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Trump and DeVos want schools ‘fully’ open, but not many are listening

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/11/2020 Laura Meckler
a close up of a person wearing a hat and sunglasses: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos listens during a White House coronavirus task force press briefing at the U.S. Department of Education this week, where she implored schools to “fully” reopen. © Alex Wong/Getty Images Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos listens during a White House coronavirus task force press briefing at the U.S. Department of Education this week, where she implored schools to “fully” reopen.

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent much of this week pressuring and cajoling schools to reopen. DeVos, in particular, made clear she means five days a week.

But school systems across the country have already decided on models where students learn from home part of the time. That includes a charter school network that DeVos has repeatedly praised for its approach during the pandemic.

Like many other systems, Success Academy Charter Schools, a network in New York City, says it cannot safely reopen with all children in the building because there is not enough room to keep them apart.

“There’s not enough space,” said Ann Powell, a spokesperson for Success Academy. “It’s hard to practice social distancing, which is the recommendation, unless you have a lot of empty classrooms to spare, which is not the case for Success Academy.”

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Many schools face the same problem, which is why districts across the country have announced hybrid plans, where students will be in schools some days and learning from home on others.

Those plans have been developed locally, often in accordance with state guidelines. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidance for school reopening, including a raft of recommendations for keeping students confined to small groups with distance between them. The CDC also suggests eating lunch in classrooms, minimizing student traffic in hallways and spacing desks at least six feet apart.

But Trump attacked those guidelines this week, calling them on Twitter “very tough & expensive” and demanding “very impractical things.” Administration officials also stressed the academic as well as social-emotional benefits for children being in school.

Nonetheless, a desire to put distance between students, in hopes of controlling the spread of the coronavirus, has prompted these hybrid plans, which now are on tap for most large city school districts, said Michael Casserly, who heads the Council of Great City Schools. Some districts are considering full-time, in-person school for children who need special attention, he said, but none are planning it for everyone. 

School systems on both coasts, where there have been coronavirus outbreaks, also plan hybrids, said Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director for AASA, the School Superintendents Association. Many rural districts, though, are planning to have kids in school full-time, she said.

Pudelski said the pressure campaign from the White House is, regardless of its merits, too late.

“Some districts are reopening in early August, in a couple of weeks,” she said. “For them, this is much too late to be weighing in on this important issue.”

Trump ran into this himself at a White House dialogue on school reopening on Tuesday. One guest, Patrick Daly, principal of St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma, Calif., said he plans a hybrid system. Trump replied that he hoped the school would be in-person full time. “I know you want to try,” he said.

The administration has been backed up by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that all schools try to open fully, citing the academic and social-emotional damage done when children miss school. But on Friday, the AAP, in a joint statement with teachers unions and superintendents, said that schools in areas with high levels of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, should not be compelled to reopen against the advice of local experts. “A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions,” they said.

As secretary, DeVos has pushed for flexibility and local control. But in recent days, as the White House pushed for schools to reopen, she was clear: Schools should be open full-time for all. On Wednesday, after a meeting of the White House coronavirus task force, she said schools “must fully open and they must be fully operational.” She singled out plans in Fairfax County, Va., for a hybrid system as a failure.

At the same appearance, she mentioned three school systems for praise, saying they kept learning going in the spring, “and they’re getting ready to do it again this fall.” The first example she cited was Success Academy.

But this fall, Success Academy plans a system where students will get two days of in-person learning or, for some, two and a half. The rest of the week will be taught remotely.

DeVos also singled out Miami-Dade County Public Schools as having succeeded in remote learning. Florida has mandated that schools return full time this fall, but Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said his district would not reopen until covid-19 rates come down.

Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for DeVos, said schools “must start from a position of fully reopening in the fall, knowing that there may be some exceptions to the rule depending on the local health situation. Schools should be planning for the rule, not the exception.” 

The third school DeVos singled out for praise, International Leadership Texas, another charter network, is giving parents a choice between full-time in school and full-time remote learning. That decision came after Texas on Tuesday ordered all districts to offer full-time, on-campus options for families who want it.

Superintendent Eddie Conger said in an email he expects about 30 percent of families will opt for in-person school, which will allow for distancing inside buildings. “If 100% of our parents said ‘no I want in-school,’ that’s going to be a major, major challenge.”

As covid-19 cases have spiked in Texas, he said, the number of families preferring remote school has gone up. Even with fewer kids, he fears bringing students back will drive more infections, especially among teachers and staff. Kids do not appear to get particularly ill from the coronavirus, but less is known about how easily they spread it to adults.

“If we’re putting groups of people together, until we have a vaccine, we’re going to increase the number of covid cases,” Conger said. In his letter to parents laying out the options, he warned them that remote options are the only ones that “can guarantee that your child will not get covid-19” while learning in school.

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