Someone in the administration must have thought it was a good idea to send Education Secretary Betsy DeVos out on the Sunday shows to defend President Trump’s directive that schools should reopen in the fall regardless of health conditions. He declared last week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines were too much of a bother and that he’d cut off funding to the schools if they did not reopen. It was a mistake both because Trump’s impulsive, irrational and illegal assertions are not grounded in reality and because DeVos is singularly incapable of appearing thoughtful and reasonable.

How’s Trump going to cut off money to schools? She floundered in response to questions from Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday”:

WALLACE: And President Trump tweeted Friday: Schools must be open in the fall. If not open, why would the federal government give funding? It won't.
Two quick questions and I need a quick answer if I can from you, Secretary DeVos.
One, under what authority are you and the president going to unilaterally cut off funding, funding that's been approved from Congress and most of the money goes to disadvantaged students or students with disabilities? And secondly, isn't cutting off funding exactly the wrong answer? Don't you want to spend more money to make schools safer, whether it's with plastic shields or health checks, various other systems? Does it make more sense to increase funding for schools where it's unsafe rather than cut off funding?
DEVOS: Look, American investment in education is a promise to students and their families. If schools aren't going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn't get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.
WALLACE: Well, you can't do that.
DEVOS: It’s promise to the American people. That’s —
WALLACE: I know you support vouchers and that’s — I know you support vouchers, and that’s a — that’s a reasonable argument. But you can’t do that unilaterally, you have to do that through Congress.
DEVOS: Well, we’re looking at all the options because it’s a promise to the American people, to students and their families, and we want to make sure that promise is followed through on.

Trump has no such authority so her insistence on talking in circles simply highlighted how empty is his threat and how lacking in expertise and integrity she is.

What is so hard about sticking to the CDC guidelines? She really could not say:

WALLACE: But, Secretary, I want to get — I want to get to this issue of — because the president of the United States said that the CDC guidelines were tough, expensive and impractical. I want to look at some of the other CDC guidance. They talked about putting up shielding in places where six foot — six feet of distance is not possible, plastic shielding. They talked about staggered drop-offs and pickups.
Is that tough, expensive and impractical?
DEVOS: Well, again, all of the guidelines are meant to be helpful, to help local education leaders decide and work on how they are going to accomplish what they need to do, and that is getting kids back in school based on their situation and their realities. We know that schools across the country look very different and that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to everything. But the key is, there has to be a posture of doing something, of action, of getting things going, putting a plan together for your specific school, for your specific district or for your classroom that ensures that kids are going to start learning again this fall.

She never explained what the problem was, but neither did she have a plan of her own. CNN’s Dana Bash made that plain on “State of the Union”:

BASH: I’m a parent. I want my school-aged child to go back to school as much as you are saying you want for everybody.
But the question is, can it happen safely?
So, can you — by saying what you just said, also assure parents, students, children, everybody who’s there, that they’re going to be able to do so safely?
DEVOS: Well, we know that children get the virus at a far lower rate than any other part of the population.
And, again, there’s — there is no — nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is — is dangerous to them. And, in fact, it’s — it’s more a matter of their health and well-being that they be back in school.
And we have seen this in countries, other countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world, where students have gone back to school and have done so very successfully. That should be the goal.
BASH: Well, we do know that children can spread the virus. … And here’s what the CDC guidelines say: “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.”
That’s your own federal government’s guidelines. …
And it sounds like what you’re saying is you, as the secretary of education, is compelling — you are compelling schools to reopen regardless of what’s happening.
DEVOS: No, what we're saying is that kids need to be back in school, and that school leaders across the country need to be making plans to do just that.
There's going to be the exception to the rule, but the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall. And where there are little flare-ups or hot spots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis.
And there’s a — there ample opportunity to have kids in school. You know, there’s many counties across the country that have virtually no cases. And so school leaders need to be looking at the granular data, the — right on the ground where they are, and — and looking at, if there are problems, then how are you going to deal with them?
But the — the goal needs to be that kids are learning full-time again this fall.
BASH: And I — again, I don’t — I just want to make clear, nobody has any goal that’s different from that.
Everybody wants children to learn in the best possible conditions. But there's also the question of safety and balancing those. And I'm not hearing a plan from you on how to get to that goal of children in school learning, but doing so safely.
Does the Department of Education have a plan to do that?
DEVOS: Well, the Department of Education has been working hard the last several months.
All of my team, we’ve been working closely with state school leaders to ensure that they had maximum flexibility, waiving tests, providing student loan relief, all things that have helped local education leaders and state leaders do the right things for their students.

No, she does not have a plan. Does she want schools to follow the CDC guidelines? She talked in circles but really could not say. If there is an outbreak, should schools go back to distance learning? More double talk. Well, what about teachers who cannot go back because of their own health risks? More mumbo-jumbo:

DEVOS: Teachers want to be there. They want to be in the classroom with their kids. And kids — and teachers are …
BASH: Again, I know you — Madam Secretary, you keep repeating that. And nobody is disagreeing with you. I’m asking you very detailed questions about how to do that, the mechanism and the rules and the guidance that you give them, as the top person in this — in this area federally.

No answer was forthcoming. Appearing later on the same program, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) observed, “I think what we heard from [DeVos] was malfeasance and dereliction of duty. This is appalling.” She continued, “The president and his administration are messing with the health of our children. We all want our children to go back to school. Teachers do, parents do and children do. But they must go back safely.” She added that “when you hear what the administration is saying, we know that they have no appreciation for the failure that has brought us to this point.” I suspect many educators and parents would agree.

Several points should be clear. First, Trump does not concern himself with the health of children; he figured out the economy cannot reopen with kids at home, so he is ordering kids into the line of fire. Let someone else (the states?) figure out the details.

Second, this is not a strategic move. Polling shows voters overwhelmingly fear returning to “normal” too soon; women in particular (e.g., teachers, mothers) likely will find his posture reckless.

Third, the administration has not learned the lesson of premature reopenings: You cannot reopen (businesses, schools, etc.) so long as the virus is out of control. The result is a runaway pandemic.

Fourth, it really does not matter what nonsense Trump spews. Educational decisions will be made at the state and local level, but ultimately the choice as to whether to send kids back to in-person schooling rests with parents. It is peculiar in the extreme that the party that used to rant against intrusions into family life and warn about an oppressive federal government now reveres a president who wants to dictate how schools operate.

Finally, DeVos’s appearance, the pushback from CDC director Robert Redfield and Vice President Pence’s effort to spin the president’s remarks highlight the degree to which the administration is focused on spinning and praising the president as opposed to solving problems. DeVos had her talking points defending the president but not an actual plan for addressing the complex and crucial issue of reopening schools.

When a narcissist is president, the interests of the American people — even of vulnerable children — pale in comparison to the need to soothe and stroke the ego of the president.

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