Always polarizing on schools, Betsy DeVos brushes off coronavirus risks

CNN's Dana Bash speaks to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about whether or not she has a plan for schools to safely reopen for students as Covid-19 cases surge in the US.

Posted: Jul 13, 2020 6:51 AM
Updated: Jul 13, 2020 6:51 AM

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made it clear during a CNN interview Sunday that the Trump administration still has no plan to secure the safe return of students to school this fall, underscoring the administration's position that school districts are basically on their own and that students should return to classes in person, regardless of the risks.

Instead of outlining steps that the administration should be taking to safeguard the lives of children and families in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 135,000, DeVos sowed more confusion among concerned parents Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" as she stuck to her mantra -- that children "need to be back in school" (period) -- over and over again in answer to nearly every question from CNN's Dana Bash.

Embracing the administration's "anything goes" ethos, DeVos refused to say whether school districts should follow the guidelines set out by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep children safe, which Trump has described "as very tough and expensive." She posited that the guidelines -- which outline common sense measures like spacing desks six feet apart and staggering arrivals -- are "flexible" and could be used as "appropriate."

She offered no reassurances about how teachers would be protected, even though a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that nearly a quarter of them have underlying conditions or are of an age that places them in the highest risk category for serious coronavirus complications.

Overall, DeVos described the Department of Education's role as something akin to that of a virus consultant, one willing to meet with school districts to help them map out individualized plans as needed.

"Kids need to be back in school, and school leaders across the country need to be making plans to do just that," DeVos said, swatting away concerns about the deadly virus as though it were just a common nuisance. "There is going to be the exception to the rule. But the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall. And where there are little flare-ups or hotspots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis."

The description of "little flare-ups" was an almost comical description of the way in which Covid-19 is currently ravaging communities across the United States, once again demonstrating the Trump administration's disconnect from reality.

The nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has warned that the US will soon reach 100,000 cases in a single day, a deadly new milestone. And on Sunday, Florida health officials reported 15,300 new coronavirus cases -- shattering the record for the highest number of new cases in a single day in any state across the United States -- according to data from John Hopkins University. Florida's positivity rate currently stands at 19.6%.

DeVos, a billionaire who was a top donor to Trump's 2016 campaign, has long been a lightning-rod figure in the Trump administration, reviled by progressives who have accused her of trying to privatize education and a heroine of school voucher proponents, because of her many years bankrolling school choice efforts that opponents say would draw money away from public education.

Though she had very little experience in public education, DeVos was nominated in 2016 for the post by Trump after playing a key role raising money for his campaign. He called her "a brilliant and passionate education advocate," but she delivered a very shaky performance in her confirmation hearing that underscored her lack of depth on education issues and funding. In one memorable moment, she suggested that a school in Wyoming might need guns on school grounds to protect against grizzly bears.

Her nomination was so controversial that Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a historic tie-breaking vote to get her confirmed to the post. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine both broke ranks with their party to oppose her nomination.

Each budget year as education secretary, DeVos has proposed major cuts to her own department, and in 2019 she ran into fierce bipartisan opposition by proposing cuts to the Special Olympics, only to be overruled by the President.

In Sunday morning's interview, DeVos echoed the tone set by Trump and Pence, who argued last week that it was critical for students to return to in-person classroom learning to help parents get back to work.

Pressed repeatedly by Bash on whether the administration will attempt to withhold funding from schools that do not try to open in the fall -- as the President has threatened -- DeVos did not give a straight answer. She said the department would make sure the money is there to help schools open safely, but she was unclear about what might happen to their federal funding if they do not open.

"There's no desire to take money away. In fact, we want to see schools open and have been committed to ensuring the resources are there to do that," DeVos said. "We are committed to ensuring students are in school and learning."

She said the administration is concerned that many students have fallen behind -- and said the impact of being out of the classroom would be particularly devastating to low-income children.

"They've been missing months of learning, many of them are going to be so far behind," Devos said of the overall school-aged population. "It's difficult to catch up."

Like Pence, she emphasized that children so far have contracted the virus at lower rates than other age groups. While that is true, some children have become seriously ill due to complications resulting from the virus.

"There is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them," DeVos said. "In fact, it's more a matter of their health and well-being that they be back in school."

The New York Times, however, obtained internal CDC documents last week that warned that fully reopening K-12 schools and universities would create the "highest risk" for the spread of the coronavirus.

The CDC's current guidelines for protecting children also note that "If children meet in groups, it can put everyone at risk. Children can pass this virus onto others who have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19."

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, noted during a task force briefing last week that "the mortality rate in under-25 from the CDC data is less than 0.1%" and so far that has "been holding."

But she also implied that the nation does not yet have enough data -- because of the limited testing of children at this point -- to draw conclusions about the infection rate among children. The biggest risk is that children could serve as carriers who pass on the virus to teachers or members of their families in multi-generational homes.

"If you look across all of the tests that we've done... the portion that has been the lowest-tested portion is the under-10-year-olds," Birx said during Wednesday's coronavirus task force briefing. "Parents have done an amazing job of protecting their children."

But that job is about to get a lot harder for parents as schools resume in a matter of weeks, especially with no clear guarantees from the federal government about what measures will be taken to protect them.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 111505

Reported Deaths: 3506
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion20699758
Lake10217318
Elkhart6368109
St. Joseph604597
Allen5965200
Hamilton4676109
Vanderburgh334129
Hendricks2650122
Monroe240836
Johnson2257122
Tippecanoe221013
Clark211756
Porter205244
Cass19319
Delaware187061
Vigo176622
Madison157775
LaPorte136737
Floyd130361
Howard127563
Kosciusko119017
Bartholomew114957
Warrick114135
Marshall98524
Dubois94918
Boone94446
Hancock90542
Grant88233
Noble88132
Henry76324
Wayne73914
Jackson7349
Morgan69638
Shelby66529
Daviess64127
LaGrange63011
Dearborn62628
Clinton59112
Harrison56024
Putnam5329
Montgomery50521
Lawrence50328
Knox4869
White47914
Gibson4744
Decatur45339
DeKalb45011
Miami4243
Fayette41813
Greene41835
Jasper3822
Steuben3677
Scott35310
Sullivan32912
Jennings30912
Posey3020
Franklin29725
Clay2925
Orange28224
Ripley2788
Carroll27013
Wabash2638
Washington2581
Whitley2526
Starke2517
Wells2472
Adams2443
Jefferson2433
Fulton2352
Huntington2213
Spencer2194
Tipton21722
Perry20913
Randolph2067
Jay1700
Newton17011
Owen1641
Martin1620
Rush1514
Pike1411
Vermillion1260
Fountain1152
Pulaski1141
Blackford1132
Crawford1030
Brown1013
Parke932
Benton880
Union770
Ohio767
Switzerland680
Warren401
Unassigned0225

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 144309

Reported Deaths: 4615
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin25977603
Cuyahoga17092642
Hamilton12756308
Montgomery7501152
Lucas7119357
Butler563299
Summit5096249
Marion306347
Mahoning2991279
Warren291048
Stark2739168
Pickaway263344
Lorain226386
Delaware213520
Fairfield202050
Columbiana191980
Licking185762
Trumbull1848131
Clark172338
Wood170671
Clermont162620
Lake157649
Medina143038
Allen136767
Greene135228
Miami135049
Portage107466
Mercer105317
Tuscarawas91220
Wayne90166
Erie89944
Ross85622
Richland78419
Madison78012
Darke76039
Belmont70727
Geauga70347
Hancock6579
Ashtabula64348
Athens5972
Lawrence59418
Shelby5819
Auglaize5659
Sandusky55420
Putnam54123
Huron5237
Union4932
Ottawa46530
Scioto4646
Seneca43914
Preble42013
Holmes3717
Muskingum3712
Jefferson3184
Henry29712
Champaign2933
Logan2933
Perry2859
Defiance28110
Clinton27813
Knox27815
Brown2752
Hardin25013
Morrow2492
Washington24823
Fulton2341
Jackson2314
Coshocton23011
Fayette2256
Ashland2234
Highland2203
Crawford2186
Wyandot20112
Williams1983
Gallia18012
Meigs1729
Hocking1619
Pike1580
Guernsey1567
Carroll1507
Adams1214
Van Wert1113
Monroe10618
Paulding1010
Harrison611
Morgan470
Vinton453
Noble270
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