Resistance to President Donald Trump’s push to reopen U.S. classroom doors comes from a “coordinated effort and a campaign to sow fear,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Thursday.
Her unsubstantiated claim on Fox News followed a day of arguments from Trump himself on the need to bring kids back to class and the release of a gauzy set of guidelines on how to do it. But some districts that followed the White House advice and threw open their doors in the pandemic are slamming them shut again.
Schools that reopened fully and early are seeing hundreds of students, staff and teachers put into quarantine as Covid-19 spreads. Some are closing buildings opened just days ago. Others are frantically looking for workarounds — and for the money to pay for them. In Memphis, Tennessee, and Irvine, California, teachers must sign liability waivers in case they get sick.
DeVos didn’t say who might be fomenting opposition to Trump, and polls show that many parents are leery. A Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday surveyed 2,000 registered voters and found 59% opposed fully reopening K-12 schools for the start of the academic year, up from 53% last month.
And across the U.S., most districts are ignoring Trump’s full-speed-ahead advice. New Jersey on Wednesday reversed course on mandatory in-person classes, and Boston won’t attempt them. Still, too many insist on putting educators and communities at risk, said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association and a sixth-grade teacher in Salt Lake City.
“There is no one, maybe besides parents, who wants kids back in school as much as teachers do,” Eskelsen Garcia said. “We hate online learning, too. We’re throwing our computers against the wall, too. But we want to do it when and where we can do it without killing anybody.”
Trump has been demanding schools reopen so that parents are able to work — part of a bid to restart the economy and create the impression the U.S. is returning to normal ahead of the November election. Yet the virus is continuing to rage across parts of the U.S., with the country’s death toll at about 165,000.
The president has tried to force reopenings by saying that half the money for schools in the next round of stimulus legislation should be reserved for those that open their doors. On Wednesday, at an event with parents and educators, he criticized districts trying to use halfway measures to bring students back to class, like combining virtual learning with class time, and having fewer kids in the school at a time.
Trump said there’s no substitute for traditional schooling.
“When you have students sitting at home playing with a computer, it’s not the same,” he said at the briefing. “When you sit at home in a basement looking at a computer, your brain starts to wither away.”
Nationally, just over half of students in kindergarten through high school will attend school virtually in the fall, while 44% will take classes in person in some form, according to a survey of public-school districts by Burbio, a New York-based data service. And many of those going back to in-person classes won’t be going back full-time, with schools staggering attendance to groups small enough to maintain social distancing. Some 66% of students across the 200 largest districts are taking virtual-only classes, Burbio found.
Large urban districts that are starting the year online include Atlanta, Houston, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago. Some have written off the entire semester for in-person classes. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced Wednesday that public-school students will not be showing up in person in the fall.
In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy abandoned a requirement that New Jersey’s 2,500 public schools conduct in-person teaching, allowing some to use distance-only learning when the academic year begins in early September.
Others are setting dates for students to come back to class that may roll forward, depending on the pandemic’s spread. In metro Atlanta, Fulton County schools — in March the first in Georgia to shut down — will bring in the youngest children and special-education students for limited hours in September, and then phase in the rest. But that’s only if the infection rates in the county are low enough and dropping, said Superintendent Mike Looney.
He said he’s taken heat from parents and teachers alike, but will follow health guidelines about what’s safe.
When students do return, they will be required to wear masks, he said. The district is also working to reconfigure its physical plant to allow proper distancing.
Other metro Atlanta districts have pushed forward with reopening and paid an immediate price in an area with high community spread.
In Cherokee County, north of the city, more than 900 people — most of them students, but also teachers and staff — are in quarantine just nine days after the school opened its doors because students reported infections. The high school had to close again.
The district required masks of teachers and staff but not of students, spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby said.
Nearby Paulding County also had to close its high school for cleaning this week, after students, teachers and staff tested positive. The district’s Aug. 3 opening day became briefly famous after a student sent out a photo of a throng of maskless students in a hallway there. She was promptly suspended and then unsuspended.
Trump has asserted that children are “virtually immune” to the coronavirus. The president appears to be referring to the notion that children are less likely to become ill from the virus, even though they can spread it to adults.
Relatively little is known about how Covid-19 is transmitted to and from children. On one hand, some early evidence has suggested that children — and especially younger children — don’t transmit it as frequently as adults or even older children.
But children can certainly still contract the virus, and a growing number have as the virus has surged throughout the country. Covid-19 infections among U.S. kids grew 40% in the second half of July, according to a report this week from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.
And while children do appear to be at a lower risk of getting very ill, a federal study published last week found that a growing number require hospitalization.
Advocates for reopening schools often point to regions that have already done so successfully, or never closed schools to begin with, such as several nations in Northern Europe. Experts, though, stress that those regions have had far less viral transmission than the U.S.
Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, said at the White House that students who miss school likely will earn less money when they’re older.
To Eskelsen Garcia, the NEA president, the superiority of in-school teaching isn’t in question. “This is not about pedagogy,” she said. “This disease kills people.”
Eskelsen Garcia said she’s been heartened by the number of districts resisting Trump’s pressure and that schools should reopen only when the community infection rate is low.
Her advice: “Listen to what Trump says. Then do the exact opposite of whatever comes out of his mouth.”