A Choice for Schools In the Pandemic

In the debate over the reopening of schools in the U.S. while the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have come down unequivocally in favor of a full reopening.

DeVos framed the issue succinctly in a conference call with governors on Tuesday: “Ultimately, it’s not a matter of if schools need to open, it’s a matter of how. School must reopen; they must be fully operational. And how that happens is best left to education and community leaders,” DeVos said, according to an Associated Press report.

She rejected proposals for partial reopening as a full-scale failure to meet the needs of students. Addressing the waffling approach of many localities, DeVos singled out Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, which is asking families to choose between fully remote instruction or two days a week in the classroom.

“A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” DeVos said, and called the district’s distance learning last spring a “disaster.”

In a meeting at the White House, Dr. Sally Goza, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, stressed the imperatives of in-person learning. “Children get much more than an education at school. Being away from peers, teachers, and school services has lasting effects for children. Although this will not be easy, pediatricians strongly advocate that we start with the goal of having students physically present in school this fall.”

The imperative of educating students in school is especially acute for children with disabilities. Vice-President Mike Pence quoted Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Mental Health and Substance Use, who said that “Seven million American children suffer from either mental illness or emotional disturbance, and they principally receive the care from health and mental services at their school.”

To keep them at home would deprive them of the attention they need, which they can only properly receive in the classroom.

At the White House, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway pointed out that “the digital divide was laid bare in that so many of our school students could not access basic digital assets to allow them to confidently and competently complete their schoolwork, and to learn and to thrive.”

And the fate of the economy is linked directly to the school issue, as many parents are forced to stay home with their children, thereby taking them out of the workforce.

While exposing the deficiencies of remote education, the Trump administration policy does not fail to recognize the obvious health concerns, as critics charge. CNN called the push to reopen schools in September “premature” and cited Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, to that effect.

However, Fauci’s testimony at a July 1 Senate hearing was not the sweeping admonition that CNN presented. While Fauci has taken a dimmer view of the overall pandemic statistics in the U.S. than Mr. Trump has, the two are much closer on the schools issue.

On the contrary, he told the senators, “I feel very strongly we need to do whatever we can to get the children back to school. So I think we are in locked agreement with that.”

But he did not urge an absolute order. He stipulated, quite reasonably, that the ability of schools to reopen “will depend on the dynamic of the outbreak in the particular location.” Places where the pandemic is spreading will have to be cautious, and there is room for flexibility; but where the number of cases is dropping, schools should open, albeit with precautions such as face masks and distancing.

Presumably, the Trump administration would agree with that. If a specific area is really in danger, then a reevaluation should be made. But the bar needs to be very high. Kids need to be in school.

Pence noted that the CDC is preparing to issue five new documents next week on “how to prepare communities to return safely, decision-making tools for parents and caregivers, symptom screening, cloth face-coverings in school settings, guidance, and the rest.”

Those who lambaste the government for not having a detailed plan already in place will get their wish in a few days, and that will give schools time to get ready.

To be sure there is risk involved. But the situation will be monitored carefully, and if trouble arises, officials will surely scale back. It’s not a path of no return.

Mr. Trump said Monday on Twitter that Democrats want to keep schools closed “for political reasons, not for health reasons. They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it!”

Delaying the reopening of schools indefinitely for ostensible health concerns will enable the Democrats to style themselves as responsible leaders compared to a president allegedly acting rashly. It would also likely fuel anger against Mr. Trump as frustration builds while schools remain closed — and the Democrats will seek to blame the President for that too as November nears.

Democratic calculations aside, the urgent need of the nation is to move ahead toward normalcy, for the benefit of everyone.