Robert Gehrke: Utah’s school districts don’t need Trump’s threats

Robert Gehrke

Hopefully, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but Delta, Utah, doesn’t have a whole lot in common with Denmark. Germany is vastly different than Genola, Utah, and Norway is nothing like Nephi.

But these subtle nuances are lost on President Donald Trump, who let loose another tirade Wednesday, asserting that because those European countries have reopened schools, then U.S. schools should open, too.

“In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS,” he said in his latest Twitter rant. If U.S. schools balk, he threatened that he, “May cut off funding if not open!”

There is so much wrong with this tweet — and whatever goes on inside the president’s head — that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s start by considering this: According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Germany reported 397 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. Denmark had 10, Norway 6, and Sweden — once a darling of the corona-denying right before it turned into utter carnage — had 283.

Those four countries are home to 105 million people, 33 times the population of Utah. And combined they had 24 fewer cases than Utah reported Wednesday. The Beehive State is one of the 25 worst COVID hotspots, not just in the United States, but on the entire planet.

I know, it sounds crazy, but we should probably not be making national policy decisions based on what is happening an ocean away in Germany or Scandinavia. It’s comparing apples and lutefisk.

And the absolute last thing we need is a president bullying local school districts, threatening to cut off their funding — an act that is almost certainly unlawful — if they don’t disregard local realities and cave to the whims he thinks will help his reelection prospects.

Not only is it dangerously misguided, it goes against those age-old democratic ideals of local governance and federalism, principles the Republican Party claimed to espouse before it jettisoned its principles entirely.

Maybe schools can reopen in the fall. Maybe. It is true that young people are far less likely to die from COVID-19. Of the nearly 1,900 confirmed cases in Salt Lake County residents under the age of 19 — I use the county data because it has an age breakdown that better reflects the school-age population — 22 have been hospitalized, four have landed in intensive care and zero have died.

But think of your teachers when you were in school. They were ancient, some of them in their (gasp) 50s, and those thousands of teachers wouldn’t fare so well.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the former president of the Utah Education Association who now heads the National Education Association, shredded Trump over his push to reopen schools.

“Please, under no circumstances take medical advice from Donald Trump and [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos,” she told CNN, noting that she had 39 sixth graders in her class one year. “It wasn’t healthy before a pandemic. … My classroom was a germ factory. I knew I was going to catch someone’s cold every year. This is different. This is a virus that kills people, and Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are making a mockery of the danger.”

Then there’s the whole matter of what happens when students leave school — the home is the No. 1 place where the disease is spread — and give it to their siblings and parents and grandparents. The consequences of that would be severe, and once again compounded in those underserved, lower-income communities where the disease has already been devastating and the government response lackluster at best.

The reality is that, given the new, bleak COVID-19 records we’re setting almost daily, it’s premature to make any decisions on whether to open schools or not.

But it’s not premature to prepare for the possible contingencies, and that’s what Utah schools are doing, to their credit.

The Utah State Board of Education has sent districts a detailed handbook and checklist of criteria for when they reopen, including enhanced hygiene, training for monitoring symptoms, protocols for quarantining and containing outbreaks, fallback plans in case schools have to close again, and mitigation tactics for specific school settings.

That last part is key, because every school is different. A small school with a few dozen students in rural Utah or a charter school in Tooele is going to be vastly different from Granger High School with more than 3,000 students.

Maybe districts need to stagger classes or increase online offerings to ease congestion. In Germany, older students went back first because they were more capable of exercising social distancing and mask-wearing.

(A side note: The state school board’s guidance falls short on mask-wearing. Faculty are required to wear masks; students are “encouraged” to wear masks during class breaks or in the cafeteria or restrooms. Hopefully here, too, local control favors stricter mask use.)

Back in March, when the pandemic was ramping up, I encouraged everyone to ignore the nonsense coming out of the White House. Since then it has only gotten worse. Everything the president has done — from predicting the virus will miraculously disappear, to peddling bogus remedies, to promising an economic resurrection by Easter, to disparaging the use of face coverings, to bullying states to reopen schools — has been factually incorrect, harmful to the country, ignored scientific and medical evidence, and served only his divisive political purposes.

The president, in short, needs to butt out. Our state and local leaders have made mistakes, and it’s true they don’t have all the right answers. But if we end up with the wrong ones, we’re capable of getting there on our own.

Return to Story