What Matters: The truth about Trump’s call to reopen schools

Opening schools is certainly a welcome goal for working parents. Texas, another spot whose governor is a key Trump ally, announced down the road Tuesday that it would offer all parents the option of remote learning — and would require masks in schools.

The Florida order — which requires all schools to open brick-and-mortar facilities five days a week for many students and for districts to submit detailed reopening plans — is filled with caveats and exceptions.

A careful reading

Read this language from the order, which was signed by state education commissioner Richard Corcoran:

a. All schools open. Upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open physical schools at the least five days per week for many students, subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health, Executive Order 20-149 and subsequent executive orders. Absent these directives, the day-to-day decision to open or close a school should always rest locally with the board or executive most closely of a school, the superintendent or school board in the case of a district-run school, the charter governing board in the case of a public charter school or the private school principal, director or governing board in the case of a nonpublic school.

That sure makes it seem like all schools in Florida aren’t of necessity going to be open in the fall.

Now read this tweet from Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie, which he posted hours prior to the order:

“It is up to each individual school district how it reopens in the fall and we will submit a plan to FLDOE. We will continue to follow the advice of our public health and medical experts as to how and when it is safe for our @browardschools community to return to school.”

Sounds just like a definite “maybe.”

Now listen to Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who appeared on CNN on Tuesday to talk about the order and the need for districts to have flexibility.

He said that he could conform to the order to open schools whilst not actually bringing kids to school every single day:

“We have innovative models, models where students do not need to come to school for education,” Carvalho said. “In the last quarter we demonstrated how effective they can be, continuous remote education without necessarily forcing all students into the same building at the same time.”

He said their internal surveys suggests 30% of parents could possibly choose remote learning in today’s environment.

That does not sound too much off lots of the plans other school districts in other states have already been considering.

Later, Carvalho said definitively that the existing situation must change before kids get back to class. “I will not reopen our school system August 24th if the conditions are what they are today,” that he said.

Despite the President’s activist stance, they’re largely local decisions, as Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy Homeland Security secretary and former Virginia attorney general, noted Tuesday on CNN.

“The federal government can’t order schools to do A, B or C,” that he said. “Certainly, the President is seeking the maximum reopening we can get not just of schools, but of the economy.”

New CDC guidance for school districts is expected next week, according to Vice President Mike Pence, even though we should mention that states (at Trump’s prodding) did not follow CDC guidelines for opening up. And now cases of coronavirus are resurging.

We haven’t even addressed several key dilemmas, like:

Transportation. Can old buses be crammed full of young ones?

Teachers. Kids might be not as likely to get sick, but teachers aren’t kids. Their unions have previously had plenty to say about safety for adults who work in school buildings, including custodial workers and other staff.

After care. Assuming school days are truncated or staggered, that isn’t going to help parents get back to work full-time. The care that local governments provide in addition to school could be just as essential to parents.

If Trump might make these things happen, the country could have reopened by Easter. That was never going to happen.

Who’s going to pay? It’s generally not very clear how states and districts are going to pay for personal protective equipment and infrastructure changes they’ll need. Congress has already allocated more than $13 billion for school districts, but far more will be necessary.

A very different crisis for foreign students

While the government cannot force K-12 schools to open, it can apply pressure, as it’s now trying to do with universities planning an online-only fall.

In a news release Monday, ICE said that students who come under certain visas “may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” adding, “The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States.”

The agency suggested that students currently signed up for the US consider other measures, like transferring to schools with in-person instruction. There’s an exception for universities using a hybrid model, like a mix of on the web and in-person classes.

“We’re not forcing universities to reopen,” Cuccinelli said through that CNN interview. “However, if a university … if they don’t reopen this semester, there isn’t a reason for a person holding a student visa to be present in the country. They should go home. Then they can return when the school opens. That’s what student visas are for, and we want to accommodate that for schools, and we’re working hard to do that.”

But it puts both students (who might be from countries with Covid travel restrictions) and schools (which count on foreign student revenue) in a tough spot.

The guidance “undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programs while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic,” said Harvard University President Larry Bacow.

Trump’s pressure campaign

Trump was dedicated to education all through an event at the White House, where he suggested anyone who doesn’t instantly want to open schools is doing it for political reasons.

“We hope that most schools are going to be open,” Trump said at a White House event on reopening schools safely. “We don’t want people to make political statements or do it for political reasons. They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed,” that he alleged. “No way.”

That echoed messaging from Trump’s campaign Tuesday insinuating that his campaign rival Joe Biden doesn’t want schools to restart in the fall. “Question of the day for Joe Biden,” Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, tweeted, “Will you side with union bosses who want to keep schools closed or parents who want their kids to keep learning?”

And Trump was not shy about his efforts to influence states one other way. “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open,” the President said at the White House. “And 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.”

It is important. That’s something each American can agree on.

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