In what seemed to be a bid to reopen negotiations with House leadership to provide a new round of federal support to K-12 schools, President Donald Trump on Wednesday outlined a funding model that favors schools that reopen for in-person instruction while allowing families to directly tap their share of the federal dollars in schools that do not.
The familiar asks include $70 billion for schools, $35 billion of which would be reserved for those that reopen in-person. For schools that do not reopen in-person, the president said the federal funding “should follow students so parents can send their child to the private, charter, religious or home school of their choice.”
“I think the money should follow the student,” Trump said during an event Wednesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. “That’s something we want to do, and we’re having a hard time with the Democrats.”
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Though simple-sounding, policymakers have long lamented the complications involved with allowing federal dollars to follow individual children to the school of their family’s choice – an idea that wouldn’t pass the Democratic-controlled House and would be difficult to pass even in the Republican-controlled Senate, where GOP members like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, among others, have opposed such measures in the past.
“I would like the money to follow the students and in this way you can make your own choice,” the president reiterated. “If a school is closed, why are we paying the schools?”
The question is a talking point that’s gained momentum among GOP state and federal lawmakers who posit that schools not reopening for in-person instruction must be saving money – a far cry from the reality school district superintendents from across the country are reporting.
An Aug. 6 survey from AASA, The School Superintendents Association, shows that districts are incurring significant costs providing digital devices and internet service to students and teachers, enhanced IT infrastructures and purchasing new virtual curriculums and professional development for teachers new to virtual learning, to name a few of the costs reported. And school districts that are not reopening in-person are still having to cover costs associated with school bus drivers, for example, because if they decide to begin in-person instruction half-way through the school year, there wouldn’t be enough time to rehire a new fleet of specially credentialed bus drivers.
The president’s latest pitch wouldn’t require schools to reopen in-person, but threatening to direct a significant portion of any new federal aid to schools that reopen in-person during a moment in which schools are facing massive budget shortfalls puts governors, state school chiefs, superintendents, principals and educators in a tough position, especially those in areas experiences virus surges.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently reported 179,990 new COVID-19 cases in children from July 9 to Aug. 6 – a 90% increase over the four weeks.
Public health experts have been critical of the messaging coming out of the White House and from the president in particular, who has repeatedly said children are at little to no risk of contracting the virus, spreading it or getting seriously sick if infected by it.
“There are parts of that messaging that are completely incorrect,” says Tina Tan, professor of pediatric infectious diseases attending physician at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “We know anyone can get infected with COVID. Yes, the majority of children either have mild symptoms or don’t have symptoms, but they are still able to spread the virus. And there is a small percentage of children infected who go on to develop inflammatory symptoms, where they get very, very ill and it’s life-threatening.”
School districts with high infection rates or where there is evidence of community spread should not reopen in-person instruction, Tan and public health experts continue to say. Even for schools in communities where the infection rate is close to zero, they recommend schools require children and teachers to wear masks, socially distance, enforce hand sanitization and redesign daily schedules so that as much as possible students spend each day in the same small learning pods.
But on Wednesday, Trump, who was joined by Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, stayed on message, citing federal data that he said suggests that children under 18 years old account for less than 7% of COVID-19 cases and that 99.96% of all fatalities have occurred in adults.
During the event, Trump, Pence and DeVos detailed the numerous concerns with virtual learning, including the adverse impacts of prolonged remote learning that especially disadvantages the country’s most vulnerable students, including those with disabilities, those still learning English, low-income students and Black and Latino students.
Major hurdles include lack of access to free or reduced priced meals that more than 30 million children rely on schools to receive, as well as the lack of devices and internet connection needed for remote learning. They also cited research showing that if in-person classes don’t resume until January 2021, Latino students will lose nine months of learning, Black students will lose 10 months of learning and low-income students will lose more than a year of learning.
“We know for students and their families they can’t be held captive to the people’s fears and politics,” DeVos said.
Kellyanne Conway, special adviser to the president who was also at the event, said parents who want to send their children back to school are being “bigfooted” by county health officials and school boards.
“The virtual learning is not like being in the classroom,” Trump said, calling hybrid plans that allow students to learn in-person a few days of the week and remotely the others “a little bit ridiculous.”
With some school districts still finalizing plans for reopening, it’s unclear how many students will be returning to brick-and-mortar schools. One survey estimates that more than half of all U.S. students will be learning remotely this fall. As it stands, more than 4 million students enrolled in 17 of the 20 largest school districts are choosing remote learning as their only back-to-school instructional model, according to Education Week’s school reopening tracker.
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