School opening demand dumps new decisions on states

Emma Court and David R. Baker Bloomberg News (TNS)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos listens during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the U.S. Department of Education July 8, 2020 in Washington, DC. Vice President Pence and the task force members discussed the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic and the reopening of nation's schools in the fall.

Months after President Donald Trump fought with governors over how quickly to reopen stores, restaurants and workplaces closed by the pandemic, another battle with seismic economic ramifications is developing: whether and how students should return to classrooms.

The president said in tweets Wednesday that his own administration had issued guidance that was too tough, and that he would cut funding for schools that didn't open their doors to students for the coming academic year. His White House Coronavirus Task Force later pushed for a full reopening of schools _ without providing any detailed guidance on how to bring all students back.

"It's time," Vice President Mike Pence said at a task force briefing. "It's time for us to get our kids back to school."

The White House effort has sparked accusations of federal government overreach, especially as most states grapple with rising case counts. In California, which reported its biggest daily jump in new cases Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said any decision on reopening schools will be based on what the case count is then. And in New York, once the U.S. epicenter and now one of the biggest success stories, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Trump has no authority to order schools open.

"We will open the schools if it is safe to open the schools," said Cuomo, who frequently sparred with the president over reopening businesses.

Returning children to school is vital to fully reviving the economy, both because it will free parents during the school day to return to work and ensure children don't fall severely behind in their education and social development. A report by the Brookings Institution estimated the four months of in-person schooling already lost to the virus could cost the U.S. $2.5 trillion in students' future earnings.

Reopening schools won't be cheap. Total costs for improved cleaning, new staff to help with health protocols, protective equipment and safe transportation to and from schools could add up to almost $1.8 million for the average district, according to a study by the Association of School Business Officials International and AASA, the School Superintendents Association. And there are about 13,600 districts, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Pence said Wednesday that the CARES act had provided $13.3 billion in funds to assist reopening schools, but that states have used only 1.5 percent. Democrats have set aside $100 billion in the next aid bill to help schools reopen and the Senate is also considering how to support them.

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, who chairs the panel that oversees education funding, said that "in the next coronavirus package, I anticipate we will focus resources on aid to schools, assistance in testing and contact tracing, and support for child care programs."

Keeping schools closed has other costs for students. Months of virtual learning have exacerbated racial and economic inequities. Keeping students at home can also exacerbate food insecurity for those dependent on school meals as well as monitoring for signs of domestic abuse.

"We know that many cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse are going missed, because they're often picked up when children are in school," Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Wednesday. "The president needs to listen to the health officials and educators who are pleading for the emergency funding."

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that "all policy considerations for the coming year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school."

And, of course, parents are seriously affected by whether their children will be in school this fall. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar cited a study at the Wednesday briefing that found one month of closed schools and day cares cost the economy $50 billion.

While the administration has been adamant that schools need to reopen - Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said at the briefing that "it's not a matter of if schools should reopen, it's simply a matter of how" - the officials gave little specific advice beyond frequent hand-washing, social distancing and face coverings, deferring instead to local authorities.

Some guidance has already been issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - the advice Trump criticized as too difficult. It recommended keeping students six feet apart at all times and increasing the circulation of outdoor air, both challenging tasks for districts strapped for funding in the best of times.

The CDC plans to issue new recommendations next week to "outline a number of strategies that schools and administrators can use to accomplish that goal safely," Director Robert Redfield said at the briefing. Pence said the move was in response to Trump's criticism of the current guidelines being too tough.

"This is the exact opposite of public health leadership," said Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, in a series of tweets. He said Redfield was turning the CDC into a tool for propaganda. "I feel dreadful for the thousands of talented, devoted professionals under his direction."

The schools debate comes as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. passed 3 million on Wednesday, with acute outbreaks in Arizona, Texas, Florida and California. The U.S. tally represents more than a quarter of all cases recorded worldwide since the pandemic began late last year. America's more than 132,000 deaths account for 24 percent of the global total.

Case counts continued to swell in states that largely escaped the first wave of infections this spring. Texas had its second-straight day of record virus deaths, 98, which brought total fatalities in the state to 2,813.

In Florida's most populous county, Miami-Dade, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 hit 1,688, the highest level since at least early April. Florida reported 223,783 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, up 4.7 percent from a day earlier, while deaths rose by 48 to 3,889.

But the virus is also surging in states that endured some of the nation's earliest outbreaks. In California, the number of new cases reported in one day hit a new high of 11,694, although Gov. Newsom cautioned that the number included a backlog from Los Angeles County. The number of residents hospitalized has jumped 44% over the last two weeks, forcing the state to ratchet back efforts to restart the economy in the hardest-hit counties.