There is No Plan For Opening Schools. Parents Must Fend For Themselves.

Parents, if you woke up this week with a brick on your chest, you are not alone.

With the new school year right around the corner, it’s time to accept that the leadership parents were waiting on to execute a safe plan for the fall semester isn’t coming. Parents must fend for themselves. 

Their children’s lives depend on it.

When schools closed in March, it was shocking and challenging, but surely leaders would develop a plan. There are many local exceptions where planning has been extraordinary, thorough, and impressive, like human Tetris.

But the federal plan is “No Plan with a Side of Bullying,” and the science-based guidelines are, well, optional.

There is No Plan For Opening Schools. Parents Must Fend For Themselves.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has demanded schools reopen next month and be “fully operational.” She has blasted schools for doing “next to nothing” despite the heroic efforts of educators in the spring to pivot to online learning with virtually no notice, and in many cases, limited resources.

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She disavowed the CDC guidelines for safely reopening—which resulted in uncharacteristic (as of late) pushback and CDC director, Robert Redfield, stating that, even in the face of political pressure, he will not modify the guidelines. A CDC document that was marked “For Internal Use Only” warns that fully reopening K-12 schools and universities would generate the “highest risk” for greater spread of the virus.

Making her rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows, DeVos refused to back up the importance of safety precautions, stating that schools could deal with “little flare-ups or hot spots” on a case by case basis. She has even gone so far as to compare the risks of COVID-19 with the risks children take when they learn to ride a bike. DeVos also threatened to withhold funding from districts that don’t heed her foot stomps.

Naturally, there is no talk of sufficient funding or financial support to help the hard-working local leaders desiring to open up safely. The Association of School Business Officials and The School Superintendent Association put out a joint report estimating that an average-sized district is looking at a price tag of $1.8 million to put the safety precautions in place—$40,000 in hand sanitizer alone.

There is No Plan For Opening Schools. Parents Must Fend For Themselves.
(Vladimir Guerrero / Flickr)

DeVos is enraging parents, teachers, superintendents and unions. National Education Association president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, expressed her deep desire to get children back in school while focusing on the safety of children and educators. Garcia’s guidance to parents included: “Under no circumstances take medical advice from Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos, especially when it comes to the health of your children.”

The summer of 2020 is a time in the lives of parents, students and teachers when robust, competent and compassionate leadership would make all the difference. Imagine if DeVos understood the basic leadership principle of pairing high expectations with resources. Imagine if education leaders across the country felt she had their backs and that they could rely on her for guidance based in science.

The absence of said leadership feeds anxiety, panic and grief.

If past behavior is indeed the best predictor of future behavior, then waiting for competent leadership to inform decision-making for the new school year is like waiting for the Easter Bunny.

Admittedly if the entire response to the pandemic had been more skillful, then “fully operating” schools in the fall would safely be within reach, as it is for other countries. Without question, children need to be back in school for their development and so that their parents can engage in the workforce. Nobody disputes it.

However, there are over 3.2 million cases in the United States, and there have been over 134,000 deaths, and despite knowing what it takes to flatten the curve, many of those measures are no longer in place. At the end of March—when most schools had closed for the year—there were 160,000 cases and just under 3,000 deaths in this country.

There is no method to the madness. It’s just madness. Journalist Dan Sinker asks the grim question, “How many sick children and teachers are worth it? What about dead ones?”

Adding insult to injury are the disingenuous rants about how easy it is to follow all the safety protocols without additional resources and with all students on campus—like the recent one from White House economic advisor, Larry Kudlow.

In many places, and for many people, there are not enough tests, there is not space to social distance, and there is not the financial support to make the costly shifts needed to keep students safe.

The majority of students in these under-resourced environments are Black and Latinx. Those same families are three times more likely to catch the virus and nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19. School closures most negatively impact these same children. It’s a Catch-22 resulting directly from Trump’s inaction all these months. Fury isn’t a big enough word.

The ripple effect of all this bad decision-making is hitting especially close for mothers. Syracuse University released a research brief highlighting that “women’s earning and employment potential are being disproportionately sidelined by COVID-19 associated care-taking responsibilities.”

It’s not an option to wish away COVID-19 because people are weary. COVID-19 is happening. The United States has the worst numbers and, arguably, the worst response in the world. Cases are increasingly spiking every day, and there is no plan.

The energy spent truly innovating a new normal for the upcoming school year has been siphoned into the land of make-believe, leaving parents with impossible choices (if any)—and an avalanche of bricks on their chest.


Michelle Kinder is co-author of "WHOLE: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive", a licensed professional counselor, on faculty at the Stagen Leadership Academy, former executive director of Momentous Institute, and a public voices fellow through The OpEd Project.