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Betsy DeVos wants to turn millions of America’s children into pandemic lab rats

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

The trouble with actually listening to Education Sec. Betsy DeVos and other Trump cabinet members is that their words lead nowhere.

They are circular arguments: Schools should open despite coronavirus because, well, schools should be open.

Clearly DeVos is backing Trump’s demand for schools across the country to be fully open with in-person classes in September. But under the fairly predictable questions of talk show appearances, she was tongue-tied about exactly how that is supposed to happen. Instead, she turned to the old reliable – that local districts need to figure it out on their own. All of which makes it more curious as to why the Trump campaign would send her around the country with her mealy-mouthed speech about re-opening schools as part of re-electioneering.

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Fine. But, if “no one-size solution fits all cases” is the mantra, why are Trump and DeVos saying the federal guidance – under threat of loss of federal funds — is exactly that: Open up or else.

Return to ‘normalcy’ means making it appear that conditions are the best for a Trump reelection. But the contagion isn’t going away.

That this advice ignores a singularly difficult pandemic spread is obvious. Return to “normalcy,” as we hear endlessly, means making it appear that conditions are the best for a Trump reelection. But the contagion isn’t going away, nor is the popular unwillingness to take even basic precautions.

In states like Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to step as lightly as possible despite record numbers of new outbreaks of coronavirus, there is criticism because he is ignoring the disease. In states like California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom is re-imposing many but not all stay-at-home orders, there is criticism from those who find the orders will kill their businesses.

In the midst of chaos, the Trump White House is busy attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading immunologist, rather than taking more aggressive, direct steps to enable exactly what it really wants – some semblance of normal. It’s wacky.

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It is baffling how attacking Fauci helps keep contagion at bay. It is equally baffling how opening schools fully helps to allay the contagion that is keeping schools closed altogether, or how threats to cut budgets that cannot afford safety investments work exactly.

Do You Believe in Magic?

We may as well bring on the magic dust.

Lists of obvious questions for safe operation of schools around the country are circulating widely on social media. They range from the safety of students, to ways to ensure physical distance, to children as asymptomatic transmitters of disease to families, to pay issues for teachers, administrators, custodians and cafeteria workers who also are in these schools.

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There are no answers forthcoming. The Centers for Disease Control offers guidance to local school districts, which say they cannot afford to implement them. The White House criticizes the CDC for issuing guidelines altogether, and then says it will issue its own; the CDC leaders say the guidelines were never meant to keep schools closed and doesn’t want to change them to meet a political need at the White House. Worse, the White House now wants to grab all the data and control what is shared publicly. Do you think this will help reduce the disease – or just the bad numbers?

Meanwhile, parents, grandparents, teachers and families watch both nervously and angrily that such inane tail-chasing does nothing to address the key questions here.

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Many schools are scheduled to open next month, leaving little time for physical rearrangements even if districts have money available. That most do not because coronavirus lockdowns have created so many state and city tax revenue shortfalls—none of which seems to register with DeVos, who may not have been in a classroom more than a half-dozen times in nearly four years in the job.

It takes no special genius to recognize that either keeping schools closed or opening them under such conditions will have a heavier impact on schools in low-income, urban neighborhoods. Yet in all her remarks to date, that is a reality that seems not to matter to DeVos.

Where’s the Plan?

If schools were closed in March and April because of the disease, where’s the plan for why opening in September is safer?

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You’d think that the Department of Education instead would be working on detailed ways to boost on-line teaching resources, including trainings for teachers on how to be most effective in on-line teaching. Or that the department would be working with tech companies to ensure that students all over the nation could have access to laptops and internet connection without regard to social status, income or residence.

You might think that DeVos would be out talking with teachers and visiting enough local schools to make some kind of assessment of what exactly the challenge is. Or she might be reconciling the CDC guidelines with the realities of compliance in districts large and small, to get a sense of whether emergency grants might help achieve the goal she and Trump want.

Or given that she is such an advocate for private and parochial schools, she might be consulting with them.

Instead, we fall back on the silliness of partisan politics. We should open schools, risking further spread of contagion among adults as well as children, because Trump wants it.

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Magic will make it so.

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