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Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan: Trump Has 'No Ability' To Order Schools To Reopen10:59
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Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan listens while former President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press in 2015. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan listens while former President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press in 2015. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump repeated his threat on Friday to withhold federal education funding if schools remain closed at the start of the coming school year.

Meanwhile, teachers and administrators are planning for how to start the school year as the nation breaks records for new daily cases of coronavirus.

Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education under President Obama, says Trump has “no authority” to force schools to reopen in the fall. He says many parents, teachers and students all want schools to open, but state and local leaders need to determine whether it is safe to do so.

“What we obviously need to do to make our schools safe is to make our communities safer,” he says. “It's actually [Trump’s] tremendous lack of leadership, just horrific leadership over the past several months, that's the only reason why whether or not we can go back to school safely in the fall is in question now.”

If Trump had ramped up coronavirus testing and tracing earlier, schools might be in a better spot to safely reopen in the fall, Duncan says. Many epidemiologists say that the “biggest indicator” for reopening schools is declining COVID-19 cases, but new cases are increasing in the majority of states.

“What we do now in the month of July will determine whether our kids and our teachers have a chance to go back to physical schools as we go into August,” he says. “We can't look for help from the federal government. It's not going to come. Can't look for honest advice. That's not going to come. We have to do it ourselves.”

Duncan says it’s up to everyone to make smart decisions in July, so that schools will be in a better position to open in some capacity in the fall. That means wearing a mask, staying away from bars and indoor dining, and avoiding large gatherings.

“If we as adults can't make those small sacrifices to give our children amazing learning and social opportunities going into the fall,” he says, “then really shame on us. Shame on us.”

Many schools that do reopen will likely do so with staggered schedules, new cleaning procedures and closed cafeterias, Duncan says.

“Everything’s going to be different,” he says. “My best guess now is that we'll end up in a hybrid situation where you will have some students in physical school some of the time, but all students will be spending a significant part of time, the majority of their time, virtually. And that's not ideal.”

Interview Highlights

On the challenges presented by hybrid schedules

“Let me give you a couple of scenarios. You may have certain teachers who because of their own preexisting conditions, it won't be safe to teach all in a physical building, so they'll have to do all of their teaching virtually. There may be certain students, maybe not because of their own health issues, but maybe because they're raised by their grandmother or their grandfather living with them, who they won't be able to go to school physically at all. There may be other children who will need to be in school every day because their parents are essential workers, and we're going to have to accommodate that.

“So this is going to be a school by school, grade by grade, classroom by classroom calculation, and we're going to have to look out for each other and understand our shared humanity in ways maybe we haven't always done that. And there may be a child who would like to go to school more, but may have to go to school a little less because another child in his class has to be at school every day. And I don't know if we'll get to that point, but I'm just trying to get people thinking about those are the kinds of real decisions that teachers and principals are going to have to make in the very near future.”

On other challenges schools face in reopening

“[Getting kids to wear masks] actually, I think, is frankly a little bit easier. And I've seen lots of kids on the streets, little guys ... wearing their masks and some of them look pretty cool, and I think that's been OK. The harder part and that part honestly breaks my heart, is that kids have a natural you know, they want to hug, they want to touch, they want to play, they want to play tag. And we as human beings, need and desire that physical interaction. That's the really hardest thing to say, you know, you do none of that. How do we try and do that? How do you do [physical education]? How do you do recess? And that is honestly really heartbreaking for me that at least for a little while, it seems like we're going to have to try and restrict some of that.

“The mask part isn't easy, but I think it's doable. This other part is such an innately human desire. It's just a really sad thing to me, but it's just unfortunately, where we are as a country right now. But it's not fair to teachers, and what I always say is that schools are not bubbles controlling this virus. That's to be done, not at the school level — schools are playing an important role — but that's going to be done at the community level. All of us who live in communities have to be willing to do the things now in July that will put teachers and students in a better position come August.”

On the controversy over Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reopening schools

“It's just so heartbreaking to me that everybody's scared of this, you know, Trump is a bully. And I'll say a couple of things. So one, that makes no sense. Two, he has no ability to order schools opened. Three, he has no ability to withhold funds from schools unless he does something absolutely illegally. Actually, [on Thursday], coincidentally, my predecessor [Secretary Margaret Spellings], who happens to be a Republican and worked for President [George W.] Bush, and Dr. Tom Frieden, who ran the CDC, we put out guidance [Thursday] that is bipartisan, that is thoughtful, that is based on science and scientists and their best thinking. There's no hint of politics or partisanship, so I would encourage districts ... to take a look at that guidance.”

On universities suing the Trump administration over its international student visa decision

“Well, of course they should sue. And, you know, Trump hates immigrants until he needs them as leverage, and then somehow he acts like they're important. This is not about their learning opportunities. This is about trying to bend universities to his will. And when it is not safe to do so, when that is going to cost lives, it's unconscionable to do that. So universities have to sue. I assume they'll be successful in court. It is just infuriating that they have to go to those lengths, that we're spending time on that rather than planning for actually dealing with the epidemic. Trump is hoping he can just sort of tweet away the deaths like everything is normal, and so it's just a catastrophic collapse of leadership at the federal level that is costing lives and hurting our kids, whether it's K-12 or hurting higher education. And you know, this play around students who live overseas, they're just the latest pawns in a very, very sick game that he's playing.”


Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 10, 2020.

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