“[Betsy DeVos,] you have no plan,” tweeted Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) on Sunday afternoon. “I wouldn’t trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child.”
Pressley was one of several Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who publicly blasted DeVos following her Sunday TV appearances.
During both interviews, DeVos appeared to dance around questions about how the Education Department planned to ensure the safety of children and teachers and their families as the number of coronavirus cases and related deaths continued surging in a majority of states over the weekend. Instead, she stuck to a handful of talking points that revolved around the same central message: “The key is that kids have to get back to school, and we know there are going to be hot spots and those need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall,” she told CNN’s Dana Bash.
Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, echoed DeVos’s comments in a statement to The Washington Post Monday evening.
“The science is clear: Schools can reopen safely in the fall,” Morabito said. "This might not look the same in every place — in fact, we hope that state and local education leaders take this opportunity to provide families with options based on their personal situations and the local health realities.
“Students are at the center of everything we do, and Secretary DeVos would not be calling for a return to school if it were unsafe,” she added.
DeVos’s remarks Sunday came as she and Trump have struggled to get school systems nationwide to commit to fully reopening, despite pressuring education leaders and threatening to cut federal funding from schools that do not open. As The Post’s Laura Meckler reported Friday, a number of school districts have announced hybrid reopening plans, meaning students will be in classrooms some days and learning remotely on others.
But on Sunday, DeVos defended her position that all schools need to be fully open this fall and prepared to provide students with full-time, in-person education. Supporters of the effort have noted that parents cannot return to work if children are at home, and though there was some success in the spring with remote education, attempts to shift to online learning largely failed in many districts.
“They’ve been missing months of learning,” DeVos said at the start of a roughly 20-minute interview on CNN. “Many of them are going to be so far behind, difficult to catch up, and we know that this is a matter of their health in a multitude of factors. … Particularly for kids from low-income and vulnerable populations, this is devastating to be out of school and not learning for months on end.”
Bash repeatedly pressed DeVos on whether the return could happen safely.
“We know that children get the virus at a far lower rate than any other part of the population,” DeVos responded. “And again, there is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them.”
The recommendation to reopen schools has been backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which cites the academic and social-emotional damage done when children miss school. Still, the AAP, in a joint statement with teachers unions and superintendents, stressed last week that schools in areas with high rates of coronavirus cases should not be compelled to reopen against the advice of local experts.
On Sunday, Bash cited recent reports of novel coronavirus outbreaks at a Missouri summer camp and child-care facilities in Texas. She also highlighted guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states, “If children meet in groups, it can put everyone at risk. Children can pass this virus onto others who have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”
DeVos avoided answering questions about whether schools should adhere to the CDC’s guidelines on reopening, which have been criticized by Trump for being “very tough & expensive.”
“As the secretary of education, should schools in the United States follow the CDC recommendations or not?” Bash asked.
“Dr. Redfield has clearly said these are recommendations and every situation is going to look slightly different,” said DeVos, referring to CDC Director Robert Redfield. “And the key for education leaders, and these are smart people who can figure things out, they can figure out what is going to be right for their specific situation, because every school building is different. Every school population is different.”
DeVos later added that the CDC’s guidelines are “meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation.”
She gave an equally noncommittal answer when Bash asked what schools should do if an outbreak occurs.
“I can’t, as a non-physician or nonmedical expert, tell you precisely what to do in the case of one child in a classroom or five children in a classroom,” DeVos said. “But the key is every school should have plans for that situation to be able to pivot and ensure that kids can continue learning at a distance if they have to for a year.”
DeVos noted that school leaders could look to examples set by the private sector as well as front-line workers and hospitals.
“Okay, but I’m not hearing a plan from the Department of Education,” Bash interjected. “Do you have a plan, for what students and what schools should do?”
DeVos replied, “Schools should do what’s right on the ground at that time for their students and for their situation.”
Bash asked whether DeVos stood by threats made to withhold funding, prompting the education official to stress, “There’s no desire to take money away.”
“So yes or no: Is the threat to withhold funding still alive or not?” Bash asked.
“We are committed to ensuring that students are in school and learning,” DeVos responded.
Those threats also came up during DeVos’s appearance on “Fox News Sunday” when host Chris Wallace asked what authority she and Trump have to cut funding that has already been approved by Congress and why they would want to do so at a time when schools need the money to make their facilities safer.
“American investment and education is a promise to students and their families,” DeVos said. “If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds. Then give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.”
“Well, you can’t do that,” Wallace said, interrupting DeVos. “You can’t do that unilaterally. You have to do that through Congress.”
The reaction to DeVos’s comments on CNN and Fox News was swift.
“What we heard from the secretary was malfeasance and dereliction of duty,” Pelosi said on CNN, shortly after Bash spoke with DeVos. “This is appalling.”
Pelosi accused Trump and his administration of “messing with the health of our children,” noting, “Going back to school presents the biggest risk for the spread of the coronavirus.”
“They ignore science and they ignore governance in order to make this happen,” she said.
Later Sunday, the White House hit back at Pelosi, tweeting from its recently launched rapid response account, “Speaker Pelosi is playing political games with the health of American children, ignoring the serious health implications of keeping schools shut down.”
By Sunday night, DeVos was still trending on Twitter as politicians and other critics dissected her interviews.
“Betsy DeVos’ lack of leadership on how to safely resume schools is dangerous to our students, our teachers, and our staff,” Harris, a former presidential candidate, tweeted. “She has no plan.”
Meanwhile, Schumer urged Trump and DeVos to stop threatening to cut funding from schools and instead “get to work helping them!”
But despite DeVos’s insistence, at least one GOP leader, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, reaffirmed Sunday that his state would fully reopen its schools when officials there see fit.
“Everybody would like to get our kids back to school as quickly as we can, but we also want to do it and make sure our kids are going to be as safe as possible,” Hogan said on “Meet The Press” Sunday. “So, we’re not going to be rushed into this.”