President Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, are determined to do whatever it takes to get America’s schools open on time. But they are totally missing the point.
Trump thinks schools that are talking about distance learning or delayed openings are run by Democrats who want to use the coronavirus fallout to embarrass him. DeVos told governors during a phone call Tuesday that anything less than a full reopening of schools would be a failure.
DeVos was a little too harsh when she added that the distance learning efforts that schools invented on the fly this past spring were a disaster. But it’s certainly true that they were a poor substitute for classroom instruction.
Obviously, the goal would be to open the nation’s schools on time and under normal operations. It would be wonderful to get anything back to normal. Unfortunately, that’s not where the country is right now, with infections on a surprising rise in a number of states, including Mississippi.
The president said Wednesday he will try to withhold federal money from public school districts that choose not to reopen. But right now, it really doesn’t matter what the president, the education secretary, state education officials and local school superintendents say or do. It doesn’t matter what kind of threats they make.
What matters is whether parents believe their children will be safe at school, and whether teachers feel they will not be risking their health or their lives by returning to school. If too many of these people feel that school is unsafe, then you can forget about classes resuming normally in a few weeks.
You can’t have school without students or teachers, and there really are no penalties that can be applied to nervous parents or educators.
You can’t, or at least you shouldn’t, expel children for missing too much school during a pandemic. Nor should a superintendent with an eye on the long term non-renew the contract of a good teacher with underlying medical issues who decides the classroom is too unhealthy.
This is similar to the liberty claims made by people who oppose being forced to wear a mask. Parents and students who are concerned that a school building will be a coronavirus incubator certainly deserve the liberty to opt out.
In Mississippi, a lot of school officials are talking about reducing the number of students in a building by having half the student body attend two days a week, and the other half attend on two different days. That will allow for classroom social distancing, although there are other problems to work out, like cafeterias and school buses.
Ideas like that are nothing close to the traditional five-days-per-week method of education. But if distancing guidelines are involved, most superintendents and principals don’t have the space to fit all their students into a building at one time.
Schools have two things going for them. One is that children appear to be far less vulnerable to serious illness from the virus — although they certainly could pass on the infection to their parents and grandparents.
The other positive is the experience of the 2020 spring semester. Yes, the distance learning and all the other efforts were nothing close to regular classes. But when forced into an impossible, unexpected situation, education officials quickly got creative. They gave it their best shot, and they surely learned some valuable lessons from the experience.
Trump & Co. can hammer governors and threaten to withhold money, but they are aiming their energy at the wrong people. They need to figure out how to convince parents and teachers that “normal” school will be safe.
Frankly, that’s a hard sell right now, since the number of positive virus tests are rising.