Opposition mounts to Trump attempt to open schools without safety measures
Reopening of schools, educators and parents are saying, will require a far more comprehensive plan than just the thorough cleaning of classrooms. It will require, they say, comprehensive plans of action that the Trump administration is totally unwilling to support. | Charlie Neibergall/AP

The Trump administration’s drive to force the nation’s schools to reopen this fall has run into a buzz saw of opposition from school districts, teachers, parents, and public health associations. The Los Angeles, San Diego, and Atlanta school districts announced they would not physically reopen and instead conduct classes online to begin the new school year.

“There is a public health imperative to prevent schools from becoming a petri dish,” said Superintendent Austin Beautner of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Educators and public health officials warn it is impossible to reopen schools safely as long as COVID-19 is ravaging communities. The American Federation of Teachers outlined a plan for a fall reopening predicated on controlling the virus over the summer. Science and the advice of public health officials guide the plan.

The decisions came as California Gov. Gavin Newsome announced a rollback of the state reopening following the virus’s resurgence. Latinx, African American, and Indigenous students make up a vast majority of students in the district, populations that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

The LAUSD, the nation’s second-largest district, was also facing enormous pressure from teachers and parents. The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) reported that 83% of members opposed physically reopening schools and favored “robust distance learning.”

“When politicians exhort educators and other workers to ‘reignite the economy,’” the UTLA asked: who are you planning to use as kindling?”

In the face of the virus’s resurgence, lack of funding, “an outsized threat of death faced by working-class communities of color, there is no other choice that doesn’t put thousands of lives at risk,” said UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz.

Trump’s obsession with reopening schools and the economy is coldly oblivious to the dangers of the surging pandemic that has killed nearly 150,000 Americans and only geared to his reelection. He and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are dismissive of the widespread concerns of educators and parents. Seventy percent of parents feel it would be risky to send their children back to school, including 82% of Democrats, 89% of African Americans, and 80% of Latinx parents.

The CDC said it would not change its guidelines for a safe reopening despite taking criticism from Trump, who has offered little guidance.

“To safely reopen our schools, health experts should be relied on to figure out the ‘when’ and educators and parents should be central to figuring out the ‘how,'” said a joint statement co-signed by the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, National Parent Teacher Association, Council of Administrators of Special Education, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and National Association of State Directors of Special Education

“Without a comprehensive plan that includes federal resources to provide for the safety of our students and educators with funding for Personal Protective Equipment, socially distanced instruction, and addressing racial inequity, we could be putting students, their families, and educators in danger,” the groups said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not yet announced a detailed plan to reopen schools in the nation’s third-largest district. But in a membership survey, the Chicago Teachers Union reported 85% of teachers said, “they should not or might not go back to work in the fall without a detailed plan and resources that will help guarantee the safe reopening of our schools.”

“Our members have made it very clear that they are not willing to put the health—and the lives, quite frankly—of their students, or their students’ families, or their own in jeopardy under any circumstances, and especially now if the Trump administration is talking about using them as guinea pigs to help jumpstart the economy,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.

The CTU insists to reopen safely schools must have, “daily COVID-19 testing and temperature screening for everyone entering the building; a nurse or other health professional in every school, every day; remote learning options for particularly vulnerable students and staff; a transportation plan for students that involves distancing on school buses as well as Chicago Transit Authority buses and trains; and a social worker or counselor dedicated to helping students and staff in every school, every day.”

Guaranteeing these measures will be enormously expensive. Moreover, the Trump Administration and GOP Congressional leaders refuse to offer a penny in new funding. However, GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for school districts to receive liability protection against lawsuits if children or staff got sick or died.

In May, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to force meatpacking workers back to work despite a few safety measures put in place by the meatpacking industry. COVID-19 continues to ravage plants and experience high rates of worker absenteeism, and something school districts may have to confront.

Trump’s threats have been met with defiance even by school systems under Republican control. “Threats are not helpful,” Joy Hofmeister, the Republican state education superintendent in Oklahoma, told POLITICO. “We do not need to be schooled on why it’s important to reopen.”

Meanwhile, some states led by GOP governors subservient to Trump are determined to reopen schools. Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an order for schools to open five days a week beginning in August. Florida recently set records for new daily COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Ten teacher union leaders representing 70,000 teachers blasted Corcoran’s order. The “reckless directive could endanger the health and lives of students, parents, family members at home, educators, and the community at large,” they said.

“Likewise, there is undeniably not enough time in the next few weeks to accomplish the amount of planning essential for a safe reopening given the metrics of the COVID-19 surge,” the statement warned. They called for science and safety to guide any reopening decision.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also clarified its position after Trump cited an earlier statement to justify the reckless drive to reopen. “Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue reopening in a safe way for all students, teachers, and staff.”  The AAP said it should be up to local districts to decide if it was safe to hold in-person learning.

Plans to reopen schools also puts many parents in a severe dilemma and raises critical class, racial, and social inequality issues. Parents fear for their children’s safety, but at the same time, many have to work and have no childcare options. Many households lack internet connectivity and computers, and many younger students don’t know yet know how to type or read.

Trump’s attempt to badger universities into physically reopening by requiring international students to be present for classes also collapsed in the face of growing opposition. A range of universities and states had filed for a restraining order, and the Chamber of Commerce opposed the plan, calling it “ill-conceived” and bad for business. The opposition forced Trump to drop the rule.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.