U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the U.S. Department of Education July 8, 2020 in Washington, DC. Vice President Pence and the task force members discussed the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic and the reopening of nation's schools in the Fall. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Who could have predicted Trump’s education secretary, a fundamentalist billionaire megadonor with zero educational experience, would be absolutely unprepared for a crisis of historical proportions?

In a disastrous and widely ridiculed appearance on CNN on July 12, Betsy DeVos struggled to defend her stance that all public schools should be reopened in the fall for in-person teaching, even though federal officials have done little to prepare students or teachers for COVID-19.

When host Dana Bash asked DeVos why she has failed to provide instructions for schools guidelines to reopen safely and comply with CDC guidelines, DeVos fumbled through a nonanswer: “The CDC guidelines are just that, meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation,” DeVos said.

DeVos falsely claimed on Fox News Sunday that allowing children to attend schools was not endangering them. “There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.”

The Boston Globe rated this claim as false: “Although children are less likely than adults to develop COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has nevertheless counted tens of thousands of infections by the virus in Americans younger than 18. It’s premature to claim that there are no risks “in any way” seen in data. How significant a risk has not been established.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley criticized DeVos on Twitter: “Betsy DeVos you have no plan. Teachers, kids and parents are fearing for their lives. You point to a private sector that has put profits over people and claimed the lives of thousands of essential workers. I wouldn’t trust you to care for a houseplant let alone my child.”

While some studies suggest children infrequently transmit COVID-19, “provided they follow appropriate social distancing guidelines and take into account rates of transmission in their community,” there’s growing concern over rising rates of community transmission and schools without the space and resources to socially distance.

Despite Trump administration threats to cut federal funding for school districts that refuse to reopen (which experts say he doesn’t have the power to do), a growing number of districts have announced they will be reopening with virtual learning only, including Los Angeles and San Diego, California.

On July 13, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered bars and restaurants closed after the state experienced a new COVID-19 outbreak after reopening too soon.

Florida, which is refusing to mandate mask use, is also experiencing a massive spike in COVID-19, including in children. 31% of children tested statewide have tested positive, compared to the overall statewide positivity rate of 11%, and health officials warn even those with mild symptoms can suffer lifelong consequences, The Sun Sentinel reports. The paper spoke to Dr. Alina Alonso, Palm Beach County’s health department director:

 “[T]here is damage to the lungs in these asymptomatic children. … We don’t know how that is going to manifest a year from now or two years from now,” Alonso said. “Is that child going to have chronic pulmonary problems or not?”

Schools in underfunded districts will face more challenges when they reopen. Many have pointed out that even before the pandemic, many schools lacked supplies like soap, necessary for stopping the spread of infectious diseases. States across the country have proposed cutting school funding by billions of dollars to cope with an estimated $665 billion budget shortfall, according to the Center for Policy and Budget Priorities.

Many schools in Baltimore, Maryland, lack functioning HVAC systems, another tool in stopping the spread of the disease. A Johns Hopkins study released earlier this year notes just 17% of schools in the city are in “good or superior condition,” and students missed significant instructional time because of deteriorating HVAC systems.

“Problems with heat and cooling accounted for lost school time of more than 1.2 million hours, equivalent to more than 179,000 days, over the last 5 years, representing about 80% of the time missed,” the report found.

Maryland is being sued for violating the constitutional rights of students living in poor districts, who have been denied the right to an adequate education.

While DeVos has no experience working in public schools, she did bankroll efforts to deregulate the spread of privately run charter and voucher schools in her home state of Michigan. Studies found that schools there are among the worst in the nation when it comes to improving student achievement.

While countries in Europe see declining cases and deaths, COVID-19 continues to spread out of control in several regions of the US. While the US has less than 5% of the world’s population, it has a quarter of the world’s cases. On July 10, the US added 64,771 (3.05 million total) new cases of COVID-19 and 991 new deaths (132,056 total), according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which detailed trends: “Both the South and Southwest regions are reporting increased daily deaths since early-to-mid June. Additionally, test positivity is increasing nearly nationwide, indicating that increased transmission may be outpacing the growing testing capacity.”

In a joint letter to state and local officials on July 14, the Maryland State Education Association, Baltimore Teachers Union, and Maryland Parent Teachers Association urged schools reopen virtually in the fall. “If we open our schools too quickly and without adequate safety precautions, the result will be that some educators, students, and their family members will contract the coronavirus. Some will recover, some will face debilitating health consequences or healthcare bills that they cannot pay, and some will die. These are stubborn facts. And they are costs and consequences that we must refuse to accept. A perfect solution does not exist. A safe one does.”

Jaisal Noor

General Assignment Reporter

Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio NewsDemocracy Now! and The Indypendent.

Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.