Betsy DeVos struggles to defend school re-opening gambit

When it comes to re-opening schools, the secretary of Education doesn't appear to have any idea what she's talking about.
Image: Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, with Vice President Mike Pence, speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Education building on July 8, 2020.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
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By Steve Benen

In January 2017, Betsy DeVos struggled mightily during her Senate confirmation hearings, not only when asked to defend her apparent opposition to public schools, but in response to basic questions about education policy. Senate Republicans confirmed her anyway as the secretary of Education, but her Capitol Hill display left little doubt that DeVos had no idea what she was talking about.

A year later, the cabinet secretary sat down with CBS News' Leslie Stahl, who pressed DeVos on a wide range of education issues. The Michigan Republican couldn't speak coherently on any of them. BuzzFeed noted at the time that Education secretary "stumbled through basically the entire thing and people watching were shocked and more than slightly concerned."

Those hoping that DeVos would eventually get up to speed and become more competent have reason to be disappointed. The cabinet secretary appeared on CNN's and Fox News' Sunday shows, and in both appearances, DeVos left little doubt that she'd barely even tried to prepare for the interviews.

Asked, for example, why the administration is so eager to push forward on school re-openings, DeVos argued, “There’s -- there is no -- nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them.” I wish that were true. As the Associated Press explained, it's not.

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. Apart from potential risks to kids, there is also the chance that they would spread the disease to more vulnerable adults, such as teachers, parents and grandparents.

The CDC, meanwhile, has said children meeting in groups "can put everyone at risk," adding that children "can pass this virus onto others who have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19." Asked whether the Trump administration expects these warnings to be followed, DeVos said CDC guidelines are "meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation."

But this is bizarre. There's "flexibility" in the CDC's guidelines, insofar as communities with low infection rates can be more relaxed in enforcement. It doesn't mean the guidelines are mere suggestions that education officials everywhere can ignore and discard at their own discretion.

Also yesterday, DeVos insisted, “We know that other countries around the world have reopened their schools and have done so successfully and safely.” There's certainly some truth to that. What the Education secretary doesn't seem to appreciate, however, is that those other countries have effectively contained their coronavirus outbreaks, while the United States has not.

At one point, DeVos reiterated an earlier threat to divert funds away from public schools that remain closed during the pandemic. When Fox News' Chris Wallace explained that the administration doesn't have the legal authority to take such a step, the cabinet secretary had no meaningful response.

By midday yesterday, the Democratic National Committee's Adrienne Watson had issued a statement that read in part, “Secretary DeVos made it abundantly clear that this administration has no idea what it’s doing and no clear plan on how to safely reopen our schools."

I'm not sure how anyone could've watched DeVos and come to a different conclusion.