Doctors, teachers push back against Trump calls to reopen schools

Trump on Friday threatened to re-examine federal funding and tax-exempt status for schools that resist opening.

Torrey Pines High School graduating student Phoebe Seip (18, center), and her sisters Sydney (22, left) and Paisley, 6, watch former U.S. President Barack Obama deliver a virtual commencement address
Graduating high school students watch former US President Barack Obama deliver a virtual commencement address to millions of high school seniors who will miss graduation ceremonies due to the coronavirus. Schools across the country are now debating how and whether to reopen later this year [File: Bing Guan/Reuters]

Groups representing the nation’s doctors, teachers and top school officials on Friday pushed back against pressure from President Donald Trump to fully reopen schools in the United States despite a surge in coronavirus cases, saying science must guide the decisions.

“Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics,” the American Academy of Pediatrics, two national teachers’ unions and a school superintendents’ group said, following days of threats by Trump to choke off federal education funds if schools do not open their doors for the upcoming academic year.

“We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it,” AAP, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the School Superintendents Association said in a joint statement.

Their call was echoed by two medical groups – the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the HIV Medicine Association.

Trump ramped up his threat on Friday, saying the Treasury Department would re-examine schools’ tax-exempt status and their federal funding if they resisted opening.

His push to reopen schools comes as cases of the novel coronavirus surge in some of the country’s most populous areas, prompting some state and local authorities to roll back plans to relax restrictions.

School administrators are weighing the risk of opening their buildings to students and staff as US cases have topped three million this week. Some universities have announced online-only instruction plans, while others may change their calendars. New York City schools, the nation’s largest public school district, announced a hybrid plan mixing both on-site and online classes.

Trump has accused Democrats of exploiting the pandemic for political gain by refusing to reopen schools and businesses to hurt the economy and his re-election prospects, even as health experts caution against easing restrictions too quickly.

It was not immediately clear how Treasury could restrict funds, and the department could not be immediately reached for comment. Most primary and secondary school funding is local.

In their statement, AAP and the other groups urged Congress to provide more money to schools so they could reopen safely, calling the idea of withholding funds a “misguided approach”.

Democrats have said they want students to return to in-person classes but only if it is safe. Trump’s likely rival in the November election, former Vice President Joe Biden, has said online instruction is probably needed for a little while longer.

Even some of Trump’s fellow Republicans have dismissed his heavy-handed push to reopen schools.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on Friday said local administrators would decide the best plan for schools in his state and that much of what happens depends on people adopting face masks and other measures now.

“What we do in the fall … is going to depend to a great extent on what we do in the next 30 days,” he told CNN.

“We’re not going to be bullied or threatened by the president,” Maryland’s Larry Hogan, another Republican governor, told MSNBC this week.

Source: Reuters