Imagine looking at all that and still thinking, “You know what else should reopen, regardless of what local health experts think? Schools.” Yet that’s exactly what President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are saying. And they’re threatening to cut funding to schools that don’t go along.
Why push ahead? “We know that children get the virus at a far lower rate than any other part of the population,” DeVos claimed on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “There’s — there is no — nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them.” That answer is at best wildly optimistic; at worst, it’s dangerously misleading. There’s some evidence that children are less likely to catch the virus, but the results are inconsistent across countries and age ranges. (A new study published in the Lancet, for example, found that children under 10 were less susceptible to the virus, but older children were just as likely to get the virus as adults.) Recent outbreaks at summer camps — 82 campers and counselors at a camp in Missouri, 85 at two camps in Georgia — suggest similar outbreaks are all but inevitable should schools reopen too quickly.
Besides, even if children are less vulnerable, someone still needs to teach them. Yet according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 1.5 million teachers — 1 in 4 — “are at greater risk of serious illness if infected with coronavirus.” It will surprise no one to hear that DeVos and co. have no plan to keep those teachers safe or to find new ones if they decide to retire rather than risk their health.
Perhaps the administration is counting on strict implementation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations — social distancing, plastic sheeting, staggered student pickups and drop-offs — to keep teachers and students safe? Well, no, because earlier this week the president called those guidelines “very tough & expensive” and “very impractical.” On “Fox News Sunday,” DeVos refused to dispute that, even as she admitted the guidelines were “common sense.”
Besides, says DeVos, other countries pulled it off! “We know that other countries around the world have reopened their schools and have done so successfully and safely,” she told Fox News host Chris Wallace quickly pointed out the obvious: Other countries have the virus under control. “We’re talking about the world, not the exception,” replied DeVos.
But sadly, the United States is an exception. And as Aldous Huxley wrote, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” What works for a country with several hundred new coronavirus cases per day does not work for a country with tens of thousands of new cases every day. We’re already seeing this play out in professional sports, for example. Many leagues in many European countries have resumed play with few positive tests, while 7 percent of NBA players have already tested positive for the coronavirus, two teams have withdrawn from MLS’s summer tournament, and players in various sports are opting out of their 2020 seasons.
The good news is Trump and DeVos have little power over most schools’ funding. First, cutting off aid requires congressional approval — impossible given the Democratic-controlled House. But even if somehow Congress did sign off, less than 10 percent of K-12 education funding comes from the federal government; the rest is mostly from state and local sources.
Yet as we’ve already seen during this pandemic, this administration doesn’t even need foolish policies to damage the country’s pandemic response; foolish words are enough. Had Trump not politicized reopening, we likely would have been spared spikes now seen in many red states. Similarly, the president’s demand that schools resume will inevitably lead some districts to reopen that might otherwise have stayed closed. Once again, politics will control what should be apolitical decisions — and more Americans will pay the price.