Biden slams Trump on unsafe school reopening demand
At his Sept. 2nd press conference Biden slammed Trump and laid out a plan to reopen schools safely. Biden appears here with Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, Kamala Harris. | Carolyn Kaster/AP

WILMINGTON, Del.—Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is slamming his GOP foe, Oval Office occupant Donald Trump, for Trump’s strong-arm demand that U.S. schools reopen their bricks-and-mortar buildings before it’s safe to do so in the face of the coronavirus pandemic that’s still sweeping the country.

Biden’s scathing criticism, at a September 2 press conference in Wilmington, Del., is in line with prior positions by the nation’s two big teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), as well as the smaller union for principals and other upper-level personnel, the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA).

The former vice president also summarized his own alternative reopening requirements, laid out in detail on the campaign website, They include federal funding for schools to help them shoulder the expenses of deep-cleaning, better ventilation, and social distancing needed to reopen, as well as federal distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) to teachers and staff.

By contrast, the same day, Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it was cutting off supplying N95 anti-coronavirus masks to schools.

Biden’s criticism of Trump’s demand the schools reopen—a demand accompanied by an illegal Trump threat to withhold federal school aid to schools that educate lower-income kids—is also part of his offensive against Trump’s disastrous mismanagement of the U.S. battle to overcome the coronavirus.

That mismanagement not only includes demands to reopen unsafe schools but also pressure on governors, which GOP governors have yielded to, to reopen bars, restaurants, beaches, malls, and other gathering places too early, before the virus’s spread was vanquished. As a result, positive coronavirus test results and deaths are again rising.

The unions had no immediate comment on Biden’s remarks, though they previously slammed such quick reopening schemes and offered their own detailed requirements for restarting the schools while making sure students, teachers, staffers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, parents, and communities are safe.

But the NEA sponsored a “National Day of Action for the Children” on September 2 to get Congress, especially the GOP-run Senate, and Trump to move to aid the schools.

And AFT’s biggest local, in New York City—the nation’s biggest school system—reinforced Biden’s point. The teachers forced the city school system to postpone opening until September 16, because the teachers concluded it wasn’t safe enough to do so before that. Even then, the restart will be a hybrid of on-line virtual classes and regular ones. But to get the city school superintendent to yield, the teachers had to threaten a strike.

AFSA posted results from a survey of 798 principals nationally by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. It reported only 22% felt it would be safe for the kids to reopen brick-and-mortar school buildings.

“Even with deep uncertainty surrounding reopening schools, it’s clear that doing it safely will take an all-hands-on-deck approach with strong buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders,” the School Administrators commented.

Biden hit many of those same themes in his press conference, but he aimed at Trump’s demand, a key part of the White House denizen’s re-election drive to restart the economy, despite the rising risk of community spread of the coronavirus. He included Trump Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, a GOP big giver, in the critique.

“We’re seeing an awful lot of heart and a lot of grit from our educators, our students to try to rise to the occasion here, but our government hasn’t come up to that bar. They haven’t shown much grit at all or determination,” Biden told reporters.

If “Trump and his administration had done their jobs early on with this crisis, America’s schools would be open and they’d be open safely. Instead, American families all across this country are paying the price for his failures and his administration’s failures.”

“They’re struggling to figure out how to do the right thing, but they’re worried. They’re worried like the devil. ‘What does it mean for my kids? Is this setting my child’s education back beyond just a semester? What impact will it have? How’s my child going to catch up? What if I’m not doing enough to help my child succeed?’”

His GOP foe “may not think this a national emergency, but I think going back to school for millions of children and the impacts on their families and the community is a national emergency,” Biden continued. “President Trump still doesn’t have any real plan for how to open our schools safely, no real plan for how to help parents feel secure for their children. He’s offering nothing but failure and delusions.”

Biden would let school districts seek and get federal disaster and emergency aid, and “I’d make sure PPE and sanitation supplies for school qualify as emergency protective measures, to fully be eligible for federal assistance” to buy them.

AFT and NEA took similar stands earlier in the summer, as debate raged over when and how to reopen the nation’s schools. That also led to NEA’s day of action, new union President Becky Pringle said.

“Educators have been creative, collaborative, and committed in tackling the colossal challenge of starting a school year in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Yet nearly four months after the House passed the HEROES Act”—the $3 trillion economic aid bill that includes school funding—”Congress is still nowhere closer to passing real coronavirus relief for the millions of Americans who have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she explained.

“That’s because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell,” a Kentucky Republican, “has chosen inaction and the Senate GOP has remained in disarray. The lack of Senate leadership has been on par with the failures coming out of the White House” as Trump and DeVos “have provenonce againthey have no real plan to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensuing economic crisis, or the shutdown of school buildings and college campuses that are too unsafe for in-person learning.

“Their failures have cost lives.”

The NEA is also running on-line ads showing a Black elementary school girl wearing an anti-viral mask with the line “Students shouldn’t have to choose between safety and success.”

“As coronavirus cases surge, we are insisting officials not reopen school buildings without appropriate conditions and protections in place,” AFT President Randi Weingarten, a New York City middle school civics teacher, said in late July.

“Reopening America’s 98,000 public school buildings doesn’t happen with an all-caps tweet or an ultimatum from the president. Instead of offering guidance or support to reopen schools safely, the Trump administration’s stance is that science and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should not ‘stand in the way’ of reopening schools. That is reckless and wrong.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.