Communities large and small are battling over whether and how to reopen schools closed since March. Superintendents are warning of drastic budget cuts on the horizon, teachers’ unions are calling for standardized tests to be canceled for a second straight year and millions of children are learning remotely, with little evaluation of the impact on their academic growth.
Yet for months now, the extraordinary challenges of schooling during the coronavirus pandemic have not been a dominant campaign theme for either President Trump or his opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
That is partly because states and local districts have a larger role than the federal government in funding and running schools. But with so many families deeply affected by the pandemic’s upending of school routines and potentially lasting impact on childhood learning, the lack of thoughtful focus on the issue has frustrated parents and educators alike.
“It should really be a pivotal topic,” said Kisha Hale, principal of the upper grades at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Washington, which has been providing virtual instruction to its largely low-income students since March. “With Covid-19, there are so many other things taking the focus away from education. But if our future doctors, teachers and lawyers can’t be properly prepared during this time and we’re not talking about it, what is it that we are saying really matters?”
Several recent polls have suggested the issue is a leading concern for many voters. A Politico and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health survey released last month found that schools and education was the second most important issue for likely voters, after the economy and jobs. And a poll conducted this month in Michigan for The Detroit Free Press found that reopening schools and the economy was the top issue concerning voters, followed by the public health crisis posed by the coronavirus.
In his rallies, Mr. Trump reliably mentions that he will fight for school choice and protect charter schools, which is both a pitch to urban Black and Hispanic voters, many of whom split with the Democratic Party on those issues, and a rallying cry for conservatives. And he has consistently called for schools to reopen, threatening at one point to withhold federal funds from those that resisted.
But Mr. Trump has said little to nothing about the role of federal funding in helping districts reopen safely. And instead of calling for clear, prescriptive recommendations on reopening, he has pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to emphasize the importance of reopening schools, despite the concerns of many C.D.C. scientists that the White House has minimized the risks.
“President Trump still doesn’t have any real plan for how to open our schools safely, no real plan for how to help parents feel secure for their children,” Mr. Biden said last month about reopening schools.
But while Mr. Biden has presented ideas on how and when school districts should reopen, he has not addressed the divisions that exist within his own party about what conditions need to be in place before sending students and teachers back to classrooms.
Nor has either campaign put forth ideas on improving remote learning, or on how colleges should be handling the return to campuses — deeply relevant issues to huge slices of the electorate.
Jeanine Malec, whose three elementary-school-age children are learning remotely in Minneapolis, said she wished the candidates would acknowledge the particular challenge of remote schooling for special education students, including her daughter. “She isn’t gaining skills right now; in a lot of ways she’s losing ground,” Ms. Malec said. “How will special needs kids be helped back onto their feet in the aftermath of Covid?”
The subject of school reopening is also not a major theme of either candidate’s ad campaigns, and it got less than a minute of airtime at the first debate between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump last month. Nor is it among the topics that Kristen Welker of NBC News plans to question them on at Thursday’s debate, though “Fighting Covid-19” is.
Education has loomed larger in some previous elections. In 2000, George W. Bush made it central to his campaign by pushing a standardized testing plan that became the bipartisan No Child Left Behind law of 2001. His father, George H.W. Bush, said during his 1988 campaign that he wanted to be “the education president,” while Barack Obama in 2008 spoke often of fixing “the broken promises” of No Child Left Behind.
But this year, the election is so much a referendum on Mr. Trump — and his handling of the pandemic — that there is less space than ever for other policy discussions. The one exception might be health care and coverage, which has dominated campaign advertisements up and down both party’s tickets and is perhaps even more top of mind for voters than schooling challenges.
Still, Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, said both candidates could have more skillfully tapped the widespread angst among parents whose children are learning from home this fall.
“Parents trying to work while supervising second graders — who’s standing up for them?” Mr. Hess said. “It seems like a political winner. But here we are two weeks before the election and we haven’t heard that case made effectively.”
He added: “A Republican president who had evinced some degree of restraint and maturity and thoughtfulness could be making those arguments very powerfully right now — but that obviously doesn’t describe Trump.”
Mr. Biden has a more difficult needle to thread. Some of his strongest support comes from teachers’ unions, which generally have opposed efforts to reopen schools. And in the Democratic cities and swing-district suburbs where schools are more likely to remain closed, and where Mr. Biden’s support is based, many parents also remain resistant to reopening as public health concerns persist and data on the safety of school reopenings is sparse.
“In my district, everybody has their Biden yard signs but it’s about a 50-50 split as to who wants their kids back in school,” said Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University who studies education politics. “It’s a tricky calculus for him.”
In July, Mr. Biden proposed a “five-step road map” for reopening schools, emphasizing deference to local decision-making and increased federal aid for schools. He called for “clear, consistent, effective” national guidelines to help reopening decisions but did not offer specifics, saying those decisions should be made by state and local officials in consultation with communities.
Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said many of the superintendents his group represented wanted very specific recommendations. An example, he said, would be a recommendation to reopen only if less than 5 percent of coronavirus tests performed in a community are positive over several weeks’ time, a threshold many epidemiologists support.
“Instead, we have districts with a 20 percent positivity rate opening up,” he said. “There’s been no unifying guidance that says, ‘This is what we’re all going to do together.’”
Michael Casserly, the longtime executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization representing about 70 large urban districts, was more resigned than indignant about the fact that school reopening issues were not a central focus of the candidates. He estimated that about 40 percent of his member districts have at least partially reopened. Some, he said, would rather not have politicians weighing in as they sort through how to address problems from staffing to ventilation to remote instruction.
“Many at the local level are fed up with the mixed messages they are getting from the federal and state levels,” Mr. Casserly said. “We don’t necessarily need for this to be the subject of any more political debate; we’ve had more than enough of that.”