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Trump and Biden Tussle Over Reopening Schools, Risk COVID-19 Poses to Teachers

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The two presidential nominees sparred briefly during Thursday's presidential debate about what schools need and the extent to which they can open safely as the coronavirus continues to spread.

President Donald Trump said several times that he wants schools to reopen and downplayed the risk the virus poses to teachers as well as young people. Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden stressed that schools need more resources, and mocked Trump's comments that children transmit the virus to teachers at very low rates. 

Both candidates largely stuck to their primary messages about schools and education during the pandemic. Biden's campaign has called for additional funding to pay for personal protective equipment and other resources to help schools reopen safely and protect schools and their communities, as well as clear national guidelines to help local school officials. Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly pressured schools to reopen their doors, downplayed the risk the virus poses to children, and over the summer threatened to withhold federal aid from those that didn't (although he lacks the power to do so).

The short exchange, prompted by a question from debate moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News, didn't illuminate much about where the candidates stand on students, schools and teachers. That's despite the fact that the virus has severely disrupted education and the lives of millions of school-age children and their families, and has triggered serious concerns about the long-term impact of closed or disrupted schools on students. Yet it was the most substantive discussion of K-12 education of any of the presidential debates and town halls with Biden and Trump.

'Not That Many of You Are Going to Die'

Trump made the initial reference to schools early in the debate when he said, "We have to open our schools." Yet it was Biden who honed in on education when he highlighted the steps the country must take to contain the virus and reopen the economy and society safely. He also highlighted the need for clear national guidelines. 

"They need a lot of money to open," Biden said of schools. "They need to deal with ventilation systems, smaller classes, more teachers, more pods. And [Trump has] refused to support that money, at least until now." (Biden repeated that call for more school relief later in the debate.)

Some things to keep in mind about that statement: 

  • It's true that for schools holding in-person classes during the pandemic, class size is an important consideration. And amid concerns about how poor ventilation in schools could help spread the virus, a recent federal report estimated that over 30,000 schools need HVAC repairs or upgrades. Yet it's unclear what Biden meant when he linked the cost of pods—which are essentially unofficial arrangements parents make for their children's education and care—to additional costs schools face. In fact, parents and others organize them outside the control of local schools.
  • As for Biden's claim that Trump doesn't support pandemic aid for schools: Trump did sign the CARES Act that included over $13 billion in aid for K-12 schools. And his administration has in general backed some sort of additional aid for schools. However, Trump's White House has repeatedly lobbied for K-12 aid to be conditioned in some way on schools holding in-person classes, a position that's been reflected in Senate GOP relief bills that have failed to cross the finish line. The Trump administration has also pushed for expanding school choice in relief packages. 

In response, Trump brought up teachers in the context of his desire to open schools and the economy. "The transmittal rate to the teachers is very small," he said. "I want to open the schools. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself." He also blamed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for Washington's failure to pass a new coronavirus relief package in recent months. Much of the education community has been deeply frustrated with the inability of federal officials to reach a deal for more virus aid.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released pandemic guidelines for schools, including a recent set of color-coded risk levels for schools holding in-person classes, based on local spread of the virus. Yet many education officials have questioned why the agency didn't release clearer guidance much earlier in the pandemic. They've also questioned the CDC's general approach to schools during the pandemic. 

Biden reacted by rattling off the need for more testing, contact tracing, and other resources. Then he addressed teachers directly and mocked Trump's comments minimizing the risk the virus posed to them: "Not that many of you are going to die, so don't worry about it. Don't worry about it. C'mon."

Early data suggests that having students in school buildings does not lead to a surge in local cases of the virus. Yet how that data is collected, and the lack of a centralized operation tracking the link between schools and coronavirus cases, remains a concern for many. Since the start of the academic year, schools have struggled to keep tabs on coronavirus cases. And the debate over whether and when schools should hold in-person classes has gotten more intense in recent weeks amid concerns about student learning loss and emotional as well as material suffering.

While young children seem to be at a relatively low risk for getting severely sick or dying from the virus, older teachers and those with underlying conditions have worried about returning to the classroom. And figuring out which teachers can work from home and which must come into school buildings has challenged K-12 leaders. A lawsuit in Florida brought by teachers and teachers' unions over the summer challenging a push to reopen schools is a prominent example of that anxiety among teachers. 

Here is Education Week's memorial to educators who have died from the coronavirus

Photo: President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)


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