DeVos and Trump put pressure on schools to fully open for in-person instruction this fall

As school districts across the country work to finalize their plans for reopening schools, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other top Trump officials made their preference clear Tuesday, saying they want schools to be open for in-person instruction this fall. 

“Our expectation should be that students can be back together in the fall,” DeVos said at a White House event. If there is a flare-up of the coronavirus, there should be plans in place to shift to online learning immediately for a period of time, she added.

That message comes just weeks before the new school year begins in some districts, as many school districts are still deciding between three or more possible scenarios for how school will work this fall, often depending on what the spread of the coronavirus looks like in their community. Many are considering some mixture of virtual instruction and opening schools with social distancing measures in place, citing CDC guidance.

As they made the case for fully in-person instruction, DeVos and other Trump officials frequently referenced the recently released guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which “strongly advocates” that schools start with the goal of having students physically present in schools. DeVos also said getting students back in buildings would especially benefit students with disabilities, many of whom require services that are more difficult to provide virtually. 

The call matches those made in recent weeks by President Trump, who sees reopening schools as key to jumpstarting the nation’s economy. He reiterated that on Tuesday.

“We are very much going to put pressure on governors and everyone else to open the schools,” Trump said. “It is very important for our country.”

Doing so will be difficult in parts of the country where cases continue to rise. But Trump officials and others who were invited to speak on White House panels portrayed the coronavirus as something to be managed by taking precautions like social distancing, wearing face masks, and hand-washing, and called on school districts to handle coronavirus cases among students and staff without closing down entirely for extended periods.

“The virus isn’t going to go away,” said Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee’s health commissioner. “We have got to learn to live with it. Getting kids back into school is critical for our economy.” 

Trump’s health secretary, Alex Azar, and the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, both said schools shouldn’t use the CDC’s social distancing guidance as a justification to keep school buildings closed. That guidance says schools should keep students six feet apart “when feasible,” including in classrooms. That’s hard to do without limiting students, and the guidance has been cited in districts’ hybrid plans where only some students attend school each day. 

“Nothing would cause me greater sadness to see any school district or school use our guidance as a reason not to reopen,” Redfield said. “We think as you measure the different risks, it is clear that we would see the greater risk to our society is to have these schools closed.”

Redfield said the CDC would issue more guidance to schools soon, including a tool to help parents in their decision-making and guidance on wearing cloth face coverings.

Piercey, the Tennessee health official, said school districts shouldn’t take an “all or none” approach to closing or reopening, and encouraged school officials to consider closing specific classrooms, building wings, or school buildings, instead of an entire district if there are coronavirus cases in schools. Redfield, too, said districts needed to have plans in place to handle a few coronavirus cases.

There was no discussion of the national coronavirus case numbers, which have spiked this month, or how schools should persuade parents or teachers who feel uncomfortable returning to school or sending their child back into school buildings

In May, 46% of teachers and parents surveyed by Education Week said they would send their students back to school without a vaccine. In mid-June, 56% of K-12 parents favored going back to school in the fall in person, a Gallup poll reported. 

Patrick Daly, a principal at a private school in California, told President Trump that their school has three plans to reopen: an in-person plan, a hybrid plan where students would be in school three days a week, and a full distance learning plan. 

“Hopefully you can do five days instead of the two and back and forth,” said Trump. “I know you want to be able to do that so you’ll try.” 

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