Former Education Secretary John King has some recommendations on how schools can reopen safely in the coming weeks, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
He says that effective contact tracing and national, large-scale testing access are only the first steps that need to be taken to return kids to school. For King, who served in the Obama administration as both education secretary and deputy secretary, redesigning schools to enforce social distancing recommendations is a far more complex issue.
“The best advice we have is that students need to be physically distant, which means we need to bring class size down so that students are at least six feet apart,” King told CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett on this week’s episode of “The Takeout” podcast. “We’ve got to make sure that students are wearing masks, [and] that teachers are wearing masks,” he added, declaring that installing plexiglass barriers around desks is “not feasible.”
- Former Education Secretary John King on what a safe K-12 classroom looks like: “We need to bring class size down so that students are at least at six feet apart…We’ve got to make sure that students are wearing masks, that teachers are wearing masks. Where we can we should add barriers…And then we got to redesign a rival dismissal. We’ve got to think about transportation, can’t have so many kids on a bus. They need to have space between kids on the bus or different transportation strategy.”
- Sending kids back to school safely: “Of course, we want kids in school, but we want them to be safe. We want and we want their families and their teachers to be safe. A large number of kids live in homes with adults who are in vulnerable categories. So, we really can’t be cavalier about this. We’ve really got to weigh the risks on both sides.”
- How the Obama administration prepared the Trump administration for a potential pandemic: “We talked specifically about a pandemic and the steps that were necessary and the importance of moving quickly to address things like testing and personal protective equipment. They just didn’t follow the blueprint, and they chose to wait too long. They chose to deny the existence of the disease, to pretend like it would just disappear. That’s how we ended up here. And schools are now bearing the brunt.”
King said that the logistics of a normal school day must be reconfigured, too, to establish a new flow pattern for students to move throughout schools. This includes how students enter and exit buildings and classrooms, adding more busing, so transportation can be socially distanced and keeping students out of social settings like hallways, gyms and cafeterias.
For school districts initiating hybrid schedules or teaching online only this fall, King said there are other challenges for low-income families.
“Everyone needs a device. Everyone needs Internet access,” King said. “We have disparities in internet access. So, there this is a huge logistical challenge for districts. And if you think you’re going to get 10%, 15%, 20% [budget] cuts down the road from the state, it’s very hard to wrap your head around how to do those things.”
President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have downplayed the risks of reopening schools and are pushing for districts to reopen in person. DeVos recently called children “stoppers” of the virus, an assertion that is unproven.
“[Trump] set a tone from the very beginning that was dismissive of the pandemic,” King said. “But the tragedy is, even after those mistakes and seeing the cost in human lives, they still aren’t addressing those fundamental issues with testing, contact tracing and personal protective equipment.”
King added that in joint-cabinet meetings in January 2016 between the Obama administration and the incoming Trump administration, he talked with DeVos about how the Obama administration dealt with Ebola and the H1N1 flu and what to do in the case of another serious disease outbreak.
“The discussion was about a respiratory illness that was a pandemic that started overseas and how you prepare for that. And we talked about the urgency of getting personal protective equipment, the urgency of getting testing in place, the need to have clear science based communication with the public. And they just didn’t do those things,” King said. “It didn’t feel like then there was a ton of urgency in the room about these issues.”
King also called Mr. Trump’s threat to withhold funding from public schools if they choose to not reopen. “empty bluster.” He said, “I can’t imagine that scenario because it’s so obviously reckless and against the public good.”
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