Opinion
Arne Duncan: Reopening Schools Is a Local Decision, Not the President's
Then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks during a 2015 town hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. -Charlie Neibergall/AP, File

When I was U.S. secretary of education under President Barack Obama, I was sometimes accused of "federal overreach" for advancing various policies to support students and teachers. But some of my critics seemed to forget that I had previously served as a local school leader in Chicago and believed strongly in local control. More than once, I pushed back on federal policies that I believed did not work for Chicago, and when I went to Washington, I made a point of providing local school districts with as much flexibility as possible.

I have never believed in local control more than I do today, especially given the absence of leadership coming from Washington on the issue of when and how to reopen public schools safely amid COVID-19. President Donald Trump is way out of bounds when he tweets in all capital letters, "SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" and he's even more off-base to be threatening to withhold federal funding if schools don't obey him.

This is the same president who only recently came around to wearing masks and has still not used his power to provide adequate tests so that we can identify and isolate infected people. With more than 130,000 Americans dead and more than 3 million confirmed cases, he is now insisting the virus is "99% harmless."

He still can't admit that we're in a dangerous stage with a record 60,000 new cases on July 7 and even threatened to revise Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on school openings since they contradicted his directives. He will never admit what every thinking person in America knows: The Trump administration has completely failed to protect the American people and lead us through this crisis.

Thankfully, there is great leadership at the local level figuring out what needs to be done to open schools safely. Shortly after the schools shut down this spring, my successor in D.C., John B. King Jr., and I began doing weekly conference calls with a dozen big-city school superintendents to talk through issues and solutions.

They are very clear about their desire to reopen schools, but they are equally clear about their responsibility to do it safely. They understand the challenges of keeping kids six feet apart in classrooms designed to keep them much closer.

They know how hard it is to manage young schoolchildren who are used to tumbling all over each other, sharing food, and neglecting to wash their hands. And no one expects high school students to stop hugging, high-fiving, and socially engaging with each other.

School leaders also understand that school systems employ people of all ages and that the adults are the ones most at risk. Many teachers, janitors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, librarians, school nurses, counselors, and administrators are in high-risk categories because of their age or health conditions. Without some reasonable assurance of distancing and hygiene, schools will be especially unsafe for them.

Best of all, like all good leaders, these local superintendents are turning a crisis into an opportunity. They are determined to conquer online learning and get better at it, not because they believe it's a substitute for in-person learning but because they know it's a useful tool even when we are not in the throes of a pandemic.

Students who are out sick can stay on track with online learning. Students who may need to work from home because they have been bullied or are struggling with emotional issues or maybe they have emergency travel for some reason can also keep up. The same goes for students showing symptoms of the virus who are sent home to quarantine.

As we have already learned, the internet also enables rural students like these ones in Montana to access coursework in other high schools, and teachers can collaborate in countless new ways with colleagues across the country. Parents, as well, can get more engaged. Technology is a tool for learning, and we should all be honing our skills.

But right now, none of us knows how long the virus will be with us, and we all understand that some schools may have to close down again if there's a spike. Obviously, it will be different everywhere and it will fall to local school leaders and health officials to decide if it is safe to bring in students and staff and keep them there.

For both educational and economic reasons, we all agree that getting students back in school this fall is a top priority. All of us outside the Beltway, I hope, also agree that safety and science will be our guide, not presidential politics.

The president lacks any power to order schools to open. That's a local decision for parents, educators, administrators, and students. One way or another, in person, online, or something in between, the learning will continue.


Arne Duncan served as U.S. secretary of education from 2009 to 2015. He is currently a managing partner with the Emerson Collective.

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