As Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden began his post-convention general election campaign in earnest this week, top surrogates were deployed for roundtables in swing states and events geared at women focusing on the topic on every parent’s mind: reopening schools.
Biden’s campaign is kicking into high gear after the former vice president largely remained at his home in Delaware for months due to coronavirus concerns, garnering criticism from President Donald Trump, who after a shorter hiatus resumed holding re-election rallies. During back-to-back visits this week to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a White police officer shot an unarmed 29-year-old Black man last month — setting off another wave of protests that have rocked the country over the past three months — the two candidates also offered competing visions on race and crime.
But the surrogates’ focus this week on education — as more than 56 million students return to schools or begin online learning — reflects the Biden campaign’s desire to keep attention on Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, an issue on which they believe the former vice president has the upper hand.
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“President Trump may not think this is a national emergency but I do,” Biden said during a Wednesday speech on school reopening.
Biden has released a “five-step roadmap” to reopen schools that would establish national safety guidelines, call on Congress to pass a languishing additional coronavirus relief package with school funding and establish a Department of Education project studying best practices in distance learning.
Trump has also called for additional school funding, along with urging schools to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for identifying high-risk individuals and tracing transmissions. The White House has emphasized Republican efforts to more easily direct public funds to charter, private and parochial schools part of its school reopening plan.
“For families, educators and students across the country, it is back to school, but across America, too many classrooms are empty,” Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders said in a Tuesday call on reopening schools, adding that Trump “refused to heed the experts and take action … and now eight months later, he still doesn’t have a plan to contain the virus or safely and effectively reopen schools.”
Trump has called for schools to reopen, saying children are less likely to become infected with COVID-19 than adults and returning to in-classroom learning is essential for students’ mental, and sometimes physical, health. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has highlighted the economic benefits, arguing that schools provide child care so parents can return to work. The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have sought to incentivize in-person learning in coronavirus relief packages. DeVos said at a White House event last month that parents and students “can’t be held captive to other people’s feelings or agendas.”
But polling shows that most parents believe there are still risks to sending students back to schools, and many prioritize safety over potentially delayed learning. Some two-thirds of teachers would prefer remote learning until COVID-19 risks have decreased, according to a recent National Public Radio/Ipsos poll. Voters overall are becoming increasingly concerned about Trump’s push for in-person instruction. In New York City, which has the largest school district in the country, a teacher’s strike was narrowly averted this week after Mayor Bill DeBlasio reached a deal with the teacher’s union to delay the start of hybrid in-school and at-home learning to September 21.
There is a growing partisan divide over the reopening of schools, with Democrats more reluctant than Republicans to send their children back into classrooms, and that dynamic was on display in the Biden campaign’s school-centric events this week.
In Biden campaign events, actor Sarah Jessica Parker, a native of Ohio, discussed reopening schools as she helped launch “Women for Biden” in the swing state. Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt participated in a virtual event there on the topic. Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada warned of dire consequences if schools reopen without a plan. Biden’s vice presidential pick, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, appeared at several school-related events.
It also became clear that Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, a longtime educator, will tap that experience as she campaigns for the former vice president over the coming months. On Tuesday, Dr. Biden launched a multi-week “Back-to-School Tour” that will include virtual events focused on visits in at least eight battleground states: North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Nevada, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Florida.
On Wednesday, during a virtual panel with educators in Greensboro, North Carolina, Biden noted that “no one wants to get our kids back to school more than we do.”
During another “Women for Biden” event on Thursday, actress Scarlett Johansson discussed her own fears about sending her daughter back to the classroom. Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, a longtime educator and National Teacher of the Year in 2016, highlighted the emotional and mental health drawbacks to reopening schools without a safety plan.
“My teacher friends are scared,” Hayes said on the call. “They’re scared they’re going to have to stand in front of kids and make promises they cannot keep.”
In an interview after the event, Hayes said that on a national level “very basic planning” has been missing from the conversation about reopening schools. She said one teacher emailed her saying the totality of support for educators in their district was five masks, a box of gloves and a refillable bottle of disinfectant. Other teachers have been told to move classroom furniture to encourage social distancing. Very few have been trained in providing online and distance learning. “Everyone has been in tears this week,” Hayes said.
“The most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with in this Congress is making peace with the idea that we are having a national conversation about putting kids in a situation that we know to be dangerous,” said Hayes, who was elected to the U.S. House in 2018.
Hayes added that her own son, whose school is in an older building with poor ventilation and little space to spread out, will be staying home until further notice. She and her husband “considered every possible scenario” before making the decision.
“We have to get healthy first,” she said.