U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, a Republican who represents a district north of Milwaukee, on Wednesday pressed the case for schools to reopen with in-person instruction, noting that no one under the age of 20 has died of covid-19 in Wisconsin.
“Some of my colleagues and national pundits have said if you let kids in school, you’re putting their health at risk. Nobody I know talks about opening schools without making sure that kids are not at risk,” he said during a U.S. House subcommittee hearing on the challenges that face schools as they decide how to resume operations this fall.
“Do you think the conversation should be about how to open schools safely, and how it would benefit children?” he asked Penny Schwinn, the education commissioner for the state of Tennessee.
“I do,” answered Schwinn, who said that school districts faced very different situations when it comes to the prevalence of the coronavirus in their communities. “Local communities need to make local choices, but the conversation needs to be how we do so safely.”
Grothman’s comments come as educators, parents and public officials in Wisconsin and across the country clash over the best way to start instruction for the new school year. As the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb nationwide, more large districts have announced that they will at least start their academic year with all-virtual instruction, rather than in-person classes. The school districts in Milwaukee and Madison plan to start the year using only online instruction.
The teachers unions of the five largest school districts in Wisconsin urged Gov. Tony Evers on Monday to mandate online only instruction across the state. They noted that Wisconsin has few legal restrictions that would help stop the spread of the virus.
“The classroom is where every single educator wants to be this fall, but with no containment of Wisconsin COVID-19 cases, a virtual reopening for public schools is necessary,” they wrote.
The labor leaders said both teachers and families would be at risk if students met in person. They said a quarter of all educators have a medical risk factor that would make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. They also noted that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on minority communities, and that their districts serve those communities.
Evers, a Democrat and the former state superintendent of public instruction, said earlier this month that he hoped Wisconsin schools would re-open in the fall.
President Donald Trump and some congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to push schools to reopen their buildings for in-person teaching, by threatening to take away federal education funding for schools that don’t.
“In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS,” Trump wrote on Twitter earlier this month. “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”
U.S. Rep. Rick Allen of Georgia, the top Republican on the House subcommittee that met Thursday, introduced legislation that would block federal education funds for any school “that does not provide an option for students to attend classes, safely and in-person, at the beginning of [the 2020-2021] school year.”
Allen noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for the reopening of schools because of the benefits of having children physically present in school.
But one of the authors of that policy, Colorado pediatrician Sean O’Leary, said that didn’t necessarily mean that all schools should automatically resume five-day-a-week in-person schedules, because the spread of COVID-19 in many places is so rampant.
“While the AAP urges those areas to maintain in-person learning as the goal, our guidance recommends that jurisdictions utilize distance learning strategies until cases decline,” he said.
O’Leary said the AAP recommended that Congress spend $200 billion in a new coronavirus aid package to help schools open this year, so that they could handle additional expenses for safe busing, widespread use of technology, protective equipment and mental health counseling for students.
And, he stressed, that money should not be tied to whether individual school districts offer in-person instruction in the fall.
“Money must be available to all schools regardless of their timeline for reopening,” O’Leary told members of the Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee. “Schools in areas with high rates of COVID-19 spread may need to consider delaying a return to full-time in-person instruction, and these schools will need the same or greater federal investments, not less.”
Leslie Boggs, the president of the National PTA, also urged Congress to allow school districts to make decisions about reopening on their own, in consultation with the schools’ parents.
“Reopening of our nation’s pre-K-12 schools during the COVID-19 pandemic is vital to ensure the continuity of education. However it should not outweigh the safety and the mental and physical health of our students, educators, staff and families,” she said.
Removal of confederate statues
Thursday’s subcommittee hearing came a day after the U.S. House voted 305-113 to remove the statues of several Confederate leaders from the U.S. Capitol. The legislation also calls for replacing a bust of Chief Justice Robert Taney, the author of the notorious Dred Scott decision that outraged Northern abolitionists and sped the country to Civil War.
Grothman opposed the measure, though, because it would have replaced the statue of Taney with one of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. As a civil rights attorney, Marshall convinced the high court to outlaw explicit school segregation in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education.
Grothman, though, took issue with Marshall’s positions in favor of abortion rights when he sat on the high court. In particular, Grothman pointed to accounts that suggested that Marshall pushed the court in Roe v. Wade to apply the decision up to viability, rather than just the first three months.
“Because Marshall was instrumental in pushing the opinion of the court in an extreme direction, I do not believe that he, one of our country’s biggest pro-abortion figures who helped enable the silencing of countless lives, should be rewarded with a bust in the U.S. Capitol,” Grothman said in a statement.
Grothman and Rep. Tom Tiffany were the only two members of the U.S. House from Wisconsin to vote against the measure.