The Next Big Campaign Issue: Reopening Schools

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Over the past month or so, I’d guess about 40 percent of the conversations that I’ve had with family and friends have revolved around one big question: Will school reopen?

Honestly, that may be a conservative estimate. When I’m not writing you, dear readers, I’m spending a lot of time obsessing over reopening plans, worrying about health and educational outcomes and coming up with increasingly outlandish plans to manage this fall. (We’ll get an Airbnb in Oahu and enroll the kids in Hawaii public schools! They could start Aug. 4!)

As a parent, I have no idea how we’ll manage without full-time, in-person school. But as a political reporter, there’s one piece of this whole mess that became pretty clear to me this week: Education will be a major campaign issue.

After years of pushing for a national conversation about child care, public education and dual-income families, advocates are finally getting those issues on the political agenda — though perhaps not in the way that they had hoped.

This fall, right as the presidential campaign enters the final stretch, we will plunge our schools into a nationwide education experiment during a pandemic, with our children, teachers and school aides as the subjects.

Yesterday, President Trump demanded that schools physically reopen in the fall, coordinating a day of conference calls, interviews and public events to drive his message of getting the country moving again.

Given that Mr. Trump has no real authority over local school districts, his remarks were aimed at pressuring governors, mayors and others. Instead of announcing specific plans, he threatened to cut federal funding if schools don’t physically reopen — though there’s no clear mechanism for his administration to do that.

That didn’t stop him from pivoting to political attacks and posting an accusation on Twitter that “corrupt Joe Biden and the Democrats” are refusing to open schools this fall “for political reasons, not for health reasons.”

Mr. Biden has said schools need more funding and support to reopen. He told the National Education Association on Friday that there’s a “high probability” remote learning will continue.

That message is not what a lot of parents want to hear right now, although it’s likely to be better received by school administrators and teachers’ unions.

Surveys by school districts of both groups show that teachers are more fearful of resuming classes because of health risks than are parents, says Dana Goldstein, our New York Times education correspondent, who has spent months talking to parents and teachers about reopening schools.

“The situation is painful for everyone in some way,” she said.

There are no easy answers. So far, governors and mayors have largely focused on reopening indoor dining at restaurants, salons and other businesses, which have the potential to bring in tax dollars for struggling state and local budgets. But many of those decisions have also increased levels of transmission, making it harder to reopen schools safely.

While data on schools that have reopened remains scarce, there’s some evidence from abroad that the benefits may outweigh the risks — at least in countries with low transmission rates. That’s clearly not the case in the United States, where the death toll is roughly twice as much as any other country’s and daily new cases per capita are among the highest in the world.

Still, a patchwork of plans are already underway across the country. Today, New York City announced that classroom attendance would be limited to just one to three days a week.

Michigan officials announced this week that school buildings won’t reopen for in-person instruction until “the number of new cases and deaths has fallen for a period of time.”

Fairfax County, Va., is offering families a choice between 100 percent online learning or in-person instruction for at least two days a week with independent study on the remaining days.

With clusters of cases traced to church gatherings and family parties, no politician wants to be responsible for an outbreak — or worse, the deaths of children, teachers and school officials. And adapting schools to conform with health guidelines isn’t easy or cheap. As Mr. Trump threatens federal cuts, education groups estimate schools will need at least $200 billion in additional funding.

But political leaders also face tens of millions of parents and grandparents at their breaking point, unable to return to work without consistent child care. And then there’s the warning issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics last month about the major health, social and educational risks of keeping children at home.

“The virus is not the only risk for the children,” Dana told me. “The virus might not even be the worst risk.”

Are you fearing a school year without child care? Are you a teacher worried for your health if you go back to work? Whom are you looking to for guidance about schools and the virus?

We want to hear from you!

Tell us your thoughts on school reopening and we may feature you in a future edition of the newsletter. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com, and please be sure to include your name and location.



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