- Dr. Leana Wenemergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. She previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.
As the world and the United States shatter the daily records of COVID-19 infections, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos continue to push for public schools to reopen in the fall without a plan to adhere to CDC guidelines. “We need to be doing this safely,” responds emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen. “We’ve already seen what happens when we use shortcuts.” Meanwhile, the White House continues to attack the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Wen says, “I fear that at this point we are not even seeing the peak of this epidemic.”
AMY GOODMAN: As the world and United States shatter the daily records of COVID-19 infections, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are continuing to push for public schools to reopen in the fall, despite concerns from educators and public health officials. They’ve also vowed to cut off federal funding for public schools that do not reopen.
DeVos is a longtime advocate for privatizing the public school system. In an interview Sunday, CNN’s Dana Bash questioned DeVos about the Trump administration, how it could safely reopen schools amidst the pandemic.
DANA BASH: You’re the secretary of education. You’re asking students to go back. So, why do you not have guidance on what a school should do, just weeks before you want those schools to reopen? And what happens if it faces an outbreak?
EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: You know, there’s really good examples that have been utilized in the private sector and in — and elsewhere, also with frontline workers in hospitals. And all of that data and all of that information and all of those examples can be referenced —
DANA BASH: I’m not —
EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: — by school leaders, who have — who have the opportunity —
DANA BASH: OK, but I’m not hearing a plan from the Department of Education. Do you have a plan —
EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: But — but the — the plan —
DANA BASH: — for what students and what schools should do?
EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: So, schools should do what’s right on the ground at that time for their students and for their situation. There is no one uniform approach that we can take or should take nationwide. …
DANA BASH: But you are arguing, over and over, that they should handle this on a local level, but at the same time, as the secretary of education, you are trying to push them to do a one-size-fits-all approach, which is go back and reopen schools. You can’t have it both ways.
EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: I am urging all schools to be — to open and to providing their students a full-time education.
AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts tweeted in response to DeVos, quote, “you have no plan. … I wouldn’t trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child,” she said.
This comes as the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers are calling on Congress for more funds to help schools to purchase personal protective equipment, as well as new ventilation systems and cleaning equipment. A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds nearly one-and-a-half million teachers are at risk of serious illness if infected with COVID-19. In Arizona, three teachers who shared a summer classroom at a school all contracted coronavirus last month. One of them, Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, died at the age of 61.
Last week, Trump lashed out at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying the CDC’s guidelines on safely reopening schools was “very tough and expensive.” Hours later, the CDC announced it would revise its guidelines, which call for staggered scheduling, new seating arrangements to encourage social distancing, the use of face coverings and the closing of communal spaces.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We hope that most schools are going to be open. We don’t want people to make political statements or do it for political reasons. They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so the keep the schools closed. No way. So we’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open. And 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 open your schools in the fall.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on all of this, we’re joined by Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician, public health professor at George Washington University. She previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner. She’s also a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. Her recent piece is headlined “If Trump wants to reopen schools, here’s what his administration needs to do.”
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Dr. Wen. What does Trump have to do? What is the Trump administration not doing as it demands all schools reopen and that they will cut federal funding for public schools if they don’t?
DR. LEANA WEN: Well, this is the thing: I agree, and I think every American agrees, with the goal of reopening schools, just as we would agree with the goal of reopening the economy. The key, though, is we need to be doing this safely. In fact, we’ve already seen what happens when we use shortcuts and go against public health guidance in reopening. We’re now seeing these massive surges occurring in multiple parts of the country.
And frankly, it’s very strange when you hear that, “Well, if we cannot meet these guidelines, that are evidenced-based, so the answer is to change the guidelines.” That’s not right. It should be the opposite. If we’re unable to meet the guidelines for safe reopening, then we need to put in the hard work so that we can actually meet these guidelines and ensure the safety of our students and teachers and staff and their families. It’s not to go back and change the guidelines. It’s to do the work.
And to your point, the single most important thing that we can do right now in order to ensure safe reopening of schools in the fall is to reduce the level of coronavirus in the communities, because there’s no way that you can keep a school safe from coronavirus if the virus is raging out of control where the school is in the community. We have multiple parts of the country where one in a hundred people have COVID-19. So, if you have a school of a thousand people, on day one, you’re going to have 10 people in that school who have COVID and don’t know that they have it. That’s outbreaks that’s going to happen on day one.
And so, we as a society need to think through our priorities. If the priority, if the goal is to reopen schools in the fall, maybe we should keep bars and restaurants and nightclubs closed in the summer.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the superintendent of schools for Fairfax County in north Virginia, one of the largest school districts in the country. The district plans to have students return to schools just two days a week and have remote learning the rest of the week. He explained to CNN how schools in his area were planning to reopen in the fall and was viciously attacked by Betsy DeVos.
SCOTT BRABRAND: So, you’re in a classroom now where we’ve spaced apart desks at six feet. We’re going to have PPE for all of our teachers and students. And we are going to have a return to school and a new normal. …
COVID doesn’t discriminate based on wealth or poverty. COVID hits all of us. And the guidelines for six-feet social distancing simply mean that you can’t put every kid back in a school with the existing square-footage footprint. It’s just that simple. … We are the size of five Pentagons. You would need another five Pentagons of space to be able to safely accommodate all of the students in Fairfax County Public Schools.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Wen, that’s the superintendent of the Fairfax schools. The Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attacked him in her news conference last week, attacked his plan. Talk about what it means to reopen when, increasingly, tests are not available. As we see in places like Texas and Arizona, people are waiting 10 hours on line to get a test. President Trump has signaled he wants fewer tests, because he thinks it makes him look bad. How you have a sane public health-based program, where you can’t figure out who’s sick, and then people, once again, do not have enough access to personal protective gear?
DR. LEANA WEN: Yeah. So, I’ve spoken to school administrators and teachers across the country, who are trying their best. I mean, they are balancing some incredibly complex factors, including they’re trying to follow the CDC guidelines for physical distancing and for PPE, for ventilation. They’re also trying to take into account the needs of students with special needs, who may depend on the school for lunch and may depend on the school for a place for safety, combined with the real health risks of students and teachers and their family members. They’re trying their best.
And really, what the Trump administration should be doing is to support them in this, not shame them or threaten them with loss of funding. All of these things, like changing bus routes, having schools be open different hours, spacing out these desks, buying new equipment, that all will cost funding. And we really should be putting in the work and putting in the resources to help schools reopen.
And also, you mentioned about testing. I can’t believe that it’s now July, and we’re still talking about the need for a national strategy around testing. When we look at other countries that have been successful in suppressing the level of COVID-19, they have one thing in common, which is that they have a national coordinated strategy. They don’t just let different regions and different states and cities figure it out on their own. They don’t have different areas compete against one another for things like masks and other PPE.
And I also cannot believe that we are at this point again. Back in March, you and I talked about how doctors and nurses on the frontlines don’t have enough masks and gowns and are begging their friends over social media in order to try to get that extra mask so that they don’t get infected from their patients. I can’t believe that we’re facing the same situation once again. And this all comes from not having a national strategy, and also, unfortunately, having this really confused and mixed messaging coming out from this White House, that instead of using science and evidence to make their decisions, they’re making it based on ideology and partisanship. And that has — politics has no role in a public health response.
AMY GOODMAN: You then have President Trump yesterday, for one of the first times, wearing a mask in public at Walter Reed Hospital. He said it was appropriate to wear in a hospital, though he didn’t previously, sort of marching down the hall with a group of military men. And then he is seen talking to some of them with the mask under his nose.
DR. LEANA WEN: Yeah, I mean, it’s a strange state of affairs that we’re in, for lack of better words, when we’re trying to commend the president or anyone for wearing a mask, which is something that all public health experts advise, when the evidence is so clear at this point, in the middle of a pandemic. I mean, that should be a baseline of what we’re talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go —
DR. LEANA WEN: I mean, I really need to hear — mm-hmm?
AMY GOODMAN: Talking about the importance of leadership, go ahead, Dr. Wen.
DR. LEANA WEN: No, I think it’s just really important that the president and all of our elected leaders model good public health behavior, because, like it or not, there are millions of Americans for whom the president is the most trusted messenger. And he needs to model the behavior that he wants all Americans to have. And at this point, that is universal mask wearing. That is staying six feet away from others, because, at this point, it is our own actions that will make a difference in saving lives.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, who has said schools must reopen in the fall. This is the Florida governor — Florida, the single-day largest spike, larger than the total number of infections in a number of countries combined, over 15,000 yesterday. This is the governor.
GOV. RON DESANTIS: If you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools. I want our kids to be able to minimize this education gap that I think has developed. …
It should not be a political issue. It should be based on the facts. And if we see that this is very low-risk and we see, I think, overwhelmingly, in every study, that the schoolkids are not vectors of transmission…
AMY GOODMAN: Despite the pleading of many in Florida, he refuses to impose a lockdown or mask requirement statewide. Can you talk about the significance of what’s happening in Florida and in the world, the largest day single spike not only in Florida, but in the world yesterday?
DR. LEANA WEN: Yeah. As a country right now, we are in a worse position than we were back in March. And I feel terrible saying it, but this is the truth. Back in March, we saw the number of cases skyrocketing, but it was focused on what epicenter in the New York area. Now we have multiple epicenters of outbreaks — in Florida, Texas, California. Now we’re seeing the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia. I mean, there are many areas that are raging out of control. And unlike back in March, we don’t have a shelter-in-place order. We have no political appetite, as we just heard, for anything even approaching, even requesting people to stay at home, avoiding indoor gatherings, while we’re having everyone require masks. And I fear that at this point we are not even seeing the peak of this epidemic, and we have a lot more pain and suffering and death coming our way.
And against this backdrop, we’re seeing these same governors and elected officials ask for schools to reopen. And they’re using, I think, actually, faulty arguments in so doing. The evidence is still out, and we don’t know the full evidence, about whether children can be just as effective vectors for transmissions as adults do. We do know that children tend to get much less sick than adults, although some children do get very ill, and some children do die.
And the studies that are currently being done, we’re looking at examples from other countries. Other countries have been able to successfully reopen schools, but here’s why. They’ve been able to crush the curve. They didn’t just bend the curve; they crushed the curve. They reduced the level of infection to virtually zero. And at the same time, they were able to ramp up testing and really have a national strategy and clear communication. So, yes, they have been able to reopen schools safely, although even in other countries there have been outbreaks around schools, too.
The single most important thing, again, that we can do in order to reopen schools in the fall is to suppress the level of virus right now, in the summer. And I’m afraid that we are not doing that consistently across the country, by a long stretch.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Dr. Leana Wen, the president retweeting the former host of Love Connection today, saying the CDC is lying, and the White House putting out bullet points of opposition research on Dr. Anthony Fauci?
DR. LEANA WEN: Public health depends on public trust. And everyone, from our elected leaders to community leaders to everyone, should be doing their best in order to improve that public trust. And that public trust also depends on knowing that everyone has your best interest at heart.
And I’m really — I mean, I think it’s really tragic that there’s any undermining of Dr. Fauci or our other public health experts. They are some of the best in the country, some of the best in the world. And what I want, more than anything, is to hear from Dr. Fauci. I want to hear from the CDC every day. Imagine how amazing it would be for the country, for our morale but also for our understanding, if we had daily briefings by public health experts, because, after all, this is a public health crisis, that should be led by public health experts, and we need to hear their voices every day. I want to hear Dr. Fauci talking about the state of the outbreak. I want to hear him and the CDC summarize the latest research and what it is that America should be doing. I want to hear them talking about school guidelines, and not hearing from political officials pontificate about when schools should open. I want to hear the evidence and the science. And that’s what should be happening at this time.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Dr. Wen, you’re the mother of two. Now, they’re not quite old enough to be in the public schools, but would you send them?
DR. LEANA WEN: You know, it depends on the part of the country. There are some parts of the country where the virus is currently under control. And it would also depend on the health and the risk factors of my children and everybody else in my immediate family, as well. So, it’s not a blanket, one-size-fits-all answer. I agree with that. But we do need to have basic guidance and meet the science- and evidence-based guidelines for when it’s safe, in order to protect our children, as well as our students and — or, as well as our teachers and staff.
My mother was a longtime teacher in Los Angeles. She had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy for eight years while she was a teacher, while she taught full-time. And I know that if she were alive now, she would have wanted, more than anything, to be back in school with her kids. But we also have an obligation as a society to protect the health of our teachers, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Leana Wen, I want to thank you for being with us, emergency physician, previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner, also contributing columnist for The Washington Post. We’ll link to her piece, “If Trump wants to reopen schools, here’s what his administration needs to do.”
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Bloomington, Indiana, to speak with an African American member of the Human Rights Commission of Monroe County. He describes surviving an attempted lynching on Independence Day weekend. Has anyone been arrested? Stay with us.