Determining how and when to reopen our nation’s schools was always going to be among the most difficult decisions facing policymakers grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. Done properly, the calculation would weigh a host of factors — whether students, teachers and staff can be kept safe; the cumulative impact of distance-learning deficiencies; the effect closed schools have had on the economy by forcing parents to stay home with their children; the mental and emotional health of students deprived of in-person schooling.
Instead, President Donald Trump and his administration are wielding a single blunt command: Reopen.
It’s a dangerous message.
It’s also an inappropriate one. Education has always been properly delegated to states, and New York already has a process to move forward. This administration has alternately trumpeted and attacked states’ rights as suits its goals. Trump did this same dance on reopening the economy before backing down and leaving it up to governors. He should do the same now. His threat to withhold funding from states that do not reopen schools for full physical attendance is unconscionable.
Trump’s campaign-fueled zealousness to achieve some feel of normalcy, aided and abetted Wednesday by much of his coronavirus task force, ignores the vast disparities between — and often within — states. It’s particularily tone deaf with more than 30 states experiencing COVID-19 surges. Nor does it square with White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx advising surging states to go back to Phase 1 guidelines, which strictly limit group gatherings.
It also is irresponsible; scientists have yet to determine whether the virus can spread via airborne transmission in addition to droplets. That would present complications not considered by current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on reopening — guidelines Trump wrongly trashed, and that the cowed CDC backed away from Wednesday. And while it’s true the virus has been less deadly for children, some kids have gotten very sick from it and students could transmit the virus to teachers. While Trump and company are right to talk about alleviating the stress felt by students and parents, that shouldn’t be at the expense of their physical health.
Everyone wants schools to reopen. Vice President Mike Pence said blithely Wednesday that every American knows that can be done safely, but many parents and teachers are worried. No amount of declarative statements make it otherwise.
Balance is needed. A better approach is the one taken by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo: Issue specific guidance on how to reopen, ask school districts to develop plans based on that, then wait until the first week of August to decide whether, when and how schools will reopen. Remember: States experiencing awful surges now thought they were fine on Memorial Day.
Patience, and listening to science, are wise. Rushing to put children and teachers in harm’s way in a desperate election ploy is not. Trump must back down, and let the states decide when is the right time to let the school bells ring again.
— The editorial board