Why the Trump Administration Is Trying to Force Students Back to School

Here are some things that happened on July 6, that we need to understand as part of the same story if we don’t want to miss what is going on:

  • 9:25 AM: Rutgers University announces that it will teach most of its classes online in the fall.
  • 10:37 AM: Harvard University announces that it will teach only online classes.
  • 11:46 AM: Princeton University announces that it will teach only online classes online in the fall.
  • 1:40 PM: Donald Trump tweets, in all caps, SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!
  • 5:10 PM: The Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announces that any international student whose university moves to an all-online format must transfer to another school or return home or risk being deported.

Everything about the wording of this new announcement is calculated to force universities to make decisions that ignore serious threats to public health. Many universities depend on international students — more than a million of them in the United States as a whole — for a significant portion of their revenue. Most of these students are already here and — because of the failure of the United States to contain COVID-19 — will not be able to return home without long quarantine periods during which they would not be able to take online courses.

And the regulations take the unprecedented step of telling students to transfer to another college if their college goes online or else they will face deportation. Such directions send a clear message to universities who rely on revenue from international students: “Nice college you got there. Sure be a shame if something was to happen to it. Yeah, a real shame.” Those of us who work for universities with strong international ties heard the message loud and clear.

This new policy announcement was followed on Tuesday by Betsy DeVos’s announcement that no schools at any level would be able to open part-time in the fall. With no particular authority to make such an announcement, she told governors that “all schools must be “‘fully operational’ even amid the coronavirus pandemic.” On Wednesday, Trump followed this announcement up with a threat to withhold funding from schools that do not open on schedule.

With the dots all laid out like this, it is easy to see what is going on: the Trump Administration is using every lever at its disposal to try to force schools to be 100% open in the fall. This is neither effective leadership nor election year politics-as-usual; it is a hostage drama with the safety of our children and the health of our communities on the line.

In making these policies, Trump and DeVos are flatly ignoring their own public health officials, who insist that decisions about reopening should be made at the local level depending on the local conditions. Governors, mayors, and local school boards have the responsibility of assessing conditions in their areas and making the best decision that they can for the health of their students. The Administration is doing everything it can to take this power away.

Why? Because the Trump 2020 Campaign has concluded that the only way that the president can be re-elected is for Americans to become desensitized to COVID-related deaths. As long as things are closed, and schools are out of session, and people are staying home from work, then America will have daily reminders that we are in the midst of a pandemic that has fundamentally changed our lives. Trump, who has been steadfast in pretending that COVID-19 is no big deal, needs to rest of us to play along— because, if the election becomes a referendum on Trump’s handling of the biggest crisis of his presidency, he will lose.

This is what the polls are telling him, and the rest of us. For most of the year, Trump’s overall approval rating has tracked his approval rating for handling the pandemic almost exactly. Currently, his overall approval rating stands at 40.6%, and his approval rating for handling the coronavirus at 39.5. Both numbers are the lowest they have been all year. A significant portion of American voters have already concluded that the President seriously mishandled the virus outbreak, and that is not going to change. Trump is trying to force schools to open in the fall for the same reason that he tries to hold large rallies, cuts funding for testing, and refuses to wear a mask in public: to win re-election, he must convince Americans to join in his delusion that COVID-19 is not an issue.

But it remains an issue. Cases are increasing at staggering numbers, setting new records every day. Death rates are low now, but they will not remain low as the infections move from the younger people who are contracting it now to their older, more vulnerable relatives and friends. And, while universal face coverings could dramatically slow the spread of the virus, the same president who has staked his re-election on forcing Americans back into public places has refused to cover his face in public and made it clear to his supporters that masks are a sign of weakness.

When the COVID-19 virus first hit the United States, our president referred to it as a Democratic hoax. When governors of both parties took steps to mitigate its worst effects, the President encouraged protests against them. As the virus was claiming more than 130,000 American lives, the President said that he was doing “a fantastic job.” And now, as we face a resurgence with the potential to dwarf the first wave of cases and deaths, our President is doing everything in his power to remove autonomy from cities, states, school boards, and universities and force a national re-opening at any cost.

When do we say “enough”?

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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