Every day, another state offers its best guess for what the safest path to schooling will be for the coming year. Between anxious kids eager to see their friends, parents torn between work obligations and fear for their children’s health, and teachers caught in the middle of it all, nobody is winning. Even worse, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, along with the president of the United States, has made it crystal clear that funding will depend upon schools reopening in person, regardless of health and safety concerns shared by experts. Parents, students, and teachers are being forced to decide between education or health, while those in charge continue to serve only themselves.
While the focus should be on how to keep students, teachers, and staff safe—while still providing some form of quality public education—DeVos is using the pandemic as an opportunity to support private and charter schools, despite their not being a feasible option for many. In May, she announced that education funding in the federal CARES Act, intended to support low-income public and private schools during the pandemic, would be distributed not by how many low-income students attended the school but rather by its total number of students, a move that would reroute funds meant for kids in need. And while the department’s interpretation of the CARES Act was met with lawsuits in California and Washington, and finally ruled unconstitutional in September by a federal judge, the attempted funding setup set the tone for how the department would handle reopenings: with only the wealthy in mind.
DeVos is using the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 to push a narrow privatization agenda that her family has long shared with the likes of political mega-donor Charles Koch. We know that charter schools are failing children, particularly those who are already most at risk of education inequity: those living in poverty, as well as Black and Latinx students. A recent report from the Network for Public Education looked at the results of taxpayer-funded grants from the US Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program from 2006 to 2014. It found 1,779 grantee schools that either never opened or have since shut down—a failure rate of 37 percent, at a waste of over half a billion dollars.
The same at-risk groups that have been failed by charter schools have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Black people are two times more likely to contract the virus and, in 32 states, are dying at rates higher than their proportion of the population. Latinx rates of contracting the disease are four times higher than their proportion of the population in eight states. Meanwhile, instead of meeting with health experts to figure out how to safely reopen schools, DeVos is using her time to hold virtual meetings with members of the Koch-backed Federalist Society, a conservative organization that aligns with her education privatization goals. Forget for a moment that their decision to meet virtually gives away their knowledge of the virus’s danger while they push for in-person schooling. Look at who DeVos is catering to. She didn’t meet with the teachers, students, and families who will be most affected by school reopenings. She’s continuing to prioritize the interests of the wealthy elite—those who will never have to choose between working to feed their families or keeping their children safely at home.
For me and my family, the coronavirus isn’t just an abstract possibility. Over the course of a week in late March, I came down with Covid-19, along with my wife and our four children. My wife and I both lost our sense of taste and smell, and high fevers and coughs were the norms in our household for a while. Even after the virus itself seemed to have passed through the entire family, we had to deal with our 2-year-old’s contracting post-Covid-19 pneumonia. We spent a full day monitoring their breathing because if they continued to struggle for air, we were told to head to our nearby children’s hospital. Thankfully, rest and strong antibiotics helped, and allowed us to treat them at home. Our ability to care for our children is a result of class privilege, which allows my wife and I to work from home and access a measure of healthcare. There are enormous cross-sections of our society that do not have access to these privileges as a result of systemic barriers.
This virus took over weeks of our lives and continues to show up in unexpected ways, and the experience only made it even more clear that reopening schools the way we currently are will devastate families across the country. We know that Covid-19 spreads easily in big groups, and we’ve seen what happens when states open up and allow “business as usual” to take place. Just look at Florida or Arizona, where positive cases and deaths skyrocketed after easing restrictions. Knowing all of this, are we willing to risk our children’s lives? And should we be asking teachers and staff to risk theirs?
As much as we hope to prevent the spread with all sorts of safety measures in place, the risks are too great. In fact, a school that recently reopened—to the applause of Vice President Mike Pence and DeVos—has instructed students to quarantine after only a couple of weeks of class because one of them tested positive for Covid-19. The same thing is happening again and again to schools across the country.
New York City started the year off with many schools opening their doors to students and teachers. Yet, only a month after the school year started, 124 schools have gone fully remote because they are located in Covid-19 hot spots. And this trend isn’t isolated to just NYC. Despite having in-person education at the start of the year, schools in Maryland, Alabama, New Jersey, West Virginia, and more are reverting to digital classrooms, while many schools all over the nation are having to close down for days to weeks at a time after Covid-19 outbreaks.
While DeVos fails to address the real needs of families and teachers when it comes to school, some parents are taking matters into their own hands. My social media feed is filled with parents posting about hiring tutors to provide their children with personalized, in-home education and asking questions about homeschool curriculums. The working poor are then left with schools that become even further defunded and understaffed as families who can afford “microschool” alternatives pull their students out of public school.
This is not unlike the way charter schools already drain public schools of the necessary funding needed to provide equitable education and attract top staff, something the state of Arizona is already all too familiar with, for example. Not only that, charter schools are beholden only to their bottom line—and much like the hasty school reopenings, it’s to the detriment of the public good. In 2017, I learned this painful lesson. Our children were enrolled in a public Montessori charter school. The parents and caregivers were called into a board meeting where we were informed that the nature-based Montessori school would transition over the fall holiday break into a college-prep STEM school. As a result, those who couldn’t afford the transition and new expectations would not be allowed to return. Three of my children were effectively unable to return to school. Their disabilities and our socioeconomic status meant that a college-prep STEM school disenfranchised their access to education. My wife and I became instant work-at-home homeschooling parents.
In one of the more politically divisive moments of my lifetime, DeVos’s failures to address the real needs of families and teachers appears to be creating a larger divide between the haves and have-nots. But it’s more than that: At a time when those who can afford safety are grabbing it at the expense of others, the wealthy elite are the real winners.