Disappointing but Not Surprising: Trump and DeVos Ignore Equity and Abandon Safety In Demands to Reopen Schools

There is lots of penetrating writing about the collapse of our society’s ideals in these months since mid-March, when we suddenly realized the coronavirus was among us. As the weeks wore on last spring, and children were thrust into online lessons provided by their schools, a vast invisible digital chasm between wealthy and poor families was immediately exposed.  People vowed that the COVID-19 pandemic would be an inflection point.  America would address growing inequity between the extremely privileged and working families living paycheck to paycheck.

But all summer the Trump administration and Congress have ignored the problems set to emerge when school districts’ released plans for resuming school this fall. The Senate has put off even considering the amount of relief dollars necessary to ensure basic staffing and safety. This week, as the Trump administration falters, the press has been paying attention.  I urge you to read carefully the articles briefly excerpted here to explore what needs to happen in the next month.

The Nation‘s Ellie Mystal most vividly depicts today’s dismaying and confusing realities for families as the Trump administration and Congress have shown not the least concern for the public institution that serves our nation’s children on behalf of our society: “After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, President Barack Obama delivered what I have always believed to be the best speech of his presidency.  He talked about what it’s like to be a parent, and the critical realization, experienced by most parents, that you can’t keep your children safe or teach them well without the help of your friends and neighbors.  Then he expanded that idea to include the whole of society.  He said, ‘This is our first task—caring for our children.  It’s our first job.  If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.  That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.'”

Mystal continues: “We have not gotten anything right when it comes to caring for our children.  We were not getting things right before the coronavirus pandemic; we did not get things right at the outset of the crisis; and as we hurtle towards the fall, we are on the verge of getting things dangerously, irreparably wrong again…  It didn’t have to be this way.  If we had successfully done the work of stopping the spread of the virus, as has been done in other countries, we wouldn’t have to pick which poison to expose our kids to…  Meanwhile, just last week, President Donald Trump worried that CDC guidelines for protecting our children were too ‘expensive.’… And so, we are here.  I wouldn’t let my children eat candy handed out by this administration. There are snakes with better parental instincts than these people.”

For a more abstract evaluation, you can investigate another piece in The Nation, in which Rhea Boyd explores concerns about reopening schools through the lens of a complex economic and sociological analysis: “The wealth gap between the richest and poorest families has more than doubled since 1989.  And the top 1 percent of earners now hold more wealth than the bottom 80 percent… Current debates about reopening schools must be placed in this context, because they illuminate broader and longer fights to remedy racially apportioned accession to mobility… (P)ublic education—like public health, utilities, and public spaces—has become a critical terrain of struggle for greater equality in the United States… But this is the most devastating part.  Despite the poorly funded safety net, folks who fall on hard times are not just victims of a ‘broken system.’  Inequality is the point.  ‘Hard times’ are mass-engineered.  And the reason recent attempts at safety continue to come up short in this country—even in the face of existential threats to human existence like COVID-19—is that in an extractive economy, taking safety from some people hoards it for others.”

At Stanford University, the Learning Policy Institute’s “Learning in the Time of Covid-19 Blog” features Michael A. DeNapoli Jr. writing about the U.S. Senate’s responsibility this week to support schools with  sufficient funds to open safely this fall as the President is currently demanding: “The federal government has a unique and essential role to play in ensuring that students—especially those furthest from opportunity—do not bear the brunt of the economic hardships created by COVID-19.  States, unlike the federal government, cannot engage in massive borrowing and other fiscal maneuvers in response to significant and unforeseen fiscal crises.”

DiNapoli continues: “Much like fiscal recovery from a natural disaster, states must rely on the support of the federal government, which has both the resources and the budget flexibility states lack.  As federal policymakers craft future relief packages, two key questions should guide their analysis: First, what will it take to make school districts whole—that is, make sure they have sufficient funding to cover the myriad of added costs and budget cuts associated with COVID-19?  And second, how can federal funds be used to address historic and current inequities in ways that put us on a path toward a more just educational future?… Underlying the worst economic downturn in nearly 100 years are long-standing racial and economic inequities that have impacted educational opportunity.  The United States has one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of the countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  Black, Latino/a, and Native American children experience much higher rates of poverty than their White counterparts.  Children living in poverty in the United States also have a much weaker safety net than their peers living in other industrialized countries, where universal health care, housing subsidies, paid parental leave, and high-quality, universally available child care are the norm… States are facing extensive new K-12 education expenses as a result of COVID-19, including those related to providing distance learning, expanded learning, and additional food services for low-income families… While this pandemic has touched nearly every school district, the impact of budget cuts and the level of student needs are not equally distributed… We should therefore target emergency funding where it is needed most… Research consistently shows that investments made in strong educational programming (mainly high-quality teaching) and the resources necessary to learn are effective at closing opportunity gaps and increasing achievement. This was the strategy used for a time in Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and New Jersey, which resulted in shrinking gaps and improved outcomes for all students.”

At the same time there has been growing press coverage about how things are more likely to go this fall as families with money find ways to protect their own children.  For the NY TimesClaire Cain Miller covers the growing disparity between public schools and elite private schools with sufficient resources to make major adjustments to control the pandemic. At Punahou, a private school in Honolulu, “The school has an epidemiologist on staff and is installing thermal scanners in the hallways to take people’s temperatures as they walk by. It has a new common area and design lab as well as an 80-acre campus that students can use to spread out. There were already two teachers for 25 children, so it will be easy to cut classes in half to meet public health requirements for small, consistent groups.  The same thing is happening in communities across the country: Public schools plan to open not at all or just a few days a week, while many private schools are opening full time… Public schools, which serve roughly 90 percent of American children, tend to have less money, larger class sizes and less flexibility…. (O)ver all, fall reopening plans are just another way the pandemic has widened gaps in education.”

At the Washington Post, Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson report a growing trend among some parents who can afford it: “Fed up with remote education, parents who can pay have a new plan for fall: import teachers to their homes.  This goes beyond tutoring.  In some cases, families are teaming up to form ‘pandemic pods,’ where clusters of students receive professional instruction for several hours each day.  It’s a 2020 version of the one-room school house, privately funded… It’s not all ad hoc parent organizing.  An industry normally focused on providing tutors has seized this moment and is working to connect families with educators.  Jennifer Shemtob, owner of Teacher Time to Go, a small company working in the Philadelphia suburbs, said demand is intense.  She is offering a package of three hours of tutoring, four days a week.  For one family, the cost is $480 per week. If two families join, with up to six children, it’s $720 a week total.” “These arrangements will allow children with affluent parents and connections to get ahead even as the system makes it harder for other children, said L’Hereux Lewis-McCoy, a sociology of education professor at New York University.  He calls it a fresh example of ‘opportunity hoarding.'”

I am myself skeptical about the value of online education, and I believe children thrive instead when they work with a qualified teacher and learn collaboratively with their peers.  But the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have until now consistently promoted online learning.  In a sudden turnaround, however, the Trump administration is disdainful of virtual learning under any circumstances.  The President now demands that schools reopen nationwide, full-time, five days a week even in places where COVID-19 is raging.  At Politico, Michael Stratford quotes quotes the President tweeting last week: “Now that we have witnessed it on a large sale basis, and firsthand, Virtual Learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning.” Stratford explains precisely why Trump and DeVos have moved 180 degrees in their opinion of online instruction: “The Trump administration has been clear that it’s concerned that schools remaining closed would be a drag on the economic recovery that the president is banking on ahead of the November election. ‘If we don’t reopen the schools, that would be a setback to a true economic recovery,’ Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser said this week.”

On Friday, the Washington Post‘s Matt Viser reported on a press conference convened by presumptive Democratic nominee for President, Joe Biden, to acknowledge the urgent and competing concerns about opening schools this fall: “Biden urged caution, saying that each district should make its own decisions based on local conditions, and that schools in areas with high infection rates should not reopen too soon.  He also called on Congress to pass new emergency funding to help the schools… ‘This year, back to school is going to look very, very different… And we know how hard it’s going to be for families all over the country… Teachers are tough.  But it’s wrong to endanger educators and students.  We need a better plan.'”

Viser continues: “Biden also warned that without an infusion of federal funds, districts will struggle to pay for added health protections and may be forced to lay off teachers.  He called on Congress to allocate emergency funding to help schools reconfigure classrooms, improve ventilation, and take other steps to allow for social distancing within their buildings… ‘We had a window to get this right.  And, Trump blew it… His administration failed to heed the experts and take the steps required to reduce infections in our communities.'”