Who is best equipped to decide how to safely reopen schools?

Jul 27, 2020 by

Michigan is about a month away from the start of a school year that will be unlike any other in 102 years. Our public schools will have to perform their primary task of educating more than 1.5 million students while ensuring students and staff do not unknowingly turn schools into COVID-19 hot spots.

Just recently, a Missouri summer camp reported 82 cases of COVID-19 over the course of four days. Yet U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is demanding schools reopen for in-person, full-attendance instruction five days a week.

The key question: Who is best equipped to decide how to safely reopen schools?

Education has traditionally been a state and locally controlled function, and local property and income taxes are major revenue sources for schools. But when the U.S. Department of Education was founded in 1980, it was charged with setting minimum federal standards on important issues, such as civil rights and greater equity among school districts within states. Today, the department says it “collects data and oversees research on America’s schools and disseminates this information to Congress, educators and the general public,” as one of its core functions. That is, the department has assigned itself the task of translating data and research into usable tools for local schools.

Of course, there are issues the federal government should stay out of when it comes to education, such as setting school bus routes and what students should do in gym class.

But coordinating a response to a global pandemic — a novel, deadly virus — should not be one of them. The actual transmission process of COVID-19 does not vary from one school district to another, from city or rural schools. Human biology is constant.

We are now four months into this global pandemic. Crucial knowledge of the virus is developing each week. Just a few weeks ago, scientists warned that mounting evidence shows that COVID-19 is airborne, meaning the virus can spread from small aerosols — not just droplets from coughs and sneezes of those who are sick. The advancing scientific and medical knowledge of this disease is crucial for determining important nuts-and-bolts decisions about how to run schools in the COVID era. That includes important basics, such as how often and how deeply to clean classrooms and bathrooms; how to most effectively test students each morning at the school door; whether or not to have contact sports; and whether and how to use hallway lockers that are almost always crammed together, one next to the other.

Getting those basics right is crucial for safely reopening schools. But right now, there is no actionable guidance from the U.S. Department of Education — or any federal agency — on these things. DeVos’ position has consistently punted on that task, with her department asserting that “schools controlled by local leaders are positioned to make reopening decisions in consultation with local health officials.”

This is madness. Local school districts or state public health officials do not have the medical and scientific expertise to answer the complex public health questions they face in this novel, evolving and deadly pandemic. Those answers can only come from a team of the most elite medical, public health, public policy and education experts who have access to best-in-class data, research, analysis and resources.

For America’s schools, the U.S. Department of Education should be the home of that type of expertise and planning during a global pandemic. Don’t take our words for that, though. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recently told Axios that the U.S. secretary of education has the “power to convene” the world’s best experts and “to provide some best practice guides.” Spellings asserts that at the local level, “folks are having to figure it out on their own.”

To make Spellings’ point more bluntly: Instead of doing their jobs, DeVos and her boss have instituted a district-by-district experiment that gambles with our families’ health next fall. They have busied themselves with attacking CDC health guidance and schools that wrestled with distance learning last spring. Oh, and DeVos made the point of saying she’d occupied herself with bike rides and working on puzzles.

When it comes to things such as tax policy, the “states are the laboratories” approach is defensible. Tax policy fails relatively gracefully. When it comes to a deadly pandemic, it’s insane.

We must compassionately consider the plight of parents of school-aged children. They are faced with a devastating choice. We deserve strong guidance from the secretary of education to help our parents determine the most effective way to keep children safe and ensure they thrive in learning and in social development.

The country is on a path to forcing schools to reopen in about a month. If we want to ensure schools don’t become COVID-19 hotspots, then schools need clear, detailed and actionable guidance on how to run schools in the COVID-19 era. And they’ll need funding for school nurses, counselors, building upgrades and personal protective equipment.

We’re burning daylight, and DeVos needs to step up to the task that she’s been avoiding. She needs to spend her time on the complex puzzle that she is responsible for as U.S. Education Secretary, not the cardboard puzzles in her western Michigan mansion.

Source: Commentary: Who is best equipped to decide how to safely reopen schools?

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