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Education Secretary Betsy Devos on Sunday doubled down on the Trump administration’s position on opening schools in the fall amid the US’ ongoing record spike in cases of the novel coronavirus.
“There is going to be the exception to the rule,” Devos said. “But the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall.”
While children are at low risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19, the CDC has said that they can function as asymptomatic carriers of the virus and can pose risks to vulnerable populations.
The president has suggested he could withhold federal funding from school systems that do not reopen to students by the November election, but he likely doesn’t have the authority to do so.
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Education Secretary Betsy Devos said Sunday that it should be “the rule” for students to return to schools in the fall as the nationwide debate about whether it’s safe to do so continues as reported COVID-19 infections rapidly rise.
“It is a matter of paying attention to good hygiene,” Devos told CNN’s Dana Bash during an appearance Sunday on “State of the Union,” as she advocated for schools to open to in-person classes in the fall.
She said schools should focus efforts on “following the guidelines about making sure we’re washing hands, wearing masks when appropriate, staying apart at a bit of distance socially, and doing the things that are common sense approaches to ensuring that kids can go back to the classroom and go back to learning.”
Devos mentioned that the American Academy of Pediatrics had said a return to school is important for US children, though as Bash retorted, the agency has since released a letter co-signed by several prominent education organizations arguing “a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.”
“What we’re saying is kids need to be back in school and school leaders across the country need to be making plans to do just that,” Devos said. “There is going to be exceptions to the rule, but the rule should be kids go back to school this fall. And where there are little flare-ups or hotspots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or case-by-case basis.”
Since the end of June, the US has seen a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, breaking its record for single-day increases seven times in the past 11 days. According to an analysis from The New York Times, the US on Friday reported 68,000 new COVID-19 cases.
Still, Devos said Sunday, “There’s nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them.”
While children are not at high risk of death or serious symptoms of COVID-19, they can function as asymptomatic carriers of the virus and pose risks to vulnerable populations, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.
Devos said that local experts needed to use “granular data” from an analysis conducted “right on the ground” to determine how to handle school openings, and suggested that individual schools within districts could be shut down should they become a hotspot for infections.
Trump has threatened to withhold funding from schools that don’t reopen — though it’s not really clear that he can
The education secretary’s comments echo those of President Trump, who has repeatedly insisted that schools should open to students in the fall, despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommend schools meet certain guidelines, like increased space between desks, barriers between sinks, and eliminating common spaces. Local education officials have argued would be difficult to implement, citing issues like funding.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted he could withhold federal funding from school systems that do not open before November, arguing that Democrats want to keep schools closed for political purposes.
“The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families,” he said. “May cut off funding if not open!”
In a subsequent tweet, the president said he would be “meeting” with CDC officials because he disagreed with their recommendations for schools, calling the guidelines “impractical.”
As Politico reported, it’s unclear by what mechanism the president could employ to withhold federal funding from schools or whether he could do it at all. Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday implied that a future coronavirus relief package would incentivize states to reopen their schools to students, according to the report.
State leaders, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, have said whether they decide to open schools is up to them and not the purview of the president.
“I am not going to ask anyone to put their child in a situation that I would not put my child in, and that’s how I make these decisions. If it’s not safe for my child, it’s not safe for your child,” the New York governor said in a statement. “So, we’ll get the data and we’ll make that decision in August. But just to be clear, the federal government has no legal authority when it comes to school openings.”
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