty and staff and daily temperature readings for all. Trump shot down the recommendations.

“I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools,” he tweeted. “While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things.”

Vice President Mike Pence said the CDC will issue new guidelines and told a coronavirus task force briefing, “We don’t want guidance from the CDC to be a reason why schools don’t open.  . . . We want . . . to make sure that what we’re doing doesn’t stand in the way of doing that.”

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.