Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Sunday morning couldn’t promise teachers, students and parents that they wouldn’t get sick from coronavirus if schools fully reopen this fall, as the Trump administration has been aggressively pushing for in recent days.
DeVos and President Donald Trump launched a pressure campaign this past week to force and threaten state and local school districts to fully reopen schools for full-time, in-person learning. DeVos herself has said she wants all schools to commit to being open five days a week and steer clear of remote learning, even as the pandemic rages to record levels in the country.
Interviewing DeVos on CNN’s State of the Union, host Dana Bash kicked off the lengthy and at times contentious conversation by immediately pressing DeVos on the fact that the vast majority of states now are seeing higher rates of coronavirus than when schools shut down in March.
“Hospitalizations are climbing in several states. Some ICUs are at or near capacity,” Bash said. “So, yes or no? Can you assure students, teachers, parents, that they will not get coronavirus because they’re going back to school?”
The education chief, however, was unable or unwilling to provide that reassurance.
“Well, the key is that kids have to get back to school,” DeVos responded. “We know there are going to be hot spots, and those need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall.”
After DeVos continued to insist that children need to get back to classes full-time because they’ve missed out on too much learning as is, Bash repeatedly pointed out that nobody disagrees with that but the public wants to know that this can be done safely.
“Well, we know that children get the virus at a far lower rate than any other part of the population,” the secretary declared. “And, again, there is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them.”
The CNN host, meanwhile, brought up instances of childcare facilities and summer camps for kids that turned into superspreader events. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control has also internally warned that the full reopening of K-12 schools would be the “highest risk” for COVID-19 spread.
Bash would go on to grill DeVos on the CDC guidelines for reopening schools, pointing out that despite Trump’s complaints that they are “tough and very expensive,” the CDC chief has said the center’s recommendations will not change.
“So as the secretary of education, should schools in the United States follow the CDC recommendations or not?” Bash wondered aloud.
“Dr. Redfield has clearly said these are recommendations, and every situation is going to look slightly different,” the secretary demurred. “And the key for education leaders, and these are smart people who can figure things out. They can figure out what is going to be right for their specific situation.”
DeVos would continue to decline to provide a simple yes-no answer on whether the department would follow the CDC guidance, repeatedly leaning back on her talking point that schools need to fully reopen this fall.
At one point she did acknowledge that some school districts may have to briefly alter plans if there is a “flare-up of the virus,” saying that perhaps schools could do remote learning if “there is a short-term flare-up for a few days” but that is “a different situation than planning for an entire school year in anticipation of something that hasn’t happened.”
Bash eventually asked DeVos about teachers who may not feel comfortable returning back to the classroom due to health risks, noting that a recent study shows one quarter of teachers are at a high risk of illness due to age or comorbidities.
“That’s something for them to work out with their local district,” DeVos replied. “But, again, that’s the exception, not the rule. The rule needs to be schools need to get open. Kids need to get back to school.”
“Madam Secretary, you keep repeating that, and nobody is disagreeing with you,” Bash shot back. “I’m asking you very detailed questions about how to do that, the mechanism and the rules and the guidance that you give them as the top person in this area federally.”