The Trump administration’s fight over reopening schools explained

Photo taken by high school student in Georgia upon reopening

The Trump Administration is firmly committed to making schools reopen this fall. Many have brought into question the viability of this decision, but for the Trump Administration, there is only one rule: “kids have to get back to school.” This rule has proved highly controversial, receiving a considerable amount of both criticism and praise nation-wide.

Many have questioned whether this objective is actually feasible, given the recent surges in infections and deaths from COVID-19, but Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has stated she feels confident that “there’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.”

Her opposition disagrees, pointing out the lack of scientific clarity on children’s ability to catch and transmit the virus. A recent South Korean study (reported on the CDC’s website) suggests that children under the age of nine can pass the virus, though less frequently than tweens and teens, whose potential to transmit COVID-19 is equal to an adult’s. If true, this would indicate that resuming in-class schooling would likely lead to an explosion of people catching the virus.

The Trump administration considers the low percentage of child cases to pose a smaller threat to public health than the effects of virtual learning on children. During a conference at the Marian University, Vice President Pence argued, “One study estimates that, due to school closures last spring, the average student is going to begin this year roughly 35% behind in reading, compared to a typical year, and 50% behind in math.”

Similarly, on July 24, CDC director Robert Redfield tweeted in favor of resuming in-person learning: “Schools provide critical services that help to mitigate health disparities—school meal programs, social, physical, behavioral, and mental health services—and closures disrupt the delivery of these critical services to children and families.” The CDC guidelines “are intended to help everyone—teachers, students, parents, guardians, caregivers, and administrators—get back to school as safely as possible,” he wrote.

At Marian, Pence announced that Trump requested that $105 billion be added to the next coronavirus relief package, more than three times the previous amount. According to a fact sheet from the White House’s website, these funds include $70B for k12 schools, of which $35B will be sent to schools that will reopen. The other half will “follow students [whose schools will operate remotely] so parents can send their child to the private, charter, religious, or home school of their choice.”

With many districts maintaining an online curriculum, Trump announced he would consider revoking federal tax exemptions from schools, including institutions of higher education. In early July, colleges and universities nearly saw their F1 and M1 visa students (illegally) forced to leave the country by order of the ICE if they didn’t reopen for fall. BC was among the institutions that opposed the bill, and “if another directive was made that impacted the safety of students and staff on campuses, there would again be a legal challenge,” as Nicole Beattie (BC’s associate director of communications) told The Watchdog. Trump and DeVos’ threats to cut federal funds to the schools that won’t reopen received loud criticism as well.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized the Trump Administration’s attempts to coerce schools into reopening. She spoke for thousands of concerned instructors when she said that “Before the virus’ resurgence, and before Trump’s and DeVos’ reckless ‘open or else’ threats, 76% of AFT members said they were comfortable returning to school buildings if the proper safeguards were in place,” Weingarten said. “Now they’re afraid and angry. Many are quitting, retiring, or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry, too.” The Federation also announced it would take action against the implementation of unsafe reopening plans.

According to The New York Times, threats to cut funding to schools are unlikely to happen. The POTUS can’t withhold the money without approval from Congress. Furthermore, the Federal Government’s funds represent only 10% of the total, 90% of which is a blend of state and local funds. If the Trump Administration obtains permission to withhold that 10%, it would exclusively impact special needs and low-income students, as they are the beneficiaries of the federal sum.

Despite opposing views, COVID-19 had undoubtedly posed a tough challenge to the American school system. As it approaches its fifth month of ongoing chaos, a part of the population feels the necessity to return to a sense of normality. Schools are an important part of that longed order, and vital to guide youth in their learning and in their lives. But there are also those who worry for their lives and well-being. As schools begin to reopen, we should expect to better understand whether it is safe or not.