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Local Schools Leaders Spurn Trump Demand to Reopen -- Say They'll Be Guided by Science

Leaders of South Coast school districts on Thursday shrugged off President Trump's sternly-worded demand that schools nationwide physically reopen for the new academic year, saying their plans will stay flexible in responding to the pandemic.

"We're very much going to put pressure open the schools, to get them open," Trump said at a high-profile White House education event on Wednesday.

""It's very important. It's very important for our country. It's very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we're going to be putting a lot of pressure on," he added. "Open your schools in the fall."

The hardline comments by Trump and by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos added a new layer of confusion to the national debate over if, when and how to send students back to school, a dramatic step that is viewed as a threshold event to reopening the economy fully.

Lagging in pre-election polls, the president for months has emphasized the need for economic recovery while trying to minimize the public health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, and local leaders said his latest effort represents more of the same.

"The President and this Administration continue to cause confusion and issue ultimatums during a very serious national emergency," said Luz Reyes-Martin, a Goleta Union School District board member.

"In our Goleta elementary schools, we are going to do what is in the best interest of our students, our teachers, and our staff," she said, noting that the board at its next meeting will consider several options for managing the new semester.

"Our decision making will be based on the best available public health science and we will do everything we can to ensure all of our students continue to receive high-quality educational instruction," Reyes-Martin added.

Laura Capps, president of the Santa Barbara Unified School District board, said that Trump's high-pressure push will have "zero" effect on the district's plans.

The Santa Barbara board as of now is proceeding with a hybrid plan that basically would give each student two days of classroom instruction and two days of online distance learning a week. At the White House, DeVos was highly critical of this method -- “A couple of hours a week of online school is not OK, and a choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” the New York Times reported her saying.

Capps waved off the attack: "Local control (of public schools) is a belief system here in this country, especially for times like this," she said. Trump "has politicized this pandemic from the beginning..the good news is he has almost no control over our schools, thank goodness."

Capps explained that about 10 percent of the district's budget comes from federal funds, but because of legislative mandates and regulations, the president has little control over the money: "The odds of that impacting Santa Barbara Unified are slim to none."

Anthony Ranii, superintendent of Montecito Union School District, said administrators have a "draft plan to re-open on campus five days a week" when the school year begins.

Ranii said the district has hired additional staff to reduce all class sizes to 12-16 students, which would allow social distancing; the plan also calls for masks and morning temperature and health checks for all students.

Although this is the direction towards which Trump is pushing all schools, Ranii said his district also has a "full plan for distance learning," should the pandemic surge and local conditions require a new shutdown.

"I'm taking my guidance from the Santa Barbara Department of Public Health...and from the science" about coronavirus, he added.

Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier also pushed back on Trump's comments, saying that the health and safety of students, teachers and families would shape actions on schools.

“I’m not worried about the latest tweets” from the president, he told reporters. “What we need to address is safely reopening schools and we need to make that a foundational principle. That to me is not negotiable.”

Click below to see our interview with Laura Capps about Trump's new push to reopen schools. The podcast version is here.


Images: No school today (; Luz Reyes-Martin; Laura Capps; Anthony Ranii.

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