Trump Spends Week Touting Reopening of Schools, but Educators Want a Plan

President Donald Trump spent the week stressing that he wants schools to reopen in the fall, despite increasing spikes in coronavirus cases throughout the country.

"What want to do is, we want to get our schools open," Trump told reporters on Tuesday. "We want to get them open quickly, beautifully, in the fall."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out a series of guidelines for safely reopening the country's K-12 schools, but the president expressed his disapproval of the proposal, which will now be modified.

Educators across the country have also said they want to return to school, but they see on-the-ground complexities that can only be addressed through additional funding and a comprehensive plan.

"I think everyone wants to go back to school. The problem is we don't have clarity to do that safely," Rosamund Looney, a first-grade teacher in suburban New Orleans, told Newsweek. "People are willing to follow the guidelines we need to follow—the problem is those haven't been clear."

This week, Trump and first lady Melania Trump held a White House discussion with parents, teachers and other education officials. The president then lashed out at the CDC guidelines for safely reopening schools, setting up a White House theme for the week: returning kids to the in-school learning environments they departed this spring when the pandemic ramped up.

The pandemic has prompted Trump to reconsider his campaigning efforts as he faces off with Democratic rival Joe Biden. Trump is considering an outdoor venue for the Republican National Conference in Tampa, Florida, next month. He has also started scheduling his campaign rallies in outdoor settings after a Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally in June had low turnout and contributed to the virus's spread locally, according to health officials.

But the president has maintained that he believes there is a safe way for schools to reopen in the fall. The White House has gone so far as to threaten to withdraw education funding for states that resist reopening schools.

Looney, who has taught at William Hart Elementary School in Gretna, Louisiana, for the past five years and at charter schools in New Orleans for five years before that, said March 13 was a normal day at school until chatter began circulating that they would close for an undetermined time. No one told the students, she said.

"Really, I gave them months' worth of work [to take home] because I had no idea when we'd be back," she said.

But teachers already were confused. Could the students take their textbooks home? Would they have a chance to see their students in person before the end of the school year?

"We had to put them on the bus and say 'bye,' and then they never came back," Looney said.

More than 92 percent of the students at Looney's school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because of their low-income status. That presented another hurdle when teachers started transitioning to online learning, Looney said.

"A lot of kids didn't immediately have access to the internet or a computer," she said. "Parents worked really hard with the tools they were given, but it was a struggle."

The ages of her students, 6 and 7, also presented problems for distance learning.

"I think everyone can agree that online learning, especially with small children, isn't the same as in-person," she said. "To me, it was really a struggle and really sad to do online learning."

She teaches phonetics. If she wears a mask, how do students see how to sound out words? she wonders. How does she teach a first-grader the correct way to hold a pencil if she's 6 feet away from the student?

"I feel like we need to acknowledge it's going to be a different type of school year," Looney said.

The away-from-school period has also taken an emotional toll. When they would set up occasional video meetups for students, Looney said, she noticed there would always be at least one child who lingered, wanting to stay connected to the community that had been built in the months before. Looney described it as a heartbreaking realization.

"They felt so excited to see their friends," she said.

Looney said she hopes the federal government will pony up more money to help schools with resources for additional cleaning, smaller class sizes and other needs in this pandemic period.

"These kids live in vulnerable communities and have vulnerable families," she said of the risks posed by returning to school without a plan for protecting kids, even though they may not face the physical effects of the virus themselves. "I feel really frustrated that we haven't gotten guidance," she said.

Last month, former Vice President Joe Biden said during a public address that he supports reopening schools but wants it done as safely as possible.

"This isn't a debate about whether to reopen—it's about how we make reopening work for everyone," he said.

His wife, Jill, a longtime educator, stressed that message this week in an American Federation of Teachers video conference.

"I just wish we could vote today, because Joe has a strategy for getting our schools back," she said. "That includes, first and foremost, listening to the CDC and the doctors and the scientists to tell us when it is safe to go back."

U.S. President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump waves after speaking about the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative on July 9. Win McNamee/Getty