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Opinion If Trump wants to reopen schools, here’s what his administration needs to do

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Vice President Pence says it is “absolutely essential that we get our kids in the classroom for in-person learning.” His remarks Wednesday followed President Trump’s announcement that “we’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools” — and a follow-up tweet threatening to cut off funding if schools remain closed.

Pence and Trump are right about the importance of in-person instruction. But the Trump administration can’t just set a timeline without committing to the necessary work to ensure the health and safety of students, teachers and their families.

The single most important requirement for resuming in-person instruction is suppressing the level of covid-19 infections in the community. Imagine if schools tried to open now in areas undergoing massive surges, including Houston, Miami and Phoenix. Groups of children gathering indoors would add fuel to the flame and worsen the crisis. This is why the White House’s own guidelines prohibit schools from reopening until the community has reached Phase 2 — defined, at minimum, as recording a consistent decline in new infections.

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Even as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases passes 3 million, President Trump has repeatedly played down covid-19’s toll on the country. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton / Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Right now, more than 40 states have increasing cases. To reverse this trend, governors will need to reimpose restrictions and make difficult tradeoffs. Some businesses, such as bars and nightclubs, may need to stay closed for the summer to keep virus levels low enough for schools to be open in the fall. The Trump administration needs to support these actions rather than cast doubt on the severity of the current surge.

Another urgent and long overdue step: The administration needs to implement a national testing strategy and substantially ramp up testing capacity. Some schools in Germany require students and staff to pass self-administered covid-19 tests every four days. This would be an option that many U.S. parents and teachers will want, and some proposals, such as pooled testing, may offer a path to do so. Given the current shortage of tests and the lack of agreement on who would pay for testing, that seems unlikely to happen by the fall. At the very least, there must be sufficient tests that all those who have symptoms or exposure could be tested immediately, with results available the same day.

In addition, the community needs to have the capability to conduct contact tracing and regular surveillance. If there is a cluster of infections linked to a particular school, prompt action needs to be taken, including quarantining close contacts and even temporary school closure. This is another reason to suppress the level of virus in the community now: Constant outbreaks will quickly overwhelm the public health infrastructure.

During Wednesday’s news conference, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasized that his agency’s guidelines are just recommendations — they are not mandatory. Why not? There should be a checklist of, say, 20 things that must be done to ensure safety in schools. The language must be unambiguous. No more nebulous messages such as desks should be spaced apart “when feasible” and communal spaces closed “if possible.” Firm rules don’t limit local autonomy; they provide a clear road map for superintendents, while reassuring parents and teachers.

All these new measures would require enormous amounts of planning. To space students out, there would likely be different configurations of classes, at different hours, that require more buses and additional teachers. New hand-washing and sanitizing stations would need to be installed and new cleaning protocols implemented. Nurse aides might be hired to conduct symptom screenings. Students and staff will need masks and other personal protective equipment. Congress has already allocated $13 billion, but the cost will be much more.

Instead of making a commitment for this needed funding, the Trump administration is attacking local officials who are trying to balance complex competing priorities. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos criticized one of the largest school districts in the country, Virginia’s Fairfax County, for its plan to offer part-time in-person instruction. “A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” she said.

Actually, a hybrid of remote and in-person teaching may well be the best option. There will be some children who cannot return due to their own health conditions. There will be older teachers with multiple risk factors who can only safely work remotely. The Trump administration needs to support the enormous efforts undertaken by school districts to accommodate vulnerable students and teachers, not to shame and threaten them.

We have already seen what happens when reopening occurs too soon and without the proper safeguards. If getting schools back is the top priority that the Trump administration says it is, it needs to do the hard work and provide the necessary funding to get there. Arbitrary timelines and empty rhetoric will only harm students, parents and teachers.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Schools need to reopen. The question is how.

Daniel T. Halperin: The case for reopening schools this fall

Leana S. Wen: The White House is right about one thing on covid-19: We need young people’s help

Helaine Olen: Betsy DeVos is an abysmal failure and our nation’s schoolchildren are paying the price

Helaine Olen: A judge calls Betsy DeVos to account