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How Trump’s push to reopen schools backfired

President Donald Trump listens during an event called "Kids First: Getting America's Children Safely Back to School" in the State Dining room of the White House, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump listens during an event called "Kids First: Getting America's Children Safely Back to School" in the State Dining room of the White House, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Andrew Harnik/AP)

In June, with the coronavirus crisis appearing to hit a lull in the United States, teachers and parents around the country finally began feeling optimistic about reopening schools in the fall. Going back into the classroom seemed possible. Districts started to pull together plans. Then came a tweet.

“SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” President Donald Trump declared July 6, voicing a mantra he would repeat again and again in the coming weeks, with varying degrees of threat, as he sought to jump-start the nation’s flagging economy.

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Around the same time, caseloads in much of the country started to climb again. In the weeks since, hundreds of districts — including nearly all of the nation’s largest school systems, along with scores of rural and suburban districts — have reversed course and decided to start the school year with remote instruction.

By some estimates, at least half of the nation’s children will now spend a significant portion of the fall, or longer, learning in front of their laptops.

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Rising infection rates were clearly the major driver of the move to continue remote learning. But Trump’s aggressive, often bellicose demands for reopening classrooms helped to harden the views of many educators that it would be unsafe — and give their powerful unions fodder to demand stronger safety measures or to resist efforts to physically reopen.

“If you had told me that Trump was doing this as a favor to the schools-must-not-open crowd, I’d believe you,” said Rick Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Indeed, as the president has pushed for schools to reopen, key constituencies — parents and educators — have largely moved in the other direction.

A July poll by Education Week found that roughly 60% of educators said the pandemic had worsened their view of Trump, who already fared poorly with much of that group. A recent Washington Post poll found that parents disapprove of Trump’s handling of school reopening by a two-thirds majority. And a new Gallup poll showed that fewer parents want their children to return to school buildings now than they did in the spring.

Teachers’ unions, which tend to support Democrats and have been among Trump’s strongest critics, spent most of the spring after schools shuttered on the defensive, trying to appease their nervous members without alienating parents exhausted by remote learning. But Trump’s intervention may have helped shift the political dynamic in their favor.

LeeAnne Power Jimenez, the vice president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association and a member of the state union’s Republican caucus, said she was “frustrated” by Trump’s approach to reopening, which she characterized as more focused on the economy than on teachers’ health and safety.

Teachers “need to hear that our lives are important,” Jimenez said, adding that the president’s push to reopen would help inform how she votes in November.

At an event at the White House on Wednesday, the president called teachers’ union leaders “disgraceful.”

There is widespread agreement on most points of the political spectrum that a functioning U.S. economy requires working schools, and that the abrupt, unplanned shift to remote learning was disastrous for many children who desperately need in-person instruction.

But even conservatives who said they agreed with the president’s focus on reopening schools say he has been a poor spokesman for the cause. They pointed to Trump’s downplaying of the danger posed by the virus, followed by his threats to withhold federal aid to districts that did not reopen classrooms, as potentially alienating to centrist and even right-of-center teachers and parents.

“I thought it was really good and useful to have someone with a big megaphone make those arguments,” Hess said. “But he made them in such a five-thumbed, unserious, reckless way.”

Many teachers and their powerful unions said they saw Trump’s language as bullying, wrongheaded, and out of touch with the reality that the virus was raging through their communities, often in red states.

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Teachers’ unions have played a decisive role over the summer in shaping decisions on reopening, by raising alarms about health and safety, some of which have been tied to Trump’s insistence that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on safe school reopening were too strict.

Teachers have threatened to conduct sickouts or strikes, and have already filed a lawsuit to block reopening in Florida, where the virus is raging.

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said unions and Democratic leaders were seizing upon schools as a way to attack the president.

“President’s Trump’s goal of seeing schools open was never about politics, it was about the health, growth and learning of our nation’s children, and it has not backfired,” Deere said in a statement. “Not only does the president want to see schools open safely, but so do teachers, students, parents and health professionals.”

Perhaps nowhere was Trump’s impact on the debate more clear than in Chicago.

When the local teachers’ union surveyed its members about reopening in June, a little more than half said they were extremely uncomfortable returning to the classroom. That number rose to nearly 80% in recent weeks, said Jesse Sharkey, the union’s president, as infection rates ticked up in the city and Trump continued to push schools to reopen in tweets and at news conferences.

When the president began highlighting successful school reopenings in Scandinavian countries with very low virus rates, Sharkey said, “That did a tremendous amount to undermine the credibility about a safe reopening. It wasn’t based on scientific or health criteria, it was based on political expediency. And it didn’t help that it was Trump.” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced last week that the school year would begin online-only.

The American Federation of Teachers, a national union, surveyed members in mid-June and found that about three-quarters were at least somewhat willing to return to classrooms with proper safety precautions. That number has since dropped significantly, said Randi Weingarten, the union’s president.

Stephen Swieciki, a high school social studies teacher in the Bronx and an active member of New York City’s teachers’ union, said he was nervous about the prospect of returning to school even before Trump joined the debate so vociferously.

But when Trump started tweeting, it “just solidified that this is not being planned rationally or with health experts’ recommendation in mind,” he said. Swieciki has filed for a medical exemption that he hopes will allow him to work from home if the city’s schools reopen for in-person instruction in September.

Teachers in California said a similar dynamic was at work when Los Angeles and San Diego announced last month that they would halt their plans to physically reopen buildings and the state issued guidance requiring about 80% of the state’s population to start the year online.

Patrick O’Donnell, chair of the California State Assembly’s education committee and a former union leader, said he believed Trump’s attempted intervention in schools changed the political calculus in the solidly Democratic state.

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“When you create so much division, it’s hard to build a bridge to a solution,” he said. “It’s a political hot potato now.”

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Some education experts lamented that school reopening had become so politically polarized and that education had become part of a culture war over how to respond to the virus. And they said Trump may have tainted legitimate arguments in favor of having at least some in-person teaching.

Millions of low-income children and students with disabilities will suffer gravely without in-person instruction, while wealthier families are arranging home-schooling pods and tutors to make up for the enormous gaps left by distance learning.

Health officials argue that some schools in places where the virus is under control can safely reopen if strict health measures are in place, including mask mandates, ventilation improvements and social distancing requirements.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has often differed with Trump on the safety of reopening, said recently that he believed children in cities and states with low infection rates “can get back to school with the kinds of precautions that you do in general society.”

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, said Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “have been right that we should be looking at the big picture here.”

“If we had leadership that could bring people together and talk about the totality of these issues, then we could be in a better place,” he added. “You could imagine there would be some places where they’d make a decision to say, we’re going to give this a try.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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