Yesterday, the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos and President Donald Trump took a bold stand against school closures. After conducting decision-making meetings that supposedly included educators, students, and parents from around the country, each leader made their announcement. Devos stressed the idea that schools needed to be “fully operational” in the fall. She did not back down on this being defined as a 5-day week with all students on campus, further rejecting remote and hybrid learning options even if temporary. President Trump echoed her statements, saying that schools must reopen and that he will put pressure on governors to do so.
Betsy Devos made many uninformed statements regarding the spring closures as well. She claimed schools “didn’t figure out how to serve students” and that they “just gave up and didn’t try.” This is an insult to the teachers who worked their tails off to provide the best education possible, as well as to the school and district leadership that attempted to maintain morale and structure despite the terrible circumstances. Devos wasn’t shy to let us all know yesterday that remote learning was a disaster – but she was silent almost two months while teachers, administrators, and families scrambled to make things work; she offered no advice, pep talk, empathy, training, or necessary funding. Let’s get something out of the way early: remote teaching and learning are not mutually exclusive. If teachers had been trained, provided time to plan, given resources for online instruction, and properly funded, it would have made a world of difference. I think given that teachers were thrown into remote learning last minute with no background in distance education or preparation, we did a damn good job.
Immediately, these statements caused a stir. Multiple teacher unions including the NEA and AFT rejected the forced reopening of all schools, and the national PTA voiced their own concerns on the matter. Some states have already responded, including my home state of Arizona. Last night, Arizona’s State Superintendent of Education, Kathy Hoffman, announced that the decision to close schools was up to our communities, and given our uncontrollable spread of the virus in Arizona, we will not forcibly open schools. Ironically, part of Devos’s speech included her saying that opening schools were “best left to education and community leaders” while also ordering compliance with federal demands.
Their decision making is flawed on many levels, but especially the idea that opening schools is not a big deal. The administration is citing recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics to reopen schools based on the importance of student development and learning. However, their recommendations first recognize how important it is that communities and local leaders make the decisions and plans for reopening their schools. Additionally, the report outlines countless guidelines for reopening which are difficult for the majority of schools to attain, while admitting the guidelines were not feasible in most cases. Lastly, the report focuses on the importance of reopening schools only as it relates to students, completely ignoring staff and families in the process. To open schools there will need to be teachers, many who are older, have pre-existing conditions, or are immunocompromised. Even younger and healthier teachers are not immune, there have been hospitalizations and deaths of every age group. Not to mention, schools will be a daily super spreader event that will then make its way back to the community through family interactions, stores, church, and sleepovers. Despite all of this, the president claimed that the risks of staying home outweigh the risks of in person learning: apparently being at risk of hospitalization or death is the better alternative to students not seeing their friends at school or participating in circles.
At this point, the CDC has come out to say that schools should not reopen as they were operating pre-pandemic, including the use of PPE, hybrid models, fewer students per classroom, etc due to the recent spikes of COVID-19 cases. But one of the main arguments has been that when schools closed in the spring, the CDC had not made the recommendation for them to do so but the governor’s ordered them closed anyway. Despite education being a state and local issue, Devos and President Trump are demanding compliance with their wishes. It is ironic that someone like Trump who is in support of state’s rights when it comes to the pandemic overall as well as abortion, healthcare, banning same-sex marriage, and white-washing curriculum in schools, suddenly does not believe they should have their autonomy when deciding if schools should reopen. Better yet, he has politicized the situation further by claiming in a recent tweet that school closures were orchestrated by the Democratic party and his election opponent, Joe Biden. Despite this claim, Arizona’s state governor Doug Ducey chose to delay the in-person opening of schools last week before any federal suggestions – yet he is a faithful Republican.
All of this brings us to the main concern- funding. In order to open schools and follow guidelines, we need more. More teachers, support staff, PPE, space in classrooms for social distancing, supplies so students do not share, and training. Given the spikes in cases, and the cost to provide the accommodations needed to meet guidelines – the math doesn’t add up. While we are already concerned about affording the necessary accommodations, federal money from the CARES Act is being pushed to private schools by Devos. This money was meant to help public schools remain open, continue paying their staff, and make adjustments with PPE and training. Multiple states have joined a lawsuit against Devos and the Department of Education for this decision. Perhaps most ironic is the private schools that will receive CARES Act money have no way of being held accountable to the demands of opening in-person.
The entire funding situation is a double-edged sword: if we comply with the order to reopen schools we will not have enough funding to do it safely. But if we do not comply and choose to go to virtual or hybrid learning models, our funding is threatened. That’s right, Devos is looking for a way to withhold federal funding from schools that do not go back to fully operational and President Trump announced that CDC guidelines are “too tough and expensive” while also threatening to pull funding. While the majority of school funding comes from state and local sources, the loss from a federal withholding could be as much as 10% of a school’s budget. Such a cut will be especially devastating to the disadvantaged populations who are already underfunded and more likely to not be able to safely open schools. This means corners will have to be cut, and when they are we will see a less than ideal education for our students, which teachers and schools will be blamed for it just like the spring.
This pandemic is a bigger issue than a slowing economy or that our teachers are being treated like babysitters, and handling the crisis needs to be apolitical to be successful. Click To Tweet
This pandemic is a bigger issue than a slowing economy or that our teachers are being treated like babysitters, and handling the crisis needs to be apolitical to be successful. The only word I can think of to describe the current administration’s handling of the pandemic and education is delusional. They are politicizing a crisis in order to sweep concerns under the rug, push the economy forward, and risk millions of lives. Neither our Secretary of Education nor the president has any experience as an educator, especially not as an educator during a pandemic. Their statements are misinformed, inflammatory, disappointing, and delusional – but educators will ultimately pay the price when the blame is once again placed on them when this has all been deemed a failure.
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