Educators Say US Needs Better Plan to Reopen Schools Safely in Pandemic

August 7, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – House Democrats, at a congressional hearing Thursday on reopening public schools, accused President Donald Trump of mishandling the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

They said schools might not have been forced to close early in the Spring and resort to distance learning if the Trump administration had developed a coordinated plan to manage the crisis better.

“The president views the decision about how to reopen schools as a political dispute about his own reelection,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee that held the hearing.

“Schools must reopen based on science and the safety of our children and teachers, not politics and wishful thinking,” Clyburn said.

The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis also released a report Thursday blaming Trump for many of the roughly 159,000 American coronavirus deaths so far and millions of job layoffs.

Trump “intentionally misled the American public on every aspect of the pandemic,” the report says.

Clyburn said the president’s statements about U.S. successes in testing for coronavirus and treating the disease show he is in denial about realities of the devastation it is causing. He called the statements dangerous.

“It’s past time for President Trump and Senate Republicans to face reality and join us in moving forward with a national testing and contact tracing plan,” Clyburn said.

He urged the Senate to approve the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act or HEROES Act, a $3 trillion stimulus bill that responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. As much as $200 billion of the money could be used by public schools to adjust to disease restrictions on social distancing, masks and face-to-face teaching.

The Democrat-controlled House approved the HEROES Act on May 12. It still is pending in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Republicans on the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis sidestepped accusations that Trump mismanaged the pandemic.

Instead, they focused on the need to safely reopen schools from kindergarten through high school.

“No other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.

He said any challenges to reopening schools to face-to-face teaching “can be adequately addressed.”

“We know how to reopen safely,” Scalise said.

Suggestions discussed during the hearing included putting students in smaller groups, improved ventilation in schools, conducting classes outdoors and frequent symptom screening.

He disagreed with educators at the congressional hearing who said they needed an additional $200 billion for safe school reopening.

Scalise said the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, contained $100 billion for school health and safety when Congress approved it in March. Not all of the money has been used yet, he said.

Educators who testified told personal stories about colleagues sickened or killed by coronavirus. They also said the Trump administration has largely failed to protect teachers, students and school staff members.

“In the absence of a clear plan, [school] superintendents are being left to navigate these decisions on their own,” said former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “We’re asking them to make potentially life and death decisions.”

He suggested that choices between in-person teaching or distance learning should vary between states, depending on the severity of the disease in different school districts.

Angela Skillings, a second grade teacher at Hayden-Winkelman School District in rural Gila County, Ariz., told about a fellow teacher who died of coronavirus.

She said her death serves as an example that teachers can be forced to choose between their health or their jobs under current conditions.

“Yes, teachers want to be in the classroom but they also need to think about themselves and their families,” Skillings said.

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