Michael Collins and David Jackson USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump put the nation’s schools on notice Wednesday that he may cut off their funding if they don’t reopen their classrooms this fall.
One day after he promised to put “a lot of pressure” on schools to reopen, Trump served up a new threat on Twitter.
“In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS,” he wrote. “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”
Trump issued the warning as the White House Coronavirus Task Force was preparing to meet at the U.S. Department of Education headquarters in Washington.
Trump’s push to open schools comes amid a nationwide debate over whether children should return to the classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic. It also echoes Trump’s calls in the spring for states to reopen their local economies. Many states with Republican governors did so, but places like Texas and Florida are now seeing spikes in COVID cases.
On Tuesday, the president and first lady Melania Trump staged a White House event designed to push local school districts to reopen in the fall. The event provided a forum for teachers, administrators, students and parents to discuss “best practices” for safely reopening schools around the country.
“Everybody wants it,” Trump said. “The moms want it. The dads want it. The kids want it. It’s time to do it.”
As he has done for days, Trump played down a recent increase in COVID-19 cases. He stressed that death rates from the virus are going down, though scientists fear they will begin to go back up soon as well.
“We want to get our schools open – we want to get them open quickly,” Trump said, predicting that the fall is going to be “a much better climate than it is right now.”
The first lady urged parents, teachers and schools to inform children about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on coronavirus at the start of the school year and to implement those guidelines when appropriate.
“When children are out of school, they’re missing more than just stuff in the classroom,” she said. “They’re missing the laughter of their friends, learning from their teachers and the joy of recess and play.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said “it’s not a question of if – it’s just a question of how” schools reopen this fall.Later Tuesday, she also suggested that federal funding could be withheld from schools that refuse to open.
“That’s definitely something to be looked at,” she told Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Most education funding comes from the state and local levels, but the federal government provides billions to schools through grants for low-income schools and special education programs.
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Trump allies in some statehouses already are taking steps toward reopening schools.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., a Trump ally, is requiring K-12 schools to reopen in August, despite the rising infection rates that have followed the re-opening of the Sunshine State. In Arizona, schools will delay reopening for in-person classes this year until at least Aug. 17 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But some education groups said they don’t trust the Trump administration to know what it is doing with respect to reopening schools safely along with the rest of the country.
“Trump has not once proven credible, compassionate or thoughtful when it comes to this pandemic,” said Lily Eskelsen García, a sixth-grade teacher who serves as president of the 3-million member National Education Association.
“He ignored our intelligence agencies warning him of the pandemic,” Garcia said. “He blatantly ignores doctors and nurses on how to tackle the virus. He ignores local leaders about reopening the economy safely.”
Education groups are lobbying for $200 billion in federal funding to help schools reopen. A coronavirus recovery package that Trump signed into law in March included about $13 billion for K-12 schools. Another relief package passed in May by the House includes $58 billion for schools, but the Senate has yet to take up the bill.
New coronavirus cases in the U.S. reached record highs last week, climbing to around 50,000 a day. Nearly 3 million Americans have contracted the virus, with more than 130,000 deaths, according to data from John Hopkins University.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned Monday that the U.S. handle on the coronavirus outbreak is “really not good” and that action is needed to curb the spread.
“We are still knee-deep in the first wave of this,” Fauci said during an interview via Facebook Live. “And I would say, this would not be considered a wave. It was a surge, or a resurgence of infections superimposed upon a baseline.”
In May, before the latest surge in coronavirus cases, Fauci said there is no “easy answer” on whether schools should reopen and said the decision would depend on the dynamics of the outbreak this fall.
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But some medical experts aren’t crazy about sending kids back to the classroom.
Dean Hart, a New York City-based expert in microbiology and the transmission of viruses and diseases, said children could all too easily become “silent spreaders” of COVID-19, and that would “almost certainly lead to more death of the older and vulnerable.”
“We are seeing spikes across the country that in certain areas would mean the reopening of schools would spread at a faster pace due to shared classrooms, dormitories, desks and surfaces,” Hart said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has accused Trump of failing to do the work needed to help schools reopen safely and effectively. Biden has laid out a number of steps to give schools the guidance, resources and support they need to reopen, Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said.
Asked if the former vice president wants schools to reopen, a Biden official said, “Of course he does – that’s why he’s been making these proposals and pressing Trump to act. But we need to ensure we can do it safely, in line with the recommendations of public health experts, and Trump keeps failing us on that score.”