By editorial board • 

Federal dictates on education imperil tailored virus response

One of the thorniest problems posed by the pandemic is when and how to reopen educational institutions on both the K-12 and college levels. Wednesday, President Donald Trump raised the temperature by saying he would pressure governors to reopen schools while threatening to cut funding if schools don’t reopen.

The president’s insistence comes as COVID-19 cases continue an upward trend throughout the nation. He also criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for issuing excessively tough guidelines for school opening.

Everyone wants schools to reopen. School children need the structure, socialization and learning public schools provide, and parents understandably worry about pressures of more required home-learning. However, governors working with state and local education officials also must consider the potential toll on health and human lives if school openings enlarge the pandemic as occurred with relaxed policies in June.

This administration has acted relentlessly and unrealistically optimistic in its assessments of the COVID-19 outbreak, often undermining city, county and state efforts to take necessary but often unpopular precautions.

Much has been said this week about a declining death rate for COVID-19. Few reports cite actual numbers because it is such a moving target with so many new cases diagnosed. Estimates reported range from 0.25 percent to 2 percent and higher.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, leader of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warns against the “false narrative” of comfort over a lower death rate, saying, “There are so many other things that are very dangerous and bad about this virus. Don’t get yourself into false complacency.”

The administration has worked with Congress on packages to ease the financial fallout for businesses grappling with closure and individuals confronting unemployment. And another round of aid should soon be on the way.

Equal attention is needed to assess the latest extent of the crisis and take stern measures in response, ensuring we truly have some shred of victory to claim.

Because of a much later start, earlier end and less stringent approach, the red states of the South and Southwest are now experiencing raging outbreaks of their own. And yet, the administration has launched a two-pronged campaign to pressure schools and colleges into resuming business as usual in the fall.

First, President Trump announced new Immigration and Customs Enforcement rules, set for immediate implementation on an emergency base, requiring 400,000 foreign students to resume their education in an on-site, in-person basis in the fall or face visa revocation and deportation. Never mind that many schools, from Ivy League elites like Harvard to community colleges like Chemeketa, plan to continue relying on distance learning for the time being.

The other shoe dropped when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued a demand that public schools across the land plan on being “fully operational” this fall. That despite uncertainties in locales where COVID-19 is out of control, and the virus has begun infecting children and young adults with much greater frequency.

Earlier this week, Yamhill County reported a single-day record of 16 new cases, 11 involving people under 40 and five people under 20. And to make matters worse, every one of them has a network of family and community ties that could multiply the exposure exponentially.

We need decisions about school openings to be guarded and appropriately tailored to pandemic conditions on the ground. Governors should try to follow federal guidelines, but shouldn’t buckle to mid-summer dictates that may disregard the risks of total opening in the fall.

States and public education systems should welcome constructive federal assistance and leadership in this crisis. But that leadership needs to be in the form of a partnership that considers local conditions and the ultimate safety of Americans whose health and lives would be at risk from unwise responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.