Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made it clear during a CNN interview Sunday that the Trump administration still has no plan to secure the safe return of students to school this fall, underscoring the administration’s position that school districts are basically on their own and that students should return to classes in person, regardless of the risks.
Instead of outlining steps that the administration should be taking to safeguard the lives of children and families in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 135,000, DeVos sowed more confusion among concerned parents Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” as she stuck to her mantra – that children “need to be back in school” (period) – over and over again in answer to nearly every question from CNN’s Dana Bash.
Embracing the administration’s “anything goes” ethos, DeVos refused to say whether school districts should follow the guidelines set out by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep children safe, which Trump has described “as very tough and expensive.” She posited that the guidelines – which outline common sense measures like spacing desks six feet apart and staggering arrivals – are “flexible” and could be used as “appropriate.”
She offered no reassurances about how teachers would be protected, even though a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that nearly a quarter of them have underlying conditions or are of an age that places them in the highest risk category for serious coronavirus complications.
Overall, DeVos described the Department of Education’s role as something akin to that of a virus consultant, one willing to meet with school districts to help them map out individualized plans as needed.
“Kids need to be back in school, and school leaders across the country need to be making plans to do just that,” DeVos said, swatting away concerns about the deadly virus as though it were just a common nuisance. “There is 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 hotspots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis.”
The description of “little flare-ups” was an almost comical description of the way in which Covid-19 is currently ravaging communities across the United States, once again demonstrating the Trump administration’s disconnect from reality.
The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has warned that the US will soon reach 100,000 cases in a single day, a deadly new milestone. And on Sunday, Florida health officials reported 15,300 new coronavirus cases – shattering the record for the highest number of new cases in a single day in any state across the United States – according to data from John Hopkins University. Florida’s positivity rate currently stands at 19.6%.
DeVos, a billionaire who was a top donor to Trump’s 2016 campaign, has long been a lightning-rod figure in the Trump administration, reviled by progressives who have accused her of trying to privatize education and a heroine of school voucher proponents, because of her many years bankrolling school choice efforts that opponents say would draw money away from public education.
Though she had very little experience in public education, DeVos was nominated in 2016 for the post by Trump after playing a key role raising money for his campaign. He called her “a brilliant and passionate education advocate,” but she delivered a very shaky performance in her confirmation hearing that underscored her lack of depth on education issues and funding. In one memorable moment, she suggested that a school in Wyoming might need guns on school grounds to protect against grizzly bears.
Her nomination was so controversial that Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a historic tie-breaking vote to get her confirmed to the post. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine both broke ranks with their party to oppose her nomination.
Each budget year as education secretary, DeVos has proposed major cuts to her own department, and in 2019 she ran into fierce bipartisan opposition by proposing cuts to the Special Olympics, only to be overruled by the President.
In Sunday morning’s interview, DeVos echoed the tone set by Trump and Pence, who argued last week that it was critical for students to return to in-person classroom learning to help parents get back to work.
Pressed repeatedly by Bash on whether the administration will attempt to withhold funding from schools that do not try to open in the fall – as the President has threatened – DeVos did not give a straight answer. She said the department would make sure the money is there to help schools open safely, but she was unclear about what might happen to their federal funding if they do not open.
“There’s no desire to take money away. In fact, we want to see schools open and have been committed to ensuring the resources are there to do that,” DeVos said. “We are committed to ensuring students are in school and learning.”
She said the administration is concerned that many students have fallen behind – and said the impact of being out of the classroom would be particularly devastating to low-income children.
“They’ve been missing months of learning, many of them are going to be so far behind,” Devos said of the overall school-aged population. “It’s difficult to catch up.”
Like Pence, she emphasized that children so far have contracted the virus at lower rates than other age groups. While that is true, some children have become seriously ill due to complications resulting from the virus.
“There is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them,” DeVos said. “In fact, it’s more a matter of their health and well-being that they be back in school.”
The New York Times, however, obtained internal CDC documents last week that warned that fully reopening K-12 schools and universities would create the “highest risk” for the spread of the coronavirus.
The CDC’s current guidelines for protecting children also note that “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.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, noted during a task force briefing last week that “the mortality rate in under-25 from the CDC data is less than 0.1%” and so far that has “been holding.”
But she also implied that the nation does not yet have enough data – because of the limited testing of children at this point – to draw conclusions about the infection rate among children. The biggest risk is that children could serve as carriers who pass on the virus to teachers or members of their families in multi-generational homes.
“If you look across all of the tests that we’ve done… the portion that has been the lowest-tested portion is the under-10-year-olds,” Birx said during Wednesday’s coronavirus task force briefing. “Parents have done an amazing job of protecting their children.”
But that job is about to get a lot harder for parents as schools resume in a matter of weeks, especially with no clear guarantees from the federal government about what measures will be taken to protect them.