WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The federal government could allow families to use education funding elsewhere if local public schools do not open during the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. education secretary said on Thursday, as the Trump administration sought to pressure states and cities to fully resume in-person classes.
“If schools aren’t going to reopen, we’re not suggesting pulling funding from education but instead allowing families … (to) take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open,” Betsy DeVos told Fox News in an interview.
DeVos, a proponent of private and religious education who has long pushed “school choice,” gave no details on the plan.
U.S. schools are scrambling to prepare for the academic year even as the surging pandemic has topped 3 million confirmed cases. President Donald Trump has accused those cautious about his call for reopening schools fully of attacking him politically, but he has not disclosed a federal plan to coordinate the effort.
Local administrators must weigh the needs of children, families, teachers and staff. In addition to health concerns about the highly contagious and potentially fatal disease, the economic consequences are vast. Many working parents rely on schools for child care as well as education.
It was unclear how the administration planned to redirect federal education dollars. The U.S. Congress would have to approve any change, which would likely face resistance by Democrats who control the House of Representatives.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said everyone wants to open schools “but it must be safe for the children.”
Asked about DeVos’s comment, White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany gave no further details but reiterated that the goal is that “funding be tied to the child, not to a school district where schools are staying closed.”
She added: “As to what that looks like in action, that would be forthcoming.”
School administrators are weighing a variety of measures, including adjusting the school calendar and utilizing online classes, to help keep the virus in check. Teachers’ unions have also expressed serious concerns about safety.
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic candidate facing Trump in the Nov. 3 presidential election, has slammed the administration’s coronavirus response and said remote learning was likely needed “for a while longer.”
TRUMP BLASTS GUIDELINES
Trump, who had counted on a strong economy to boost his re-election campaign, threatened on Wednesday to cut school funding and blasted his own administration’s guidelines for schools to reopen as impractical and expensive.
On Thursday, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Robert Redfield said the guidelines the CDC has given on operating schools during the pandemic were designed to facilitate their reopening, and he would be “disappointed” if they were used as a rationale to keep them closed.
“Having the schools actually closed is a greater public health threat to the children than having the schools reopen,” Redfield said at an event organized by The Hill news site.
He said authorities should not “develop a system that doesn’t recognize the reality that this virus really is relatively benign for those of us that are under the age of 20.”
The full impact of the virus on youth and their ability to transmit it remain unclear.
Most public schools are run and funded by local governments, with supplemental federal funding. State and city budgets are hemorrhaging due to the economic slowdown during the pandemic.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican and head of the National Governors Association, said Trump’s funding threat was “unfortunate” but he did not expect schools to lose federal funds.
His state, he told MSNBC, would base its decision on input from scientists, teachers and parents. “We’re not going to be bullied or threatened by the president.”
DeVos argued schools can safely reopen now, something echoed by some of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress.
“If we can work to reopen bars, restaurants, and casinos, we can work together to responsibly open our schools and day cares,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said.
But health experts have said the restart of such economic activity has driven a wave of new cases that have hit Texas, Florida, Arizona and California particularly hard.
“I’m starting to have second thoughts about” school starting next month, Dallas School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa told MSNBC on Thursday as his state hit a record number of new cases this week. Fall sports like football were also unlikely, he added.
“I seriously doubt that we can pull that off.”
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrea Ricci and David Gregorio)