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Trump urges K-12 schools to reopen; others aren't so sure

Noah Bierman, Eli Stokols and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Tuesday urged the nation's public schools to reopen "quickly and beautifully" and jabbed at districts such as Los Angeles' that remain uncertain, again injecting politics into the pandemic response.

As the nation's death toll from COVID-19 surged past 130,000 this week, cases are rising in 38 states, including an outbreak at child care facilities in Texas. Teachers are anxious. Parents are confused and divided. And public health experts worry that local officials nationwide haven't spent the time and money to copy the preliminary successes of some European countries that have sent students back to schools in recent weeks.

Federal officials say it can be done, while conceding the risk and the need to track new cases closely. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said it's imperative for the health of children to give school reopenings a go, given the risk children face of abuse and social isolation at home, among other potential ills.

Yet even many of those urging a return to school worry that Trump's diminished credibility on managing the virus's spread makes him ill-suited to lead the kind of debate on balancing competing concerns.

"The president has made himself beyond irrelevant on this, and no one can afford to listen to him because what he has done already is so dangerous and has cost so many lives," said Arne S. Duncan, who served as secretary of education under President Barack Obama and was the former superintendent of Chicago Public Schools.

Trump, increasingly desperate to revive the economy ahead of November's election, claimed during a White House roundtable on the subject that school officials who don't quickly reopen classrooms would be acting in their political self-interest.

 

"They think it's going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed. No way," Trump said. "So we're very much going to put pressure on governors and everyone else to open the schools, to get them open. It's very important."

Afterward, six groups representing teachers, parents and school officials -- including the two largest teachers unions -- faulted the White House for offering "at best conflicting guidance for school reopening" and lacking "a comprehensive plan" that includes money for safety upgrades and equipment.

"No one wants students to safely return to classrooms more than parents, educators and administrators," the statement said. "We also recognize that we must do it the safest way possible, not the most politically expedient way."

Across the country, superintendents, principals, teachers, nonprofit groups and local elected officials have been working on plans and surveying parents during the prolonged pandemic. Many schools will be open in just weeks, but with a mix of in-person and virtual learning, staggered schedules with smaller groups of students attending classes on different days, new procedures for lunch distribution and physical education, and likely without extracurricular activities like school choirs.

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