Thursday, July 9, 2020

Reopen schools? Washington doesn't know best -- July 9, 2020 column


When it comes to managing schools, Thomas Jefferson had it right when he said: “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”

One size doesn’t fit all, especially during a raging pandemic. 

And yet, President Donald Trump and his allies are pressuring schools across the country to do things Trump’s way.

The president wants all schools to fully open in person this fall. He has threatened to withhold federal funds from school districts that take a more cautious approach.

Democrats and teachers’ groups say they want to reopen schools but do so safely, perhaps with some online classes.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of playing politics. In an election year? Say it isn’t so.

Whatever happened to local control?

Trump was all-in on local control when it came to making hard decisions about shutting businesses down or even wearing face coverings to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. He left it up to governors and local officials.

Had he articulated a national strategy of testing, contact tracing and treatment, we might have contained the virus, as some European countries have done.

Instead, because Trump believes his re-election depends on a recovered economy, he urged states to reopen, disregarding federal guidelines for doing so safely. This, sadly, led to a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in states that followed his edicts.

Now, he has both feet in local schools.

Trump again refuses to listen to public health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control, which issued guidelines for reopening schools.

“I disagree with the @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.

Vice President Mike Pence then announced the CDC would issue “a new set of tools” in a few days.

I’ve taken a look at the existing school guidelines, which set out three levels of risk. You don’t need a medical degree to know the lowest is virtual-only classes and events, highest is full-sized, in-person classes and events, and the middle involves students staying with the same teacher all day.

The current guidelines prescribe cleaning, physical distancing and planning protocols with at least a dozen instances of wiggle words like “if feasible” and “when possible.”

For example, “Face coverings should be worn by staff and students (particularly older students) as feasible, and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult.”

The first paragraph of the seven-page guidelines emphasizes: “These considerations are meant to supplement – not replace – any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which schools must comply.” (Bold-face words are in the original.)

Trump still could take the lead in insisting that more federal funds go to schools so they can buy the electronic devices needed so kids don’t have to share as well as cleaning and other supplies.

Schools also may need to hire staff. It’s not fair to ask overworked teachers who are risking their lives in the classroom also to disinfect the playground equipment.

House Democrats included $100 billion in funding to support schools in the relief bill that passed in May, but Senate Republicans nixed the money.

New York City and other school systems have decided full, in-person education is too risky.

Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos specifically scorned Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the largest in the nation with 189,000 students, for offering parents a choice of fully remote instruction or two days a week in the classroom.

Most of Virginia’s cases and deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, have occurred in Fairfax and other Northern Virginia counties.

But other parts of the state have had few, if any, virus deaths. Decisions about 
reopening schools likely will differ, and they should, depending on risk to public health.  

One size doesn’t fit all for the entire country nor is it a good idea for a whole state.

Let local school districts decide how to reopen without undue pressure from Washington. They know best their local needs.


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