Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is having a tough time defending her convoluted vision for getting the country’s children back into the classroom this fall.
DeVos appeared on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday morning, encouraging children and teachers alike to enter classrooms daily come September, despite the growing case count and the death toll from covid-19 in the United States. When asked if the nation’s schools should follow the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines on school reopenings, DeVos did what she does best: Dodged the question supplying a frozen smile instead.
“Dr. Redfield [CDC Director] has clearly said that these are recommendations and every situation is going to look slightly different,” DeVos said. “And the key for education leaders... they can figure out what is going to be right for their specific situation.”
The CDC guidelines include deploying new layouts to schools, erecting physical barriers and sneeze guards, discouraging the use of shared objects, thorough disinfectant plans, updated ventilation and water systems, the closure of communal spaces like playgrounds and cafeterias, and more. President Trump derided the CDC’s outline as too “tough” and costly. But DeVos is confident that the CDC’s plan is easy enough for schools to follow, as long as it’s approached as a suggestion rather than a set of hard and fast rules.
“I know for a fact that there are many schools that have been working hard to put together a plan for moving ahead,” DeVos said, adding that she doesn’t want to hear what schools can’t do, but rather what they can do.
CNN’s Dana Bash pressed DeVos repeatedly during the nearly 20-minute long interview as to whether the CDC’s recommendations are actually feasible, especially for those living in covid-19 hotspots. Cases of the fatal virus continue to rise in a majority of states, most notably Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California.
DeVos was not deterred, not even when presented with the example of a Christian summer camp in Missouri that was forced to shut down after 41 campers and staffers contracted covid-19. (Currently, 82 cases are linked to the camp).
“It really is a matter of paying attention to good hygiene, following the guidelines around making sure we’re washing hands, wearing masks when appropriate, staying apart at a bit of a distance socially, and doing the things that are common sense approaches,” DeVos said.
Relying on children constantly washing their hands as a means to protect their peers, school faculty, and the families of everyone in the school system is an astronomical burden. But even if every child frequently washed their hands and wore safety equipment, the physical space necessary to separate hundreds or thousands of children so that they’re six feet apart at all times is simply unfeasible for most districts.
This is why Fairfax County in Virginia is suggesting that children learn in the classroom for two days a week and remotely for the rest. School Superintendent Scott Brabrand told CNN that the average amount of space between those within a Fairfax County public school is eight inches. He also said the school system is the size of five Pentagons and that, “You would need another five Pentagons of space to be able to safely accommodate all of the students in Fairfax County Public Schools.”
But DeVos believes this is a cop-out. During a press conference last week, she said the county’s move, “would fail America’s students, and it would fail taxpayers who pay high taxes for their education.” And on State of the Union, DeVos insisted that Fairfax County’s plan was “not valid” and not considered full-time learning, which is incorrect.
Of course, DeVos isn’t interested in narratives about schooling that isn’t done in the classroom, often roping in the struggle of working parents and education starved children as a justification for opening schools. Throughout the embarrassing State of the Union interview, DeVos tried to imply that opposition to school re-openings is opposition to children learning in general. No one wants students to fall behind, and teachers, parents, and students alike are all well aware of the egregious limitations of remote learning, especially for those of lower-income. But that doesn’t negate the dangers posed to resuming classroom instruction in many states that do not have covid-19 under control.
On Sunday, Florida shattered the U.S. covid-19 record by reporting the highest single-day number of new cases since the beginning of the pandemic: A whopping 15,300 new cases, just as Disneyworld re-opens in Orlando, the Republican National Committee revs up for its convention in Jacksonville, and Governor Ron DeSantis compares school re-openings to Floridians grabbing fast food.
“We spent months saying that there were certain things that were essential — that included fast food restaurants, it included Walmart, it included Home Depot,” DeSantis said on Thursday. “If fast food and Walmart and Home Depot... if all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely essential.”
This is the asinine logic driving school re-openings in a state that is experiencing a catastrophic covid-19 outbreak, and it’s being validated DeVos, the nation’s education secretary. She even lauded the reopening plan of Miami-Dade County on State of the Union, even though an internal CDC document notes that Florida’s school districts have some of the nation’s most “noticeable gaps” in safe reopening strategies.
From the New York Times:
In a “talking points” section, the material is critical of “noticeable gaps” in all of the K-12 reopening plans it reviewed, though it identified Florida, Oregon, Oklahoma and Minnesota as having the most detailed.
“While many jurisdictions and districts mention symptom screening, very few include information as to the response or course of action they would take if student/faculty/staff are found to have symptoms, nor have they clearly identified which symptoms they will include in their screening,” the talking points say. “In addition, few plans include information regarding school closure in the event of positive tests in the school community.”
This, of course, is of no consequence to DeVos, who couldn’t even answer whether or not she had a plan for what should happen if a school experiences a covid-19 outbreak. For DeVos, repeatedly stating that every school district will have different needs was a sufficient answer.
“You are arguing over and over that they should handle this on a local level, but at the same time, as the Secretary of Education, you are trying to push them to do a one-size-fits-all approach which is to go back and re-open schools,” Bash said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Bash continued to push DeVos, mining for situations in which remote learning would be deemed acceptable. For example: A covid-19 flare-up in a school district. What, then, would DeVos recommend?
A visibly irritated DeVos retorted, “If there’s a short term flare up for a few days, that’s a different situation than planning for an entire school year in anticipation for something that hasn’t happened. Kids have gotta be back in school, they gotta be back in the classroom.”
Given that DeVos described a covid-19 outbreaks as an event that dissipates in a few days, it’s clear that her grasp on the gravity of the pandemic is worse than elementary: It’s irresponsible.
In response to a clip of DeVos’s State of the Union appearance, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley tweeted, “I wouldn’t trust [DeVos] to care for a house plant let alone my child.”
Frankly, a house plant would make for a better Secretary of Education than DeVos at this point.