Reopening schools latest political flashpoint in pandemic

Posted July 9, 2020 5:42 p.m. EDT
Updated July 9, 2020 6:47 p.m. EDT

— Reopening businesses was the first battle line as state and local leaders tried to balance public safety and economic health during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, reopening schools has become the new flashpoint.

President Donald Trump says he does not want the return to school to be political, but he said this week that he would go so far as to restrict federal education funds to states that don't get students back in classrooms soon.

"We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools," Trump said Tuesday.

The president also criticized safety guidelines on reopening schools issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calling them "very tough and expensive" and saying schools were asked "to do very impractical things" under the rules.

"I think there's some bluster there," Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. education secretary and University of North Carolina president, said Thursday.

Spellings pointed out that most school funding comes from state and local governments, so withholding federal funds would have a limited impact. Also, she said, schools will need more funding, not less, to return to in-person classes safely.

"I think it's really important that we separate all of the politics here and talk about what’s safe for our children," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said.

The Wake County Public School System last week adopted a plan under which students would be split into three groups that would each rotate through one week at school and two weeks learning online at home. Parents also have the option of enrolling their children in a Virtual Academy, where all instruction will be online.

"This is not going to be a political football for us," said Keith Sutton, chairman of the Wake County Board of Education. "We are following the data and guidelines from the state."

"We are not making decisions based on emotions, based on opinions without data," agreed Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr. agreed.

Spellings said she wants to see students back in school, but she said there are other things to consider, including the growing virus caseloads in many states and the risks to both teachers and students.

"Kids need to be engaged in their own development and learning," she said, adding that families are looking to state and local leaders for guidance.

"To understand the needs of the local community and what the appropriate setting is to return to school, I don’t think people are looking to Washington in that regard," she said. "We have to be straight with our parents. We have to give them options. They get [that] this is a malleable situation, and we have to be in communication with our constituencies over and over and over."

Eric Hargan, deputy U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, agrees that the decision to reopen schools will be a local one.

"Every community, every state is going to have to make their own decision about where they are in terms of the outbreak and their ability to safely reopen schools, but we very much advocate people safely reopen schools," Hargan said. "We think students need to be back at school. They need to be around other kids."

A recent Elon University Poll found North Carolinians were nearly evenly split on how students should return to school among a full return, learning online only or a hybrid of the two.

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