President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are like football coaches on the sideline screaming at concussed players to sprint back onto the field or else they’ll lose their spot on the team.
Trump and DeVos insist that shell-shocked schools and universities get back in the game by reopening fully for in-person classes in the fall — or lose federal funding.
The directive recklessly disregards the spiking threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Through Sunday, at least 40,000 new cases had been registered nationwide every day this month. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, another record was set Friday with 74,710 new cases.
While Indiana hasn’t experienced the COVID-19 surge engulfing many areas of the country, the virus continues to pose a dire threat to Hoosiers. On Saturday, the state had its second-most new cases, 916, for any day since the pandemic began, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
Gov. Eric Holcomb’s announcement last week that he would again delay further reopening of the state emphasizes the seriousness of the ongoing threat.
The coronavirus spreads readily indoors among crowds. Schools could be like a Petri dish for the virus.
School administrators can take measures to reduce the risk of infection outbreaks, such as mandatory face masks, frequent cleaning of surfaces and forbidding students to drink directly from water fountains.
But many corridors, classrooms, lunch rooms and other facilities — not to mention school buses — are too small to enforce social distancing if all students return.
Many other complex problems loom. What, for example, should schools do when staff or students test positive? One high school teacher would likely have contact with dozens of students in a day. Would they all be quarantined?
Each school system should take into account enrollment, facilities, class sizes, community health indicators and other variables and retain the autonomy to develop and follow its own plan without risk of losing resources.
The one-size-fits-all approach to reopening schools fails to recognize these variables. It also directly conflicts with DeVos’ oft-stated philosophy that schools should be directed by their communities.
While the president and the secretary of education don’t have the authority to withhold previously approved federal funding without an act of Congress or complicity of the courts, the very threat of diminished funding is wrongheaded.
It’s particularly ill-conceived at a time when schools need both better guidance from government and more resources, not fewer, to finance the best in-person health and education options and to improve the quality of distance learning.
Instead of barking ultimatums from the sideline, Trump and DeVos should take a knee and encourage school leaders to draw up realistic strategies to vanquish an unrelenting foe.