Photo courtesy Protect Our Public Schools
Photo courtesy Protect Our Public Schools

A mobile billboard is calling attention to the dangers in the Trump Administration’s plan to force all schools to resume in-person instruction, and is driving to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ house.

HOLLAND, MI — A mobile billboard bound for Holland entered Michigan Monday morning, asking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, “How many of our lives will you and your boss risk forcing schools to reopen?”  

The billboard, produced by Michigan nonprofit Protect Our Public Schools, is bound for Holland to protest at DeVos’ summer mansion. 

“We are talking about children, teachers, and families getting sick — or even dying,” said Ellen Offen, vice president of Protect Our Public Schools, to The ‘Gander. “We can’t make rash decisions — like forcing all schools to reopen without a plan for safely doing so — when it could mean thousands more dead.” 

Michigan school districts need to have their reopening plans submitted by Aug. 15, despite great uncertainty about what will be required of them. While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has required flexible plans that can adapt to different stages of the pandemic, Michigan Republicans have pushed for in-person instruction with distance learning days. Both those plans are more responsive to the pandemic than DeVos and President Trump, who have insisted on in-person education for all students nationwide. 

Protect Our Public Schools is calling on the administration to provide coherent guidance on safe reopening strategies, and allowing schools the flexibility to resume online-only instruction if that is what is safest for them. 

“Secretary DeVos has provided no meaningful guidance for how schools can safely reopen,” Offen, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher, said. “She’s done little to ensure schools have the personal protective equipment, testing kits, nurses, infrastructure, and resources they need. And now, Secretary DeVos and President Trump want to force schools to reopen regardless of the dangers their decisions pose to the lives of our children, teachers, and families.”

Schools Left to Chart Their Own Course

While at the state level, the conflicting plans proposed by both Gov. Whitmer and Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature are more developed than the federal response, both plans rely on federal financial support for schools which, as Patch reported, has yet to materialize. 

“No matter how good those plans are, school districts are facing an uphill battle, not just because of the uncertain nature of this virus, but because of the funding shortfalls that make it difficult to meet the challenges associated with returning our students and staff to school safely,” Rochester Schools Superintendent Robert Shaner said to Patch.

That shortfall is partially resulting from the way Secretary DeVos diverted funds from the funding of public schools provided by coronavirus relief legislation toward private, charter, and religious schools. It also is partially a result of decades of critical underfunding of public education. 

And though they can’t actually unilaterally defund education, Trump and DeVos have threatened to cut funds to schools that don’t comply with the orders to resume in-person instruction. That in-person instruction dramatically increases the likelihood that the pandemic will worsen, and people will die, in the coming months. 

Dissecting Reopening Strategy

For their part, educators have been open to taking on the challenge of developing a reopening plan. But, for the most part, they haven’t been consulted

Not only do most studies show that children do contract and transmit the disease, but teachers and staff will be exposed to the coronavirus as well when teaching in-person. This has left schools to try and assess risk on their own, absent federal support, either in guidance or financially. And some of the differences between even neighboring school districts are stark.

One example is Grosse Pointe schools, which will not resume in-person education despite their neighbor, Detroit, having already done so. 

“The [Detroit] community has expressed concerns about how it is and why it is that the Grosse Pointe schools already said they’re gonna shut down but in the same vicinity, right across the street, Detroit Public Schools are opening and operating,” said former Detroit school board member LaMar Lemmons. “Are our students being used as guinea pigs?”

Lemmons pointed to the fact that much better funded industries, like sports franchises, have struggled with the pandemic. Schools, operating on a shoestring by comparison, are far from ready to combat the pandemic. Even well-funded private schools, like those attended by Trump’s youngest son, have declined to resume in-person education in the fall.

This is even worse in Detroit, which has held a case fatality rate far higher than the national average throughout the pandemic. 

The billboard passed through Detroit Monday, where students are already attending summer school classes in person.