An Arizona teacher died after returning to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic, but that’s not stopping Education Sec. Betsy DeVos from blindly championing reopening schools. Arizona teachers Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, Jena Martinez, and Angela Skillings shared a classroom with each other in a rural community to lead remote learning sessions, according to CNN. They wore gloves and masks, used hand sanitizer, and practiced social distancing, but that didn't stop all three teachers from contracting COVID-19, and Byrd, 61, died of the virus June 26, the news network reported.
"I think that's really the message or the concern that our staff has is we can't even keep our staff safe by themselves ... how are we going to keep 20 kids in a classroom safe,” Jeff Gregorich, the superintendent of Hayden Winkelman Unifed School District, asked. “I just don't see how that's possible to do that," he said.
He wouldn’t see that as a possibility because he’s received no federal guidance or resources for how to safely and realistically reopen schools. What local school officials have received are the much-publicized threats that if schools don’t reopen they may lose federal funding—a threat with few teeth considering we happen to have this little body of oversight in America known as Congress.
Actual facts, however, didn’t stop President Donald Trump from tweeting on Friday: “Now that we have witnessed it on a large scale basis, and firsthand, Virtual Learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning. Not even close! Schools must be open in the Fall. If not open, why would the Federal Government give Funding? It won’t!!!”
DeVos made a similar threat on Thursday when she asked: “If schools aren’t going to reopen again, breaking that promise and so why should they receive funds for something they’re not going to do?”
The noticeably unqualified education secretary again emphasized just how willing she is to send children back into potentially harmful scenarios in a CNN interview on Sunday. In doing so, she cited positive outcomes from YMCAs that served the children of front-line workers as evidence that sending the nation’s about 50.8 million students back to school is a good idea.
"So it really is a matter of paying attention to good hygiene,” DeVos said, “you know, following the guidelines around making sure we're washing hands, wearing masks when appropriate, staying apart at a bit of a distance socially, and doing the things that are common sense approaches to ensuring that kids can go back to the classroom and can go back to learning.”
Byrd did those things and still died. Her husband, Jesse Byrd, told CNN that’s the fate schools risk in reopening during a pandemic. "Many grandparents wind up being caretakers to kids when they get off school -- mom and dad are working and a lot of grandparents are even raising their grandchildren. So, many of these grandparents fall into this high-risk category of being older with more health issues," he said. "They have no business opening the schools to try and get back to a traditional classroom ... let's get through this pandemic first before we try to get back to normal."
DeVos has failed to detail what opening schools would look like, secure needed funding with Congress, or explain how she plans to ensure that recommended resources like touchless thermometers and masks would trickle down fairly to poorer, overpopulated schools.
Even her YMCA model was hardly an apples-to-apples comparison. The national nonprofit served up to 40,000 children at 1,100 sites during the COVID-19 lockdown, the Y told NPR. That’s about 36 children at each site. The average public school serves more than 540 students, and the average elementary class size hovers in the 20s for many states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Yet offering few explanations that went beyond dropping the metaphorical ball in the laps of school districts, the former Neurocore brain performance board member just kept toeing the party line. "There's going to be the exception to the rule,” she said, “but the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall, and where there are little flareups or hotspots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis."
Rep. Ayanna Pressley tweeted DeVos Sunday: “.@BetsyDeVosED you have no plan. Teachers, kids and parents are fearing for their lives. You point to a private sector that has put profits over people and claimed the lives of thousands of essential workers. I wouldn’t trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child.”
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