President Trump’s urgent call to reopen schools is running smack into powerful teachers unions, which are closely aligned with Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden and are keeping closed large districts in Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere as COVID-19 cases rise again.
Many health experts say young children are relatively immune to the disease, but several major districts across the country announced this week that they won’t hold in-person classes this fall.
The National Education Association showed its political muscle Wednesday by airing campaign ads in six battleground states to pressure Republican senators up for reelection to approve Democrats’ $3 trillion coronavirus aid package. The six-figure ad buy targets lawmakers including Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona.
“Sen. McSally is putting politics over safely reopening our public schools,” says the ad, warning that the state will lose more than 36,000 teachers if the Senate fails to approve the full package.
The union representing teachers in Houston called Tuesday for a virtual start to the school year until the number of new coronavirus cases in Harris County drops for 14 days in a row. Union leaders also are demanding a “massive” amount of spending on schools, a suspension of the state’s standardized testing and “racial and economic justice equity assessments” as part of the district’s reopening plans.
The Orange County, California, board of education voted this week to reopen schools, but several large districts such as the one in Anaheim said they intend to use virtual instruction only.
The school district in Montgomery County, Maryland, is among others offering a mix of options to return gradually to in-class instruction through the fall.
Teachers unions “obviously have a strong hand on the issue of school finance” as districts form their plans for reopening, said Daniel DiSalvo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and professor of political science at the City College of New York.
He said lurking in the near future is a spike in unfunded pension obligations to teachers, which could confront Mr. Trump with another big spending demand from Democrats.
“It’s one thing to tell schools to reopen, but they’re already in a huge financial deficit because of all the [tax] revenue cratering,” Mr. DiSalvo said. “At the current moment, where there’s no [federal] aid and just yelling at them to reopen, that seems like a weak bargaining position.”
The CARES Act approved in late March included more than $13 billion in coronavirus relief for schools. The package also provided states with about $150 billion, some of which can be spent on education.
Mr. Trump, who has warned of a possible loss in federal funding for schools that don’t reopen, insisted again this week that there is no good reason for schools to stay closed.
Mr. Trump accuses his opponents of trying to keep schools closed “for political reasons.”
“We want schools to be open, and they will be open, and they’ll be open I think relatively on time, hopefully perfectly on time, most places,” the president told reporters Wednesday.
He said Los Angeles officials made a “terrible decision” to keep the city’s schools closed.
“Children and parents are dying from that trauma, too,” the president told CBS News.
Reopening schools has emerged as a campaign issue. The president and his campaign are accusing Democrats of deliberately stalling to hurt the economy and to help Mr. Biden, who has billed himself as the teachers union candidate.
“You don’t just have a partner in the White House; you’ll have an NEA member in the White House,” Mr. Biden told the National Education Association this month in reference to his wife, Jill.
Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso said education “is the single greatest equalizer in our society and it is imperative that American students get back into the classroom so parents can get back to work.”
“Whether it be his opposition to school choice or his opposition to reopening schools, it’s clear that Biden is politicizing education and is in the pockets of the teachers unions,” he said.
A poll released Wednesday said Americans’ attitudes are shifting as the number of COVID-19 cases surges in many states. The survey by left-of-center Navigator Research found that 51% of those polled oppose reopening schools, up from 35% in the same survey June 1.
“Americans are thoroughly rejecting the president’s handling of the pandemic, so it’s no surprise there is so much distrust in his push to reopen schools,” said Bryan Bennett, director of polling and analytics at The Hub Project and adviser to Navigator Research. “The president is asking parents to ignore the reality of the recent surge in new cases of coronavirus that put their children at risk. Much like earlier debates on reopening the economy, Americans are telling Trump that they’d rather public health experts and local officials advise on the best ways to keep their families safe.”
Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan, asked Wednesday on Fox News to cite health data of putting students at risk, couldn’t offer information about the disease spreading among children. He said adults who work in schools in hot spots will be in danger of a viral spread.
“It’s not just children. It’s children and adults,” Mr. Duncan said. “We have to reduce the number of cases in communities.”
The White House and its allies say reopening schools fully and quickly is key to the economic recovery. They say the risk to children is low, that prolonged distance learning isn’t helping students and that many working parents can’t afford to stay home with their children indefinitely.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, recommended Wednesday that schools reopen after Labor Day but said districts must give parents the option of whether to send their children to the classroom five days a week.
“We must do it safely, must do it carefully, but we must do it,” Mr. McMaster said.
Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, has helped coordinate letters to the president from hundreds of physicians, nurses, teachers and others who support reopening schools this fall. She attended a recent roundtable discussion with the president at the White House.
“America is not meant to be shut down,” she told the president. “Reopening our schools … is the No. 1 most important thing we can do to stabilize our society from top to bottom.”
She said not all families can afford laptop computers for online classes and that single parents such as herself “cannot be in two places at once physically or mentally.”
Ms. Martin said the doctors she has worked with “understand we have to have a healthy respect for the virus, and we have to be able to live our lives.”
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said educators want to go back to their classrooms but not until they are certain it’s safe.
“Public health experts agree that in order to return to the classroom safely, students and educators need masks and other personal protective equipment,” she said. “Schools need soap, hand sanitizing stations, and specialized cleaning supplies — none of which grow on trees or are free. Educators can’t pay for these supplies and equipment out of their own pockets. School districts can’t simply hold bake sales to pay educators’ salaries. Mitch McConnell and the Senate must stop stalling and support students and public schools, like the House has done by passing the HEROES Act.”
• Dave Boyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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