President Donald 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 last week 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 in-person 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 rising in a number of states, including Mississippi.
The president has threatened to 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, even at those places which, as of today, are planning on going with all in-person instruction from the start.
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 or school board 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.
The Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District has already decided it will go with distance learning for the first month. Other public schools in the area say they will try a hybrid of distance learning and in-person instruction. Most private schools say they will go straight to in-person instruction.
Regardless of which way a school goes, it will be tough. If the school opts for distance learning, the education for those being taught that way will almost certainly suffer. If it goes for in-person, it will have to take some chances, as the school is unlikely to have the space to fit all of its students into a building at one time and maintain the recommended 6 feet of distance between each of them.
Schools have some things going for them, though. The main 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.
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.