Trump’s Push to Reopen Schools Backfires

In the weeks since President Donald Trump put schools at the center of his push to jump-start the economy, hundreds of districts have reversed course on plans to reopen classrooms. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

In June, with the coronavirus crisis appearing to hit a lull in the United States, teachers and parents around the country finally began feeling optimistic about reopening schools in the fall. Going back into the classroom seemed possible. Districts started to pull together plans. Then came a tweet.

“SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” President Donald Trump declared July 6, voicing a mantra he would repeat again and again in the coming weeks, with varying degrees of threat, as he sought to jump-start the nation’s flagging economy.

Around the same time, caseloads in much of the country started to climb again. In the weeks since, hundreds of districts — including nearly all of the nation’s largest school systems, along with scores of rural and suburban districts — have reversed course and decided to start the school year with remote instruction.

By some estimates, at least half of the nation’s children will now spend a significant portion of the fall, or longer, learning in front of their laptops.

Rising infection rates were clearly the major driver of the move to continue remote learning. But Trump’s aggressive, often bellicose demands for reopening classrooms helped to harden the views of many educators that it would be unsafe — and give their powerful unions fodder to demand stronger safety measures or to resist efforts to physically reopen.

“If you had told me that Trump was doing this as a favor to the schools-must-not-open crowd, I’d believe you,” said Rick Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Indeed, as the president has pushed for schools to reopen, key constituencies — parents and educators — have largely moved in the other direction.

A July poll by Education Week found that roughly 60% of educators said the pandemic had worsened their view of Trump, who already fared poorly with much of that group. A recent Washington Post poll found that parents disapprove of Trump’s handling of school reopening by a two-thirds majority. And a new Gallup poll showed that fewer parents want their children to return to school buildings now than they did in the spring.

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