United States: Schools the new flashpoint in Trump’s COVID-19 crisis

Donald Trump is threatening to cut federal funding to school districts that do not fully open in August.

Because the Trump administration has utterly failed to organise or even propose a national plan to deal with the coronavirus, the United States has been in the first wave of the pandemic since February.

States in the south and west that opened up their economies too early and too fast have experienced a sharp upturn in cases and hospitalisations. An upturn in deaths will certainly follow. Thirty-nine states in other regions have also experienced upturns.

This has caused the number of new cases each day nationally to climb to 60,000 and rising. That compares with about 30,000 in the March-April peak. The daily figure never fell below 20,000. There never was a “flattening of the curve”.

The new surge was predicted, as states opened up while ignoring the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One of those consistently making those predictions was Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease.

‘Worst nightmare’

Fauci is the most trusted source for information on the virus, polls show. On July 12, he said the current surge is a public health official’s “worst nightmare”. He also said that the end of the pandemic is “nowhere in sight”.

An article in the July 11 New York Times gave a feel for the situation in the hardest hit states. “As states across the South and West grapple with shortages of vital testing equipment and a key antiviral drug, hospitals are being flooded with coronavirus patients, forcing them to cancel elective surgeries,” said the NYT. “Doctors worry that the escalating hospital crunch may last much longer than in earlier-hit areas like New York.

“Florida is struggling with one of the worst outbreaks in the country, along with Texas, California and Arizona: 43 intensive care units [ICUs] in 21 Florida counties have hit capacity and have no beds available.

“In South Carolina, National Guard troops are being called in to help insert intravenous lines and check blood pressure.

“In Mississippi, five of the state’s largest hospitals have already run out of ICU beds for critical patients.

“Regular beds are easily converted into ICU capacity, doctors and hospital experts say. The bigger challenge is having enough nurses who are qualified to care for such patients and equipment such as ventilators.”

There are many reports of nurses and other staff being exhausted by long hours of work, burnt out by the sickness and death they see, or becoming ill, including from the virus, resulting in a shortage of personnel.

According to a July 14 NYT report, only 11 states meet the level of testing considered necessary to mitigate the spread of the virus. Four are near that level, and 35 are far below target.

In the face of the COVID-19 surge, President Donald Trump continues to demand the economy be fully reopened, as it was before the pandemic, while it rages on. This has been his position for the past five months, except for a brief period. However, the economy cannot be fully reopened until the virus is beaten down. That is the only realistic order of events.

Schools not safe

Part of Trump’s demand on the economy is that schools be completely reopened in August-September for the start of the new school year, with students crowded in classrooms, five days a week, as they were before the virus hit.

He is consistent, because the economy cannot be fully reopened until schools are reopened, and working parents freed up to return to work. However, that would also require steps to reopen day care centres, with adequate new safeguards put in place for the safety of the children, including having enough physical space to operate safely.

The CDC issued guidelines for how schools might reopen to keep children and teachers safe from the pandemic. These included keeping desks apart by 1.8 metres, wearing masks, closing communal areas like dining rooms and playgrounds, and installing physical barriers such as plexiglass guards, where necessary.

Trump immediately attacked the guidelines as being too tough and expensive, and demanded they be revised. Initially, it appeared the CDC would do so, but a few days later it said it would stick by its guidelines, adding that they were just suggestions and not orders.

It is true that complying with these guidelines would be expensive. There is simply not enough space in current schools to keep to the 1.8-metre separation guidelines. A vast new school building program would have to be undertaken. This could not be done by the August-September opening Trump wants.

Moreover, the CDC guidelines are just the beginning of what has to be done. For example, most schools don’t have adequate ventilation systems. Educators are considering everything that could and should be done, but it is clear that whatever is necessary would cost many billions of dollars.

Local school systems are not in position to raise such funds, and neither are the states. The only agency that could provide the necessary funds is the federal government, by shaving five or ten billion dollars off its almost one-trillion-dollar military and intelligence budget.

But Trump is adamantly opposed to providing the necessary funds to safely open schools. He insists on cramming students into schools, creating what experts say is a perfect breeding ground for the virus.

Trump dismisses these dangers by trivialising the pandemic. He touts the apparently lower rate of children suffering COVID-19 symptoms, ignoring that they can still infect older people in their families and communities.

He ignores that there is much about this virus we are just learning about. For example, COVID-19 is not just a disease of the lungs, as was first thought, but of other organs and systems as well. Some people survive hospitalisation but have brain damage. Others suffer blood clots that cause strokes and heart attacks.

Some, including children, suffer runaway immune systems that damage other organs.

We just don’t know what all the effects on children are.

Resistance

Will parents send their children to schools they don’t think are safe? Will teachers go into schools that aren’t safe to work in?

Already, some major school districts, including Los Angeles and San Diego in California and Atlanta, Georgia, have rejected Trump’s edict and will hold online classes in August-September. What will Trump do? Send in the army?

Some states with Trumpist governors, such as Florida, say they will force schools to reopen. Will they send in the National Guard?

Some states reduced the spread of the virus by taking necessary steps early on to shut down and to make the wearing of masks in public places mandatory. Some are planning the careful reopening of schools, but as the pandemic rages elsewhere, it could spread, and they may have to retreat.

Trump is threatening to cut federal funding to school districts that do not fully open up, although it is not clear if he has the authority to do this.

Trump also is attempting to force all universities and colleges to open fully without online classes.

He threatened institutions that did not open fully with having their foreign students deported by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There are 1 million foreign students in the US. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took legal action to stop this threat and the Trump administration has since backed down.

Trump knows he can’t just issue a dictatorial decree and the schools will be reopened. Everything Trump is doing and saying is to bolster his white racist base, with a view to attempting to win the November election. In keeping with this, Trump blames the “left” - which, he says, includes the Democrats - for the schools not reopening in the way he wants.

Trump also has stepped up his attacks on the Black Lives Matter upsurge, charging that the protesters are part of a racist hate group, and other slurs. He has stationed armed Department of Homeland Security agents in some states to protect statues of Confederate generals and other figures who fought to preserve slavery in the Civil War.

One such agent, who was guarding a federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, shot a protester in the head with a “non-lethal” weapon, severely injuring them. Oregon’s governor is demanding these agents be removed.

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