At Hearing, Witnesses Warn Reopening Schools Without Containing Virus Is “A Recipe, Not Just For Disaster, But For Death”

Aug 7, 2020
Press Release

Washington, D.C. (Aug. 7, 2020) — Yesterday, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn, held a remote hearing with former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and education and public health professionals to examine the challenges to safely reopening K-12 schools during the coronavirus pandemic. 


Chairman Clyburn said at the hearing, “If my colleagues are serious about getting kids back to school safely, I would ask that you join me in demanding federal leadership to contain the virus instead of wishing ‘it will go away,’ as the President said.  We have to make it go away.”


The witnesses urged schools to follow the science, not politics, when deciding how to safely educate children in the coming school year: 


  • Secretary Duncan explained the failure to control the virus has made in-person school more risky:  “If we can’t test accurately and quickly, and get those results back, if we can’t contact trace, if we can’t quarantine, we cannot open schools.  It is not safe to do that.  And that’s a recipe, not just for disaster, but for death.” 


  • Dr. Caitlin RiversSenior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, testified:  “Above all, the most important factor in determining whether schools can safely reopen is the prevalence of the disease in the community.  Communities with a lot of virus circulating will have a tougher time reopening safely than places where things are under better control.”   


  • Angela Skillings, a second-grade teacher in Gila County, Arizona, described the death of her co-teacher from the coronavirus and her own experience recovering from the disease:  “Our students have expressed to me how they were concerned that even I would pass away, and that right there’s emotionally damning.  If we bring them into the classroom, and somebody passes away, how is that going to affect them?”


  • Robert Runcie, Superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, testified about his district’s remote learning efforts, stating, “Our buildings, they may be closed, but education is still open.” 


The hearing follows Chairman Clyburn’s letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, demanding that she rescind the threat to cut funding from schools that do not reopen in-person during the pandemic.  At the hearing, both Republicans and Democrats agreed schools need flexibility to reopen safely based on local conditions. 


The witnesses provided the following additional testimony:


Schools Should Follow the Science, Not Politics


  • Sec. Duncan: “This pandemic doesn’t know political party.  . . . And for all of our children, and not just our children, for their parents, for their grandparents, for our teachers, like Angela [Skillings] and her colleagues, for them to be safe, we have to do the right thing here.”
  • Mr. Runcie:  Asked by Rep. Kim whether his school district is using remote learning for political reasons, he responded: “Absolutely not.  I can tell you that my school board, this administration, our entire community has been working day and night, seven days a week, trying to figure out how we can open schools. . . . That’s not feasible because of what’s going on in the community.”
  • Ms. Skillings:  “I think about the emotional impact of our students, and them not being in the classroom.  I also think about the impact of them losing Miss Byrd.  She was here for 38 years.  She was my son’s teacher for second and third grade.  She was a dear colleague, a mentor, and a friend.” 


Schools Can Drive Community Spread


  • Sec. Duncan:  “Unfortunately, our schools are not islands.  They don’t have bubbles wrapped around them.  Our schools reflect our communities.  And as we have seen across the country, schools have tried to start to reopen in the past week or two.  In some cases, they have had cases of the coronavirus literally on the first day that they opened.” 
  • Ms. Skillings:  “I can tell you, after teaching for 7 years in 2nd grade, students pass around everything.  They share, they talk and hug.  They are kids, kids who haven’t seen each other in over 5 months.  Kids who have been sheltered and with siblings and parents.  Once we open the classrooms, they are going to be all over one another, hugging and sharing stories.” 
  • Dr. Rivers:  “There have been a number of countries that have reopened where reopening has not gone well.  In Israel, for example, schools were reopened in May and led to the acceleration of the outbreak in the community, and so they had to close down again.  And I think that’s a cautionary tale for what may happen if you do reopen when there is a lot of virus circulating.”


Schools Need Federal Funding and a National Plan to Contain the Virus


  • Sec. Duncan:  “We have lacked discipline, we have lacked the willingness to listen to science, we have lacked the willingness to invest in our communities, we have not socially distanced, we have chosen to open bars rather than to be able to start school on time.”
  • Mr. Runcie:  “I ask our leaders to put in place national and state plans that include effective testing, contact tracing, and ensuring that school districts have access to PPE.  At the beginning of this pandemic, because there was not a national plan in place to assist schools, our procurement officer was forced to purchase PPE out of someone’s car trunk.  School districts shouldn’t have to fend for themselves.”
  • Ms. Skillings:  “Schools also need more funding.  We are underfunded already.  I do thank our government for what you have sent to our state already.  The amount of money our district received was used to purchase supplies to make our classrooms safer, such as plexiglass and disinfectant.” 



116th Congress