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Betsy DeVos again calls for school districts to open fully for 2020-21

Vice President Mike Pence watched Betsy DeVos, US secretary of education, speak during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., on July 8, 2020.
Vice President Mike Pence watched Betsy DeVos, US secretary of education, speak during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., on July 8, 2020.Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made clear on Sunday that she wants schools to reopen fully for most students for the 2020-21 academic year, even as COVID-19 infection rates are soaring in some parts of the country and some superintendents say it is impossible for them to do that.

DeVos made her latest statement about what schools should do on CNN's "State of the Union." In the interview with journalist Dana Bash, DeVos doubled down on calls she made last week for schools to reopen. "Kids need to be in school," she said. "They need to be learning, they need to be moving ahead. And we can't - we cannot be paralyzed and not allow that or not be intent on that happening."

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DeVos said nothing, however, about what school superintendents have been saying they need to reopen: billions of dollars in additional federal funding to cover the costs of changes they have to make and personal protective equipment they need to buy. In fact, DeVos last week threatened to withhold federal funding from districts that didn’t do what she wanted, even though she can’t unilaterally stop funding approved by Congress.

School district leaders nationwide have been working for months to figure out how to plan for various contingencies for 2020-21: all students staying at home and doing remote learning, all students returning to school, or a hybrid of some in school and some at home.

Though some districts are planning to reopen in a few weeks, it is still unclear exactly how most of them will do with COVID-19 rates skyrocketing in several states. Health experts have warned that surges are likely to continue into the fall, which could complicate reopening plans of any kind.

DeVos hadn't said much in recent months about schools reopening - until last week, after President Donald Trump tweeted that all schools should open five days a week for all students. He also threatened to withhold funding from those that don't do so.

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The New York Times last week published internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documents warning that opening K-12 schools and institutions of higher education in the way Trump and DeVos want - fully - would pose the “highest risk” for the spread of COVID-19. CDC guidance calls for extensive measures that schools must take, including social distancing of six feet, which can be difficult or impossible in school buildings with small rooms.

After calling twice last week for schools to fully reopen - once at the White House and once at the Education Department - the education secretary on Sunday did it again but did not directly answer Bash's questions.

When asked whether schools should follow the CDC's guidelines on reopening, DeVos said, "The CDC guidelines are just that, meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation."

But when asked whether she would be comfortable if school districts decided remote learning was necessary, she said, "I think the go-to needs to be kids in school, in person, in the classroom because we know for most kids that's the best environment for them." She did say that exceptions could be made for students with health conditions.

Bash persisted, asking what districts should do if they can't ensure all students can come to school safely. DeVos said, "If there is a short-term flare-up for a few days, that's a different situation than planning for an entire school year in anticipation for something that hasn't happened."

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She also said: "Where there are little flare-ups or hot spots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis," she said.

As for whether she has a plan to help school districts open, DeVos said there are "really good examples that have been used in the private sector."

“We’re a country of action,” she said. " ... We have education leaders who can work hard and figure this out.”