October 22, 2020

Trump Threatens to Turn Pandemic Schooling Into a Culture War

Two weeks ago, I asked Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, what a functioning Department of Education would be doing to prepare the country to reopen schools in the fall.

“A functioning Department of Education would have been getting groups of superintendents and principals and unions and others together from the middle of March,” she told me. It would have created a clearinghouse of best practices for maintaining grab-and-go lunch programs and online education. By mid-April it would have convened experts to figure out how to reopen schools safely, and offered grants to schools trying different models.

“None of that has happened,” said Weingarten. “Zero.”

Instead, Donald Trump has approached the extraordinarily complex challenge of educating children during a pandemic just as he’s approached most other matters of governing: with bullying, bluster and propaganda.

While doing nothing to curb the wildfire spread of the coronavirus, he has demanded that schools reopen and threatened to cut off funding for those that don’t. On Wednesday, he tweeted that the guidelines for reopening schools from his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were “very tough & expensive,” adding, “I will be meeting with them!!!” Mike Pence then suggested that the guidelines would be revised. On Thursday the agency’s director, Dr. Robert Redfield, said they wouldn’t be, but later, seeming to give into pressure, said the guidelines should be seen as recommendations, not requirements.

Also on Thursday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gestured toward a plan of coronavirus-inspired school choice that would punish public schools that don’t fully reopen. Without offering details, she said families could take the federal money spent at these schools and use it elsewhere. She’s long wanted to give public money to private schools; perhaps she thinks this coronavirus has given her the chance.

When I spoke to Weingarten again on Thursday, she wasn’t worried that Trump and DeVos would be able to follow through on their threats; they can’t redirect the funds without Congress. But with their crude attempts at coercion, they’ve politicized school reopening just as Trump politicized mask-wearing and hydroxychloroquine.

As a result, the administration has made reopening schools more difficult. “The threats are empty, but the distrust they have caused is not,” Weingarten said.

At the end of June, the American Federation of Teachers surveyed its members and found a broad willingness to return to the classroom. Two-thirds of respondents said school buildings should reopen in some capacity, and 76 percent said they’d be comfortable being in school with the proper safeguards. But after Trump began ranting about schools, Weingarten started hearing from teachers who were scared that reopening would be done rashly.

So as Trump tries to turn school reopenings into part of his culture war, Weingarten fears “a huge brain drain of people not willing to be in schools anymore.”

To be clear: As a parent, I want schools to open full-time at least as much as Trump does. On Wednesday, New York City announced its plan to send kids back to school part time, and it is a calamity. To accommodate C.D.C. guidelines calling for six feet of distance between desks, students will be able to go to school only one to three days a week. It is not yet clear if schools will be able to ensure that siblings will attend on the same days. Working parents could end up needing full-time child care indefinitely, and there are, as yet, no plans to provide it publicly.

Similar hybrid schedules are being adopted all over the country — and grim as they are, they might turn out to be too optimistic, because they depend on the virus being somewhat contained. Palm Beach, Fla., just announced that schools there won’t open at all. Other districts in hard-hit areas will likely follow suit.

So far, the results of so-called “remote learning” — a term I dislike, since it presumes that learning is happening — have been terrible for students, especially disadvantaged ones. The fallout for many parents’ financial prospects and mental health is catastrophic. And part-time schooling is likely to significantly amplify educational inequalities that are already enormous. As those who can afford it hire private teachers and tutors, we are rapidly heading toward a system of neo-governesses in which basic schooling becomes a luxury good unattainable for many people outside the 1 percent.

This is almost certainly not why Trump is eager to have school resume. Rather, school closures and staggered schedules are a crushing weight on the economy. To millions of parents, they’re an intimate daily reminder that the president’s incompetence has ruined our lives. But to open schools in a reasonable way, the government needs to do two things: control the pandemic, as most other developed countries have done, and give schools money to adapt. This administration has so far failed to do either.

And now the president’s interference with the C.D.C. has made things worse.

Here’s the thing: The C.D.C. guidelines might indeed be too stringent, at least for elementary schools. There is some evidence that little kids are less susceptible to Covid-19, and may be less likely to spread it; in countries where schools have reopened, few clusters have been linked to elementary schools. (There have been outbreaks in middle schools and high schools, most notably in Israel.)

In a recent statement on school reopenings, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that three feet of distance between desks might be sufficient, particularly if students wear masks. (Admittedly, getting little kids to keep masks on is challenging.) “Schools should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative,” it said.

The hybrid model that many large school districts are adopting is meant to limit the number of people whom teachers and students are exposed to. But Elliot Haspel, author of “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It,” points out that if kids disperse to various kinds of child care when they aren’t in school, they could end up being exposed to more people than they would be in a regular classroom.

“It’s a nightmare,” he told me. “I think we’re going to have significantly more harm to children and to families pursuing a staggered schedule approach, particularly to elementary school students.”

But Trump’s interference means that now no departure from the current C.D.C. guidelines will be seen as credible outside of MAGAland. “The recklessness has made people distrust anything that they say because they have downplayed the virus from the beginning,” said Weingarten.

Last month, NPR reported on a mostly Black nursing home in Maryland that didn’t lose any residents to Covid because its director listened to what Trump said about the virus and assumed the opposite was true. “When I heard President Trump say we only had 15 cases and by the end of the week that it would be zero, I knew that it was time to act,” the director said.

This is a president with negative credibility. The more Trump demands that schools open, the more people who’ve paid close attention to him will fear they all must remain closed.