WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Sunday continued to urge school districts to resume in-person instruction, her calls coming as the administration's point person on coronavirus testing warned that the number of coronavirus related deaths and hospitalizations is expected to surge in the coming weeks.
DeVos, making a rare appearance on the Sunday morning political talk show circuit, told CNN’s “State of the Union”: “The rules should be that kids go back to school this fall.”
Appearing at roughly the same time on ABC’s “This Week,” Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of Health for the Department of Health and Human Services, and the administration’s point person on COVID-19 testing, delivered a grim forecast of the weeks to come.
"We do expect deaths to go up. If you have more cases, more hospitalizations, we do expect to see that over the next two or three weeks before this turns around," Giroir told host George Stephanopoulos. "It's starting to turn now, but we won't reap the benefits of that for a few weeks."
DeVos, appearing on Fox News Sunday, reiterated President Donald Trump’s threat to withhold federal funding from school districts that do not fully reopen in the fall. She sidestepped questions on whether the Trump administration has the authority to unilaterally withhold funds that have already been allocated by Congress.
“If schools aren't going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn't get the funds,” DeVos told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace.
DeVos, a proponent of school vouchers that allow students to attend private schools with public funds, suggested the money could be redirected “to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.”
When told by Wallace that the administration needed congressional approval for such a move, DeVos said administration officials were “looking at all the options.”
Appearing on CNN, DeVos offered a different take when asked about the proposed funding cuts, telling the show’s co-host Dana Bash: “There's no desire to take money away. In fact, we want to see schools open and have been committed to ensuring the resources are there to do that.”
Over the past week DeVos,Trump and Trump administration officials have ramped up their calls for states to robustly reopen schools. DeVos, in a conference call with governors last Tuesday, urged them to resume in-person schooling and criticized plans floated by school districts to rely on online classes and alternating school days to allow for social distancing in the classroom.
“We want them to be learning full-time ... not just a part-time ... not just an episodic situation,” DeVos said on CNN.
Despite her push for widespread reopening, DeVos acknowledged that with some localities grappling with higher rates of infection than others, there would be some variation from district to district.
“Where there are hot spots in the future, in the fall, of course that has to be dealt with differently,” DeVos said.
Giroir, noting his background as a pediatrician, said the United States was looking at other countries that resumed full-time schooling including Sweden, Finland and Japan “about how to do this safely.”
“The first thing we need to do is we need to get the virus under control,” Giroir said. “When we get the virus more under control, then we can really think about how we put children back in the classroom.”
Asked if he supported guidelines released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening schools that Trump has criticized, Giroir said the recommendations were “pretty strong.”
Last week, in a tweet, Trump said he disagreed with the guidelines, calling them “expensive” and “impractical.” The guidelines call for the use of social distancing in classrooms, the use of face covering and closing of communal spaces such as cafeterias.
“I think the CDC guidelines are really right on target,” Giroir said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, appearing on "State of the Union," said DeVos and Trump’s push to reopen schools was “messing with the health of our children.”
“We all want our children to go back to school,” Pelosi said. “Teachers do. Parents do. And children do. But they must go back safely. ... Going back to school ... presents the biggest risk for the spread of the coronavirus. They ignore science, and they ignore governance in order to make this happen.”
Pelosi said before schools reopen the federal government should ensure that states have the ability to turn around coronavirus test results without the delays that some hot spots have experienced.