Trump threatens funding cuts if schools don’t reopen

President has bully pulpit but little actual control on issue

IT SEEMED LIKE there were at least the beginnings of a path forward. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released its initial coronavirus guidelines for how schools could reopen this fall two weeks ago. While there’s been debate about how this would all impact school budgets, the tools were laid out on the table.

But yesterday, President Trump threw a wrench in the works, threatening to withhold funding for schools that don’t reopen in-person this fall.

“The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” he tweeted.

At a roundtable on Tuesday, Trump said, “They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed — no way. So we’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open.”

While most school funding comes from local and state taxes, the federal government does provide a small share. Some COVID-19 funding has also been allocated for states to use for schools, and more is supposed to be in the pipeline.

Gov. Charlie Baker criticized the comment at a Wednesday press conference, saying he “would like to see kids return to school, but as part of that, [the state education department] is also expecting schools to develop programs that would work on either a hybrid basis or a remote basis depending upon what happens.” “It’s inappropriate for the feds to think about this as one-size-fits-all,” Baker said.

Superintendents and districts were told by state education commissioner Jeff Riley to prepare for three possible scenarios – a full-scale return to school, remote learning, and a hybrid of the two. Riley said the clear preference is for in-person schooling, but only if it’s safe.

“Our goal for the fall is to safely bring back as many students as possible to in-person school settings, to maximize learning and address our students’ holistic needs,” Riley said in a memo attached to the guidance.

Trump on Wednesday also criticized Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for returning to the classroom as “very tough and expensive,” prompting Vice President Mike Pence to tell reporters that the CDC will issue a “new set of tools” next week.

“We don’t want the guidance from CDC to be a reason why schools don’t open,” Pence said. The current CDC guidelines have been taken into consideration during Massachusetts’ assessment of how it will roll out the fall semester.

There is some irony in the Trump administration cherry-picking its coronavirus-related fights with states, since it has at times left states very much on their own. In March and April, the Trump administration set up a bidding war for personal protective equipment that made it difficult and expensive for states to get enough supplies for medical staff.

What’s more, Republicans have long been especially protective of the idea of local control of schools.

Meanwhile, parents of color, many of whom are in communities impacted heavily by COVID-19, are particularly skeptical about whether their children will be safe if schools reopen. Black and Latinx parents were the least confident in the schools ability to reopen safely (48 percent and 44 percent, respectively) in a recent MassINC Polling Group survey of Massachusetts residents.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Lea Serena, a second-grade teacher in the Boston Public Schools and a member of the city’s reopening task force, ripped Trump’s comments, saying districts and teachers are already stressed about figuring out the best path forward. “We definitely don’t need the added pressure,” she said.

Serena said teachers would love to be in the classroom and avoid the complexities of remote learning, “but on a logistical matter, we’re definitely not ready. And I would not feel comfortable going back.”