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CDC shifts under pressure, weakens safety standards for reopening schools, parents and teachers resist

Graphic: Reds In Ed.

Originally posted on Reds In Ed.

On July 24 the Centers for Disease Control capitulated to pressure to issue weaker safety guidelines for reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, and urged an in-person return to schools. These latest guidelines downplay the dangers to students, educators, and the community. While the plans detail the benefits of in-person school for children and claim that open schools are key to reviving the economy, they contain little scientific basis to guide reopening, nor facts about the risks of doing so. 

This latest shift in CDC guidelines comes as the pandemic worsens. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are surging yet again. In the last six weeks, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have doubled to 4.1 million and 43 states are experiencing spikes, led by California, Texas and Florida, and the death rate is averaging 1,000 per day. Recently the United States passed the tragic milestone of 150,000 deaths, the most of any country. 

The CDC’s initial guidance in May advised schools remain closed if the community was still experiencing significant transmission. But as the case rate has increased sharply, the guidelines have gotten progressively weaker. By early July, the CDC’s recommendation for opening schools focused on maintaining six feet of social distancing, while the latest suggests less social distancing space would be acceptable, and merely asks school districts to “consider” closing schools if the virus is out of control in their area. 

It’s clear that politics are driving these changes, not science. In early July, Trump attacked the CDC for issuing school guidelines that were “too expensive” and “too tough,” and Pence stated the guidelines would be rolled back. Around the same time, a leaked internal CDC document cited reopening schools as the “highest risk” for the spread of COVID-19. Initially, the CDC rebuked Pence’s claim they would weaken guidelines. Yet, they eventually went on to ignore the assessment in their internal document, even in the face of sharply rising cases.

Trump and other politicians are trying to push the crisis onto working people when it is the government that bears the responsibility for not implementing the programs and solutions necessary to truly confront the crisis. A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that a strong majority of all parents, and 76 percent of parents of color, prefer schools opening later rather than sooner to protect against COVID-19 spread. This is not a surprise. The rates from COVID-19 deaths among Black people is three times higher than among whites, and disproportionate among all communities of color. Weakening safety guidelines for schools that are supposed to protect children would force families to choose between health and their right to public education. As the CDC weakens guidelines for safety mitigations like social distancing they are putting the health and lives of children, and workers caring for them, at greater risk.

In terms of learning outcomes and supporting students, educators and families agree that remote teaching has major drawbacks. Public school students receive many essential services at schools like meals, counseling, health screenings, and more. Providing these services is much more difficult in a remote-learning setting, but educators have worked hard to continue supporting their students’ well being. But the bottom line is that, for many parts of the U.S., opening schools in-person will clearly make the pandemic worse. 

Instead of addressing the crisis, the Trump administration and many state governments are trying to push already underfunded school systems to reopen in unsafe conditions. While safe reopening would require increased funding for more staff, PPE, cleaning protocols, hygiene infrastructure and much more, school budgets are being slashed. These cuts come on top of the systemic defunding of public education that has been going on for decades, especially in poorer school districts and communities of color. There are over 70,000 fewer teachers today than in 2008, when the Great Recession dealt a major blow to public schools. Districts have yet to recover from budget cuts made back then, despite there being 2 million more students in public schools today.

Instead of ensuring funds to make schools safe and to ensure working families don’t have to choose between their health and lives, and an education for their kids, the government continues its malicious attacks on public education. A bill has been introduced to the House to give Secretary of Education Besty DeVos the power to cut federal funding to schools that do not fully reopen in person. 

Parents, community and unions fight back

DeVos has also instituted rules allowing her to divert some of the $13.5 billion in federal public education funding from the CARES Act meant to address COVID-19 to private schools. Parents, school districts, and the NAACP are suing her to stop the move. The racist maneuvering to use the pandemic crisis to weaken public schools, harm poor communities and communities of color and strengthen the movement to privatize public education is clear. 

Teachers and their unions are continuing to fight back to defend lives, call for containment of the virus and for safe learning and working conditions for all. In Florida, teachers have held multiple demonstrations, including rallies and car caravan protests, against reopening schools before it is safe to do so. The Florida Education Association is suing the state of Florida for not ensuring safe conditions and planning to reopen schools in person. The Arizona Education Association recently stated, “Until a campus, worksite, or a classroom can assure educators, students, and parents that they will be safe, it is too great a risk for anyone to enter a school facility.” Many more teachers’ unions from Los Angeles to New York City have made similar statements. On July 28, the National Education Association issued a statement that they would support members’ strikes for safe working conditions. 

The government must institute a number of measures to ensure the health of students, teachers, families and their communities. These measures include free universal testing, planned contact tracing, public health education, and a universal healthcare system that can deliver these things to the people. Every school and workplace must meet federal, state, and local COVID-19 safety guidelines, and the society in which our schools are situated needs a moratorium on rent and evictions, large scale financial relief for working families and an extension and expansion of food assistance and unemployment. 

Everyone wants students back in the schools, but not at the risk of losing lives. It is not safe until there is scientific consensus that COVID-19 has been contained.The federal, state and local governments are not doing what they could and should do to address the crisis. It’s up to us–educators, schools, workers, students, parents and communities–to organize at every level we can to make sure our communities survive the pandemic and the depression.

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