Over the past few weeks, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy Devos have verbally threatened funding for schools that do not open regularly in the fall. It is unclear what authority or how they’d shift funds approved, but the threat to education has people talking. We want schools back to normal, but it must be done safely. What should school look like in the middle of a pandemic?

Local Control

As we navigate what school should look like in the fall, North Dakota’s Superintendent of Public Instruction has indicated the decisions will largely be made at the local level. I think that is the right mindset but needs a bit more work. Guidance provided from the CDC needs to be massaged by the Department of Public instruction so school districts have a baseline of what is expected.

With a baseline of expectations set, robust conversations need to take place in each district. Not just school boards and teachers unions, but with cooks, bus drivers, custodians, and other faculty. Each position will likely need to be critiqued slightly to make sure their responsibilities are being done safely for the students, coworkers, and themselves. What the school district looks like in Minnewaukan will look different than Minot. Hopefully, those conversations are underway and inclusive.

Failed Federal Leadership

Speaking of baseline expectations, the federal government has failed to meet this basic function. The pandemic has underscored the need for competent leadership across the country. We are again reminded of the failed appointment of Betsy Devos to the Department of Education. This weekend, Devos was interviewed on CNN. She couldn’t answer the basic questions on what schools should do to keep people safe. Watch the interview here.

Compelling schools to reopen and threatening funding without a coherent plan. Devos was clearly unfit for the position when she was appointed. Many in the public education system spoke out against her at the time. It was almost successful in keeping her from the job. Devos received 51 votes in the United States Senate to get the highest-ranking job in public education. ND Senator John Hoeven gave one of the deciding votes to place Devos in this position. What a critical error of judgment on his part.

Lots of Questions. Few Answers

What does testing look like for schools? Who pays for those tests and how frequently are they done? What are the protocols if someone tests positive? With the long periods between tests and results, how do you make this work from class to class?  Will masks be required? Who provides the mask? How can we ensure this won’t increase the out-of-pocket expenses of our teachers? How do you ensure children adhere to CDC and school guidelines of physical distancing? Who pays for whatever environmental changes are needed in a school like physical separators? If the federal government won’t pay, will ND step up and pay for covid-related expenses? Will property tax payers be asked to pay more since each district will have different protocols?

All in this Together

Together, we want schools to be open. But schools must be open safely. Unfortunately, it seems some in high-ranking officials aren’t taking that part as serious as they need to be. Right now, maybe you’re thinking there are some competing thoughts in this post. Supporting local control and decision making about specifics, while demanding resources and guidance from competent federal professionals are not at odds with each other. We like to say, “we’re all in this together.” That slogan requires cooperation and coordination. It is tragic that appears to be lacking when it comes to our public education at the moment.

Tyler Axness
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