In a new letter to the nation's parents, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is encouraging them to send their kids back to school, warning of students falling behind academically without directly addressing the health risks posed by the coronavirus.
The letter, first published Tuesday by The Detroit News, also presses the Michigan native's agenda for expanding school choice, saying she wants more options for families who feel their school isn't meeting their needs.
"That starts with schools being open," DeVos writes. "No one is suggesting that every single child must be behind a desk in a classroom, or that health realities on the ground won't cause temporary disruptions.
"We do, however, believe that, as the rule, schools must be open for in-person learning as an option for the families who want or who need it," she continues.
DeVos expresses empathy with parents feeling overwhelmed and frustrated after months of uncertainty. But she says she would send her own children back to school were they still school-aged, noting that her kids have decided her grandchildren are going back to class in person.
"That's their choice as parents. You can agree with them or disagree with them, do the same, or do something different," DeVos writes. "I'm not suggesting it's the right choice for you, too. I just want you to have the power, the resources and the freedom to make your call."
For months, DeVos and President Donald Trump have been leaning on school districts to open in person, with Trump even threatening to hold back federal funding for systems that do not bring their students back. DeVos previously derided hybrid setups that offer a mix of in-person and virtual learning.
In Tuesday's letter, DeVos moderated her tone, saying her Department of Education would support families that select virtual learning or in-person instruction, or a combination of both: "Your child. Your school. Your way."
U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, said he appreciates that approach because right now school is being "discouraged," despite parents' frustration with online education in the spring that was sometimes "nonexistent."
"That's a big concern that Betsy has. If you continue to shut down, you have more inconsistencies than you would normally have," said Walberg, a senior Republican on the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, who also raised the issue of kids' mental health being away from peer groups and mentors.
"The majority of teachers I talk with want to get back," he said. "We need to get back. I'm glad to see the secretary pushing that, and I'm glad to see her language is not one size fits all."
But the DeVos approach disregards the health and welfare of students and educators, said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan.
"It's not surprising coming from Betsy DeVos because she does not care about public education," Hecker said. "We think the No. 1 priority, No. 2 priority and No. 3 priority is health and safety."
If an agreement can be worked out among the unions, the community and district administration to reopen, he said, that's their decision, but "no one should be forced to go in face to face."
"It should be an option for students, staff and every safety precaution should be in place before anyone is even allowed in the buildings."
DeVos said her agency has provided $13 billion in emergency funding for personal protective equipment, cleaning and training, and that she's proposed "more flexible and personalized" funding for the professional development of teachers teaching virtually.
She also touted legislation, the School Choice Now Act, that would fund $5 billion for a tax-credit program for private school scholarships during the pandemic. Congress has not taken up the bill.
"Every family needs to be able to do what's right for their child," she writes. "Their money should follow their student. Our schools exist because you pay for them, and you should be empowered to put your money to better use if your school isn't meeting your needs."
DeVos highlighted remarks from Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying it's "in the public health interest" of K-12 students to resume in-person learning.
The education secretary also quotes Dr. Anthony Fauci saying in Connecticut last month that in-person learning is important for the "psychological benefit" of children.
She did not include the rest of Fauci's remarks at the event, where he said that if a large uptick in cases happens after the school year starts, it would be wise to shut schools back down.
DeVos would have done better for students had she backed her words with dollars or pressure on Congress to deliver a package to fund the materials needed to help kids return to the classroom safely, said Andre Perry, an expert on education issues at the Brookings Institution.
"Her appeal to open schools is going to the wrong people. Why isn't she giving Congress the dollar amount that's needed to open up schools so that they can vote on a measure to get that done?" said Perry, who used to run charter schools in New Orleans.
"It's amazing to think we've had four to five months to come up with a spending package for schools, and we have not done it. There's a reticence to give schools the money needed to do what everybody wants. It's pretty sad."
Senate Republicans proposed $105 billion for schools in the stimulus plan they put out over the summer, but congressional Democrats say much more is needed-$430 billion, including $175 billion for K-12. Talks broke down weeks ago.
But remote learning has been a "disaster" for millions of children, said Rick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
"We've seen statistics that it's awful for their mental health, especially children who live in small apartments or unstable homes. It can be physically unsafe. We know children are falling far behind and being disconnected from mentors and role models and friends," Hess said. "There's no good choices here.
But the sense is that school districts are focused more on the risks to health than the educational risks of not opening, he added. "I think it's quite appropriate that DeVos is pushing on that," Hess said.
"It's funny to me it's being played out as such an ideological debate," he added.
"If you're not actually running brick and mortar schools, your existing funding should be more than adequate, and it's the families that have to figure out how to make this work that need the support to make sure kids are getting what they need."