'I'm not sure there's a role at the department to collect and compile that research,' Trump's education secretary said Tuesday.
At a Milken Institute event Tuesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said it's not her department's job to keep track of school reopenings across the country — or to collect data on school districts' coronavirus infection rates.
DeVos said "the data is there for those who want it," citing state and local databases on school reopenings.
She added: "I'm not sure there's a role at the department to collect and compile that research."
It's a perplexing position for the Education Secretary to take, given her dogged efforts to reopen schools in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, DeVos visited a school in Phoenix, Arizona, to honor its efforts during the pandemic. At least 23 schools in the county have reported coronavirus outbreaks since August — 21 of which are still ongoing.
One Phoenix-area high school was forced to close last week after three people tested positive for the virus, sending hundreds of students and staff into quarantine.
As the virus continues to wreak havoc on Arizona, DeVos commended Republican Gov. Doug Ducey for his response to the pandemic.
"Every school building and district have protocols in place, so many of them are offering in-person instruction again, and that’s important for kids," DeVos said.
In light of the Trump administration's failure to implement federal tracking, national groups representing school leadership have had to step in to try to fill the gap.
The groups have compiled their own public database with data on infection rates and reopening plans from nearly 2,000 schools. One group is the American Association of School Administrators, which represents the country's superintendents.
Noelle Ellerson Ng is the AASA's associate executive director of policy and advocacy. She said the administration's failure to track virus cases in schools is a "significant missed opportunity" that represents "a continued lack of leadership."
She emphasized the importance of tracking the virus across school districts in order to slow its spread.
"We all want schools open," Ng said, but "they won't be able to really open unless we have a better grasp of COVID rates in schools."
Instead of getting support from the federal government to stop the virus' spread, school leaders are being forced to push back against recalcitrance and misinformation.
In August, DeVos blamed an unnamed "coordinated effort" for parents being afraid to send their kids back to school.
She claimed parents were being accosted by a "campaign" to "continue to sow fear" — without specifying who these nefarious actors are.
"And yet, when you look at facts and when you look at the science, we know that the important thing for kids is to be able to get back into school, into their classrooms, back with their peers, back with their teachers, and learning in person," DeVos said.
In July, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said it's important for communities to take steps to stop the spread of the virus so that schools can reopen safely.
However, he also noted that school closures might be necessary for areas facing a "substantial, uncontrolled" outbreak.
The Harvard Global Health Institute has cautioned that schools should only reopen if a county consistently had fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 people.
Schools where mask wearing and social distancing aren't enforced have become a petri dish of infection.
In August, a school district in Georgia was forced to close after photos of maskless students standing close together went viral. More than 826 students and 42 staff were forced to quarantine after several people in the district tested positive for the virus.
DeVos has continued to push for school reopening despite such outbreaks, going as far as spreading false information about how the virus spreads.
In July, DeVos made two bogus claims arguing that the virus doesn't affect children, and that children are actually "stoppers" of the virus. Both of these claims are false.
"More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves," DeVos said in July. "The default should be getting back to school kids in person, in the classroom."
More than 277,000 children contracted the virus between March 1 and Sept. 19, according to the CDC. Fifty-one school-aged children died from the virus during the same time period.
The Trump administration has repeatedly rejected federal health experts' guidelines for reopening schools safely.
DeVos socially distanced herself from her job in Washington while pushing for schools to reopen. Over the summer, DeVos worked remotely from her sprawling, waterfront estate in Grand Rapids, Michigan — complete with a taxpayer-funded security detail.
Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to tie reopening to federal school funding — an agenda DeVos supports.
"For students and their families, they can’t be held captive to other people’s fears or agendas," DeVos said in August. "We have got to ensure that families and parents have options that are going to work for their child."
Statements like these have had a direct impact on public safety. A Brookings Institute study found that school reopenings had little to do with testing numbers and more to do with politics. The study found that schools in areas where Trump was popular were more likely to be open for in-person instruction five days a week.
In June, DeVos told the Washington Examiner she was passing the time at her Michigan summer home by taking walks and bike rides, and completing jigsaw puzzles.
"I like the challenge," DeVos told the conservative newspaper. "Yeah, it’s a fun thing to see all those pieces together and actually have something finished and completed."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.