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Despite Trump’s threats to cut funding, student safety is area school officials’ main concern for fall

UPDATED: Wed., July 8, 2020

Students leave Lewis and Clark High School at the end of classes Friday, March 13, after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all public and private schools in districts across the state closed.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Students leave Lewis and Clark High School at the end of classes Friday, March 13, after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all public and private schools in districts across the state closed. (COLIN MULVANY)

Despite President Donald Trump’s threats Wednesday to cut federal funding to schools if they do not reopen in the fall, Washington and Idaho school districts will continue to follow guidelines from health officials to decide their fall plans.

In a series of tweets early Wednesday morning, Trump called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reopening schools “tough and expensive.” He also said he might cut off funding if schools do not open in person in the fall, despite a growing number of COVID-19 cases across the country.

In a news conference a few hours later, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said the agency will issue new guidelines next week but reminded districts that the guidelines are simply a recommendation.

Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said it is inappropriate for the federal government to force states to open their schools despite local health officials’ guidance.

“Trump isn’t threatening schools with this,” Reykdal said. “He’s threatening children.”

Reykdal announced a month ago that Washington schools will open in the fall with social distancing and face masks, among other changes. But he encouraged local school districts to proceed with caution and follow safety and health guidelines as they finalize their plans.

In Spokane, school districts are still in the early stages of planning for the fall, said Jeremy Shay, president of the Spokane Education Association, the local teachers union. Officials are trying to ensure as many students as possible can come back, but with social distancing guidelines it might not be possible to have every student back in school at the same time.

“In a perfect world, every kid would be able to come back,” Shay said. “We need to make sure we’re doing that safely and look at what science is telling us.”

He said the union’s main concern is the health and safety of students and teachers.

“We want students to come back in the fall, but we want to make sure it’s safe,” Shay said.

Scott Maben, Coeur d’Alene School District spokesperson, said in an email that the district intends to be back in person, at least partially, during the fall. If that means using a combination of face-to-face and remote instruction, he said, the district will be ready.

Maben added he wasn’t sure what federal funding Trump was referring to, so the effect it could have on the district is unknown. Federal education dollars make up a small portion of their funding, he said.

The federal funding Trump is threatening to cut accounts for about 6% to 7% of funding in Washington schools, Reykdal said. It helps fund food, nutrition and disability services; Title I schools, which typically are in lower income areas; and what he called “everything else,” such as teacher professional development and the Office of Native Education.

That funding is essential whether schools are open or not, Reykdal said.

“Leveraging support for children for his political ideology is not appropriate at this time or ever,” Reykdal said.

Reykdal said he does not anticipate funding will actually be cut, but if it does, the state will have to find a way to fill the gap.

Shay said he doesn’t anticipate that Trump’s threats will affect how school districts look at their fall plans but said he was worried about what it could mean if the federal government does cut funding.

Some of the federal funding goes toward special education and low-income schools, so eliminating that funding could widen the opportunity gap for marginalized students, Shay said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement Wednesday that Democrats have a plan to give schools the resources they need for the fall, whether that’s in-person or online, while also following local public health guidance.

She urged Republicans to work with Democrats to pass that plan, a $430 billion coronavirus relief bill that would address the country’s child care and education crises.

“Everyone wants schools to physically reopen, but we need to make sure it’s done safely,” she said.

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