As the Trump administration pushes full steam ahead to force schools to resume in-person education, public health experts warn that a one-size-fits-all reopening could drive infection and death rates even higher.
They’re urging a more cautious approach, which many local governments and school districts are already pursuing.
But U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doubled down on President Donald Trump’s insistence that kids can safely return to the classroom.
“There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous,” she told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”
Still, health experts say there are too many uncertainties and variables for back-to-school to be back-to-normal.
Where is the virus spreading rapidly? Do students live with aged grandparents? Do teachers have high-risk health conditions that would make online teaching safest? Do infected children easily spread COVID-19 to each other and to adults?
Regarding the latter, some evidence suggests they don’t, but a big government study aims to find better proof. Results won’t be available before the fall, and some schools are slated to reopen in just a few weeks.
“These are complicated issues. You can’t just charge straight ahead,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday during an online briefing.
Children infected with coronavirus are more likely than adults to have mild illnesses, but their risk for severe disease and death isn’t zero. While a virus-linked inflammatory condition is uncommon, most children who develop it require intensive care, and a few have died. Doctors don’t know which children are at risk.
“The single most important thing we can do to keep our schools safe has nothing to do with what happens in school. It’s how well we control COVID-19 in the community,” Frieden said. “Right now there are places around the country where the virus is spreading explosively and it would be difficult if not impossible to operate schools safely until the virus is under better control.”
Zahrah Wattier teaches high school in Galveston, Texas, where cases and deaths have been spiking. Until the state recently said schools must reopen to in-person classes, her district had been weighing options many others are considering, including full-time online teaching or a hybrid mix.
Wattier’s school has mostly Hispanic and Black students, many from low-income families; almost 70% qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches and many have parents who work in “essential” jobs that increase potential exposure to the virus. Online education was hard for many with limited internet access, and Wattier knows in-person classes can help even the playing field.
But she’s worried.
“My school has over 2,000 students. That’s over 2,000 exposures in a day,” said Wattier, whose parents live with the family and are both high-risk. “It’s a lot to think about. It’s my job. It’s something I choose to do, it’s something I love. Now it comes at a really high risk.’’
The American Academy of Pediatrics, whose guidance the Trump administration has cited to support its demands, says the goal is for all students to be physically present in school. But, it adds, districts must be flexible, consult with health authorities and be ready to pivot as virus activity waxes and wanes.
“It is not that the American Academy of Pediatrics thinks this is a done deal because we have put out guidance,” said Dr. Nicholas Beers, a member of the academy’s school health council. “But what we do know is that we need to have a more realistic dialogue about the implications of virtual learning on the future of children. We have left whole swaths of society behind, whether it’s because they have limited access to a computer or broadband internet” or because of other challenges that online education can’t address.
DeVos said local school officials are smart enough to know when conditions are not right.
“There’s going to be the exception to the rule, but the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall,” she told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“And where there are little flare-ups or hot spots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis.”
Following CDC and academy guidelines would mean big changes for most schools. Mask-wearing would be strongly encouraged for adult staff and students except the youngest. Desks would be distanced at least 3 feet apart; the CDC recommends 6 feet. Both suggest limiting adults allowed in schools, including parents, and canceling group activities like choir and assemblies. Staggered arrival and dismissal times, outdoor classes and keeping kids in the same classroom all day are other options.
President Trump has threatened federal funding cuts for districts that don’t fully reopen.
DeVos defended that stance, saying, “American investment in education is a promise to students and their families.”
“If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called DeVos’ comments “malfeasance and dereliction of duty.”
“The president and his administration are messing with the health of our children,” the California Democrat told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
While most funding typically comes from state and local sources, experts say schools will need more federal funding, not less, to reopen safely. Masks, extra cleaning supplies or janitors, additional classroom space, and mental health support for students and staff traumatized by the pandemic are among potential costs. And with more parents out of work, more children will qualify for federally funded school lunches.
Lynn Morales, 49, teaches eighth-grade English at a high-poverty public school in Bloomington, Minnesota, that is considering several options including in-person classes; a final decision is expected Aug. 1.
Some colleagues are considering not returning to the classroom because their children’s day care centers aren’t reopening. Some say they won’t come back until there’s a vaccine.
“I am concerned and it’s because of the age group,” Morales said. “Middle school students ... are lovely and I love them, but they touch, they get close, they roughhouse. It is their nature. They’re 13 years old. They are defiant.”
“If masks are required and a kid isn’t wearing a mask, is my job description going to be to chase down this kid and insist they wear a mask? And what if they don’t?’’
Dr. Emily Landon, a University of Chicago infectious disease specialist, is helping the university and a campus pre-K-12 school decide how to reopen safely.
“Things are evolving from, ‘We can’t do it unless it’s perfectly safe’ to more of a harm reduction model, with the caveat that you can always step back” if virus activity flares, Landon said.
Single-occupancy dorms, outdoor classes, socially distanced classrooms and mask-wearing by students and faculty are on tap for the university. Face coverings will be required at the school, too. Policies might change depending on virus activity.
She dismisses complaints from some parents who say masks are a loss of personal freedom.
“It’s not harmful for your child,” she said. “If you see wearing masks as a loss of personal freedom, then you have to think the same of pants.”
Dr. Tina Hartert of Vanderbilt University is leading a National Institutes of Health-funded study to determine what role children play in transmitting COVID-19. Almost 2,000 families are enrolled and self-test every two weeks. The idea is to find infected children without symptoms and see how easily disease spreads within families. Results could come by year’s end.
“If we don’t see significant transmission within households, that would be very reassuring,” Hartert said.
She noted that in other countries where schools have reopened, evidence suggests no widespread transmission from children.
In France, public schools reopened briefly before a summer break, with no sign of widespread virus transmission. Masks were only required for upper grades, but students stayed in the same classroom all day. A better test will be when the new school year starts Sept. 1.
In Norway, schools closed in March for several weeks. Nursery schools reopened first, then other grades. Children were put in smaller groups that stay together all day. Masks aren’t required. There have been only a few virus cases, said Dr. Margrethe Greve-Isdahl of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, but she noted virus activity is much lower than in the U.S.
Kati Spaniak, a realtor in Northbrook, Illinois, says her five teenage daughters have struggled to cope with pandemic fears, school closures and deficits of online learning. She strongly supports getting kids back in the classroom, and all her girls will return to some form of that in the fall.
It has been difficult for her high school senior, Kylie Ciesla. Prom, graduation and other senior rituals were canceled, and there were no good-byes.
“Just to get ripped away from everything I’ve worked for 12 years, it’s really hard,” Kylie said.
At college, classes will be in person, masks mandated and a COVID-19 test required before she can move into her dorm. Kylie isn’t sure all that is needed.
“I hate that this thing has become so political. I just want the science. I want to know what we need to do to fix it,” she said.
Public and private groups involved in ARISE, a yearslong revitalization effort of downtown Janesville’s riverfront, plan to use a recent survey to tap ideas other cities are using to boost their downtowns.
Maggie Darr, assistant to City Manager Mark Freitag, said the public-private ARISEnow organization plans to reach out to three of the 19 peer cities that responded to the Downtown Revitalization Survey.
Darr said three cities in particular laid out ideas that might mesh well with revitalization efforts underway in downtown Janesville since the city launched ARISE six years ago.
“ARISEnow has asked the city to set up some follow-up meetings with those three municipalities so that we can dive deeper into some of the programs and strategies that they use,” Darr said.
Darr wouldn’t name the three peer cities because she said the city is still reaching out.
A review of other cities’ downtown strategies dominates the 40-page report the city compiled from the survey, which was conducted earlier this spring by a paid city intern.
ARISEnow, which the city is involved in along with several downtown groups, had suggested conducting the survey.
Cities that responded to the survey provided ideas on how they use public tax incentive programs, grants and private initiatives to identify and execute revitalization efforts in their downtowns.
The city in the survey also analyzed bicycling access, walkability and access to public transit and compared how Janesville stacks.
Overall, the survey shows Janesville ranked near average in scoring for all transportation categories surveyed, although the city ranked fourth of the five communities that had scores registered for biking, walking and transit.
Some strategies other peer cities volunteered in the survey were simple, private-side initiatives.
For instance, Eau Claire private economic development group Downtown Eau Claire, Inc. has commissioned artists to paint murals on sheets of plywood used to cover vacant storefronts.
Other initiatives are more rooted in public policy and the use of tax incentive programs that have been tailored to fit downtown economic development efforts.
Beloit operates a $230,000 “upper-story” grant program that uses tax increment financing to boost rehabs and renovations to upstairs properties above downtown storefronts.
The privately run Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership works to earmark two downtown properties each year for possible reuse. The program focuses on properties that are for sale.
The Fond du Lac group also privately tracks downtown vacancy rates and gauges the proportion of public investment to private investment in the downtown, according to the survey.
Those efforts are in tandem with the city of Fond du Lac’s Downtown Exploratory Committee, which works to identify downtown areas that need improvement.
Sheboygan hosts an annual developers summit focused on downtown, and it has provided “pay-as-you-go” tax incentives for environmental cleanup projects that are required to redevelop downtown parcels, according to the survey.
Darr said that after Janesville meets with the three peer cities, the city and an ARISEnow steering committee likely will review dozens of strategies other cities provided in the survey.
Darr said if the city or ARISEnow seeks to use some of the peer cities’ strategies, it could involve adjusting economic development policies tied to use of tax incentive programs or implementing new programs.
TOWN OF JANESVILLE
A local farmer long involved in the big picture of agriculture was appointed last week to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s policy-setting board.
Gov. Tony Evers appointed Doug Rebout, rural Janesville, to the nine-member citizen board. The Gazette talked with Rebout about the difficult times in farm country, including trade, low prices, farm closures and mental stress.
Rebout is a partner in Roger Rebout & Sons Farms near Janesville, named for his late father. His partners are his mother, Mary Joan, and two brothers, Dan and David.
They work the farm their parents founded in 1963, which has expanded to about 4,200 acres, where corn and soybeans are their major crops along with winter wheat and alfalfa. They also raise beef cattle and heifers for the town of Magnolia dairy operation Larson Acres.
Rebout is the president of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association and a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change.
The Rebouts sold their cows and ended their longtime dairy operation in March because their longtime hired man took another job, it’s hard to find good help and because of the 24/7 stresses of running a dairy farm, Rebout said.
Rebout’s appointment to the nine-member board is for one year, to fill a vacant seat, but it’s likely the governor would appoint him for a full six-year term next year, he said. Appointments are subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
Gazette: What are the top two issues facing Wisconsin farmers today?
Rebout: Prices and mental health, and they go hand in hand.”
Rebout: “The prices we’re getting paid now aren’t a whole lot different than what my dad was getting paid in the ’70s and early ’80s. We are able to produce more with less than he was able to do. We’re getting more milk per cow and more yield per acre on our crops, but it’s not quite making up that whole difference ...
“We’ve had some very good years where it’s been very good for farming ... and farmers know that we’re going to have good years and bad years and years when we basically break even, and we’re prepared for that ... But lately, we consider it the perfect storm between the trade wars, low prices, the weather and now with this pandemic.”
Gazette: How does the coronavirus affect farmers?
Rebout: “It started during spring work. We were out on our tractors in the middle of fields. You can’t get much more isolated than that ...
“But everyone stopped driving, and the ethanol plants stopped producing ethanol. The ethanol plants in Wisconsin took 40% of our corn for the state. You don’t have that corn moving (to market). That’s impacting our prices and ability to move corn and get ready for the fall crop coming in.”
(The 40% is based on sales and doesn’t include corn raised and fed directly to animals)
Gazette: How does all this affect mental health?
Rebout: “It’s something farmers really don’t talk about. Just like anyone else, it’s hard to talk about something like that.”
He noted farmers have always suffered stress, “but this downturn in the economy has been going on so much longer that it’s starting to really affect people.”
Rebout noted farmers have a higher-than-average suicide rate, “And lot of that comes back to the low prices: You can’t pay your bills, support your family, and the possibility of losing the farm that’s been passed down for generations.
”And even if they’re not at that point of suicide, that mental burden on you just kind of wears you down, and you just need someone to talk to, even though it’s hard to go talk to someone.”
The state agriculture department has long had a number people could call for advice, but a 24/7 hotline was instituted July 1 so farmers in crisis can talk to someone immediately, Rebout said.
Gazette: What about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the new trade deal replacing NAFTA, that President Donald Trump’s administration negotiated and went into effect this month?
Rebout: “That one is huge for all of agriculture because when you have a trade agreement in place with your two closest countries—where it’s easiest to transport the goods back and forth—that’s always a good thing ...
“Mexico is right up there as the No. 1 buyer of a lot of agricultural products from Wisconsin and the rest of the country just because of that close proximity.”
Note: The USMCA reportedly opens previously closed doors for dairy products to flow both to and from Canada.
Gazette: Are farmers hopeful?
Rebout: We’ve got that (U.S.-Mexico-Canada) trade agreement. We’ve got the beginning of a trade agreement with China. (He noted most soybeans grown here go to China.)
“For a while, we couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel with the trade deals. Now, we are starting to see the light. Unfortunately, this COVID threw everything up in the air. Right now, it’s unknown what’s going to happen, but at least once we’re done with the COVID, we’ve got some trade deals in place we can build off of.”
Gazette: With so many farmers under economic stress and the continuing loss of farms, what is the future of agriculture in this state? (Wisconsin reportedly lost 465 dairy farms in 2017, 638 in 2018 and 551 in 2019.)
Rebout: “The future of Wisconsin agriculture is strong. It’s $104.8 billion annually to our state economy. We’re here now, and we’re going be here in the future. It’s going to look different.
“You hear of these farms that are selling, the dairy farms. Part of that is due to the economy, and also a big part of it is due to that farmer getting older. He wants to retire. He doesn’t have that next generation that wants to farm, so he has to sell ...
“Some farmers don’t want to sell, but they can’t find help. That’s why you hear about all these farms selling out. It’s not all economic.
“You love seeing those small farms as you drive out through the country, and those small farms are still there ... Is it changing? Yes. You’re starting to see bigger farms ... “You spend $300,000 for a tractor, you want to run that tractor over as many acres as possible to get your money out of it.
“The ones that are selling out, a lot of them are selling their land or renting their land out, and then they’re going to help their neighbor farmer. So, a lot of those people are still farming, just not farming their own stuff anymore.”
Rebout said farmers can’t afford to pay high wages for the help they need.
“When the (Janesville) General Motors plant closed (in 2008), you had a lot of people come out to us looking for jobs, but they wanted the GM hours, the GM benefits, the GM wages, and we can’t do any of that. We don’t have that timeclock where you punch in for eight hours a day, four or five days a week. Sometimes, it’s 16 or 17 hours a day for multiple days in a row ... It’s not a clean job, outside, you’re in the dirt if you’re working with animals. But it is a rewarding job. That’s why we do it.”
Gazette: What do you think about concentrated animal feeding operations (or CAFOs, where thousands of animals live on the same farm)? Can they be sustainable?
Rebout: “I don’t think they’re going to take over ... It’s a small percentage of the farms that are CAFOs here in the state of Wisconsin ...
“Are we going see more of them? Yeah, we probably will because it’s easier for the big farmers ... They have the means of getting the labor. They know what they’re doing. It’s easier for a CAFO than milking 170 cows. It is a sustainable business, and they do a good job.”
Gazette: What about the environmental concerns raised about CAFOs?
Rebout: “I understand those concerns. I have those concerns with our farm. But the bigger the farm, the more regulated you are, the more watched you are, so they have so many safety things in place.
“Can accidents (like manure spills) happen? Yes. But they are prepared for that. You always prepare for the worst thing, hoping you never have to use it.”
Gazette: What would you want city people to know about farming these days that they might not understand?
Rebout: “I don’t think they recognize and realize the amount of equity that we put into the price of our equipment and everything, and just the fact that a lot of people still view farming as the farmer out there with the straw hat and the pitchfork.
“Technology has taken over farming.”
(He noted milking cows involves pushing buttons. All records go to computers. Calves are fed by computer. Tractors run by computer.)
“One of the big fears, and I totally understand people having the fear: We see these big sprayers out in the fields spraying for weeds and bugs. With the technology we have, we are able to use so much less chemicals now than when I was growing up. We’re doing safer stuff for the environment.
”We don’t want to do anything out here that’s going to hurt our land, our water supply, because we are raising our families out here.”
Rebout noted GPS-enabled technologies help farmers spray only what is needed, where it’s needed, with equipment stopping the spraying automatically.
Gazette: What do you hope to accomplish on the DATCP board?
Rebout: “I don’t go onto any board saying, ‘Oh, I need to change this policy.’
“The way I view any board is, it’s going to take me some time to learn and get adjusted ... (He noted the department covers trade and consumer protection, things he needs to learn more about.)
“I just want to advocate for agriculture. I have the knowledge of agriculture. I can be a resource to other members. I can be the voice of reason, just like I’m sure everyone else on the board is.”
Gazette: Have you gotten any good advice about serving on the board?
Rebout: “The only thing people have said to me so far is just go up there and be who I am and just look at things through reasonable eyes, and don’t be afraid to speak up.”
Rebout’s first DATCP Board meeting is Thursday, July 23.
Note: Rebout joins two other DATCP board members with local connections:
Evelyn L. Anderson
Margie Ellen Dary
Brian R. Hickman
Arthur Frank Jelinek
Martha M. Lopez
Eric E. Meredith
Dwight E. Murdy
Donald “Don” Saevre
Tanya E. Stanek
Shirley A. Starks
Eugene Gusthof Strutzenberg
Barbara E. Winston
Steven P. Wnuk