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Even where Trump is popular, some school leaders reject his push to reopen schools

South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman pushed back on calls to require schools to reopen this fall. (Meg Kinnard/AP)

The school year for Greenville County Schools in South Carolina starts a little more than a month from now, and officials are still scrambling to figure out what school will look like for the district’s nearly 77,000 students. Will students return to school full time? Or part time? Or will they even open school buildings?

Whatever the plan is, Superintendent W. Burke Royster said, it will be driven by the pandemic — not politics. Royster helped craft a matrix that will guide the school’s reopening plan based on the spread of the novel coronavirus, and so far, things are not looking good: For the week ending Friday, the county was reporting an average of about 160 new cases a day.

“We try to make our decisions and base it on what’s in the best interest of our students and our employees and our community, and try to do that at all times on objective factual information and not on the winds of the political discourse,” Royster said earlier this month. “And right now, obviously, I think everyone knows they’re extremely strong.”

Trump pushes schools to open in the fall, downplaying risks as virus spreads

President Trump this month launched an aggressive campaign to return children to school full time, threatening to withhold federal funding from schools that do not comply — which he does not have the power to do — and lashing out against his own public health agency’s school guidelines. Reopening schools is seen as a linchpin to restarting the economy, making it a crucial part of his reelection bid.

But he’s encountering pushback even in places like Greenville County, where Trump won by 25 points in 2016, by school officials who worry that reopening schools could accelerate the spread of the virus. In interviews, some expressed frustration that the president was pushing schools to reopen but offering little in the way of help, financial or otherwise. Congress allocated $13.5 billion in pandemic relief to K-12 schools, compared with the $100 billion they got in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

“Although the administration can apparently absorb the 150,000 covid deaths without care or consequence, we do not have the luxury of even losing one,” said Kristi Wilson, superintendent of Buckeye Elementary School District in Arizona, located in a small Maricopa County town that backed Trump in 2016. “They don’t have the authority to pull our funds. But I think that kind of threat stokes the fire for the teachers who are doing their very best to come back to school.”

While calling for schools to reopen, the Trump administration has at times given mixed messages about how that should be done. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump has successfully drawn some Republican allies into his fight, including the governors of South Carolina, Florida and Texas. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, typically a champion of local control, has criticized districts for not fully reopening, hinted that she would try to deliver on Trump’s threats to cut funding and wrongly proclaimed that children are “stoppers” of the virus. And some congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are considering tethering new pandemic relief money to schools being physically open.

Thursday, two weeks after Trump called the school reopening guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “very tough and expensive," the agency released new guidelines, which advocated strongly for schools to reopen. Some of the guidance was written by White House officials instead of the CDC, according to people familiar with the process.

But many allies are resisting him. Shortly after the president began his campaign, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R), a longtime supporter of the president, broke ranks and postponed the start of the school year.

“Our president is urging all of us to go back to school. Nobody wants us to go back to school more than I,” the governor said earlier this month. “But in this situation here, I’ve got to look out first and foremost for the kids, for the teachers, the service personnel, all those involved right on down to the parents.”

The red-state governors who have followed Trump’s lead have faced swift backlash from school leaders.

As fear of the virus wins out, a fast retreat from in-person learning

In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster (R), a Trump ally, called for schools to reopen full time. He asked Molly Spearman, the Republican state schools superintendent, to require it. She declined — and criticized McMaster and the Trump administration for pressuring schools to reopen rather than leaving school boards and superintendents to decide.

Vice President Pence told educators in South Carolina on July 21 that he and President Trump both fully support the decision to reopen schools after Labor Day. (Video: The Washington Post)

Spearman said she did not see Trump’s rhetoric having much of an effect on school officials in the state. “We’re on the East Coast, but South Carolina is still a long way from Washington, D.C.,” Spearman said.

Royster, the Greenville superintendent, had been working for months to develop plans to reopen. He said it would be impossible to offer all families full-time instruction while keeping employees and students safe.

“We cannot do that and maintain compliance with the recommended guidance,” Royster said. The governor’s call, he said, “seems to fail to take into account that we cannot logistically carry out the recommended social distancing protocols.”

Reopened schools in Europe and Asia have largely avoided coronavirus outbreaks. They have lessons for the U.S.

The push to reopen schools is not strictly a Republican or political endeavor. The American Academy of Pediatrics had urged schools to return students to classrooms, although it has backed off since Trump began weaponizing the statement. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine also published a report last week encouraging schools to get younger children and children with special needs back in the classroom, while urging state and federal governments to better fund schools.

Teachers, however, are pushing back hard. On Monday, Florida’s largest teachers union sued Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the state’s top education official to force them to roll back their emergency order. Many parents are reluctant, too, as the science on how well children spread the virus remains inconclusive.

Even if there are enough teachers to reopen, abiding by the health guidelines is a logistical nightmare for superintendents. The dilemmas are endless: Do they cut activities like choir and band? Should they take students’ temperatures before they enter school? If they do that, how do they ensure students don’t crowd the entrances? And how do they prepare for the coronavirus and the possibility of a school shooting, which calls for students and teachers to crowd into closets?

“I do not think being in classrooms is the safest or best place for my staff and I did not sign up for this job to weigh the cost-benefit analysis of someone’s (potential) life vs being an economic driver for the country and making sure kids can read and do math on time,” PJ Caposey, superintendent of the Meridian School District in northwest Illinois, wrote in a tweet.

Chuck Bishop, the superintendent of Clarke County Public Schools in Northern Virginia, said figuring out how to restart school has been by far the greatest challenge that he’s faced in three decades as an educator. The political pressure, especially when it comes with little funding or guidance, is only complicating matters, he said.

“We have people who haven’t spent time in classrooms in years who are telling us that we have to open schools in the midst of a pandemic,” Bishop said.

Ann Levett, superintendent of schools in Savannah, Ga., had relied on the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, headquartered in Atlanta, as she crafted plans to reopen schools. But she found the latest guidance to be suspect and worried it was crafted with political goals in mind.

The fact that the new guidance now aligns more closely with Trump’s goal of reopening schools "leads me to conclude that it has certainly been influenced heavily by politics,” Levett said. “It’s very, very disconcerting.”

CDC director concedes schools in ‘hot spots’ face tougher call on reopening

Other officials said they fear that rhetoric from the White House will fuel skepticism of public health measures and acrimony between parents and school officials. Caposey, whose small district is in a conservative bedroom community of Rockford, Ill., said Trump’s comments have prompted a flood of demands from parents that the school system refund their property taxes if they do not allow all students to return full time. In Culpeper County, Va., a member of the board of supervisors has called for cutting the school system’s funding if it does not abide by the president’s wishes.

Then there are the mask wars. As the school year draws nearer, the debates over mask requirements, which have led to packed city council meetings and ugly encounters at Costco, have spilled over into school meetings. Last week, protesters showed up without masks at a Utah County Commission meeting to discuss mask requirements for schoolchildren, stripping away tape meant to enforce social distancing and crowding shoulder-to-shoulder in the room.

“This is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing,” Tanner Ainge, the commission’s chair, said over the microphone.

The crowd erupted in boos.

Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.