KNX In Depth: The push up to reopen schools runs up against extremely complicated challenges

KNX In Depth: The push up to reopen schools runs up against extremely complicated challenges 

Edited Transcript for Brevity
July 8, 2020

Mike Simpson: This is KNX In Depth. I’m Mike Simpson.

Charles Feldman: And I’m Charles Feldman. The decision on whether or not to send millions of kids back to their classrooms in the fall is a complicated one. It’s not just the health and education of the kids that’s at stake, but the health of teachers and faculty, daycare considerations, and the economic standing of parents.

So as President Trump ratchets up the pressure on the schools to bring kids back, we will go in depth. Universities are facing the same complex challenges to how they will manage in the middle of a pandemic. We will look at how inequities among colleges will play a role.

We start with schools and the coronavirus. Margaret Spellings is President and CEO of the advocacy nonprofit, Texas 2036. She served as the U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush. Margaret, thank you for joining us.

Margaret Spellings: Gentlemen, glad to be with you again.

Charles Feldman: So what a dilemma, huh?

Margaret Spellings: Yes.

Charles Feldman: I mean, if you don’t open the schools, the kids aren’t really getting a good education online or not. Some of them are taking advantage of it. Some can’t, some won’t. If you bring them back, a lot of teachers are worried because they’re going to be exposed to kids that could conceivably give them a potentially deadly illness. I can’t think of a worse dilemma to navigate.

Margaret Spellings: It’s complicated, no doubt about it. And there’s lots of moving parts here. And I think parents really appreciate the complexity and the lack of certainty, but they also want to know that school folks and teachers and policy makers are thinking about contingencies, thinking about variables and doing everything we can to get our schools opened as safely as possible. Nothing is risk-free in this world because we must get our schools and our students back learning productively, or this generation will suffer mightily.

Mike Simpson: Where do you think we put the emphasis though? Because I think some people just fall on the track of one poll question and then they forget to look at the next. The first is parents polling say, “Yes, kids need to go back for all these reasons.” But you can’t ignore the followup, which is the very next question that says, “if it is safe.” And a lot of them feel it’s not safe yet.

Margaret Spellings: Well, we are going to do everything we can. And of course, this is what local school administrators and policy makers are wrangling through. How do you do that? How do you test? How do you make sure everyone wears a mask? How do you configure classrooms with as much social distancing? How do you close cafeterias and have students eating lunch? How do you protect the workforce that is our education workforce, our teachers and the like. It can be done. It is complicated and it will require a lot of flexibility and a lot of cooperation from all of us, including and especially our students.

Charles Feldman: And then you have this dilemma, Margaret, which is you got the President today threatening that if schools don’t reopen the White House may withhold some federal funds. But I thought that longtime Republican orthodoxy was that schools ought to be left in the hands of locals to control. So why the intervention of the Feds?

Margaret Spellings: Well, I think the President rightly knows that how integrated the functioning of our schools is what the functioning of our economy and our families. Mom and dad can’t work when junior is home not learning and bugging them to death and whatnot. But I will say that moms and dads also know that that education is a state and local responsibility. 90 plus percent of the resources come from state and local tax payers. And frankly, it’s a hollow threat. The President has no authority to take resources that have been appropriated by the Congress for our schools. And by the way, they’re a minority investor.

Mike Simpson: And even if you tried, do you lose more people than you gain doing that? Because then you have parents saying, “Look, we’re trying to do our best here, but now the school and maybe our local council or our governor, whoever it was made, the decision that they just can’t go yet.”

Margaret Spellings: Well, exactly. And by the way the costs of attending school are going up because we will have to mask students, we’ll have to have fewer people congregated, we’ll have to protect our teachers, and then do testing and on and on. So we’re grateful that the Cares Act funding did provide resources to do some of these things. In my own state of Texas, those are being made available at no charge to schools, but there are issues like hotspots and broadband ubiquity and all those sorts of things as well. So it’s going to take a lot of flexibility, a lot of creativity, and an understanding of the complexity of things. And above all we have to communicate, communicate, communicate with our parents and families so they are read in and can make decisions for themselves. But I think parents and schools will have options. Some of them will be online. They’re not optimal, but better than nothing.

Mike Simpson: Yes. Best we can do, right? Margaret Spellings, President, CEO, advocacy nonprofit, Texas 2036.