MIA: Where’s the Department of Education?

Emma Butler, Staff Columnist

Back in 2015, then-FBI director James Comey testified before Congress and revealed the shocking lack of federal data about police shootings in the United States. “I cannot tell you how many people were shot by police in the United States last month, last year,” he said. How can we expect our government to solve a problem they don’t even care enough about to track the numbers on? From the disappearances of Indigenous girls and women to police shootings and gun violence, federal tracking is lacking or completely absent. We are treating coronavirus outbreaks in schools the same way. And just like all those issues, low-income children and children of color will suffer the worst consequences.   

It has been the question that has plagued the United States from the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic: where is our government? Nowhere is the lack of federal leadership clearer than the Department of Education. As schools and colleges have reopened across the country, Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, is nowhere to be found. Every school, college and state has been left to figure it out on their own. This has led to a patchwork of different policies between, and even within, the states. 

Alabama, along with eight other states, is apparently tracing coronavirus outbreaks in K-12 schools but not releasing that data to the public. Other states, like Florida, attempted to force all school districts to open for Monday-Friday instruction. This was later struck down by the courts. Most states are instead leaving the decision up to individual school districts. Within the state, there have been completely virtual starts such as in Mobile County Schools, completely in-person starts in Tuscaloosa County Schools (which reported twenty-nine students and less than ten faculty/staff members who tested positive during the first two weeks), and school districts that are trying to do both – like the ever-dysfunctional Huntsville City Schools, which first opted for a virtual start, then reversed course and opted for in-person instruction starting at the end of September. Despite hundreds of children and teachers across the state having to quarantine after testing positive, the outbreaks do not seem severe. But without a statewide database, the true severity of the outbreaks across the state are hard to determine.

One place outbreaks are being tracked substantially better are colleges and universities. Since classes started Aug. 19, the University has reported more than 2,000 positive cases of COVID-19 among students. It remains one of, if not the biggest, outbreak at a college. Other universities in Alabama aren’t looking so hot either; Auburn reported over 500 cases in a week while Jacksonville State University and the University of South Alabama have both posted more than 100 cases. But again, since there is no statewide or federal tracking of cases, we are left to rely on the individual colleges to decide if, and how often, they will reveal case numbers.     

Now the question is why? Why is this such a catastrophe? Well, first the blame goes to President Donald Trump for his myriad of failures to contain the virus. However, even in countries that have had exponentially better responses, reopening schools has been a tall order. While there is plenty of blame to be put on UA’s administration (looking at you, Dr. Bell), I would argue the most blame should be placed on the U.S. Department of Education and Betsy DeVos. 

They never should have left the decision up to individual universities. College is all about the money. Considering the way we have underfunded public higher education in this country, it is no surprise most opted to return to classes. They need the tuition money. What we needed from Betsy DeVos were clear guidelines. Clear requirements for the statewide and community positivity rates needed to reopen. Clear requirements on how often students, teachers and staff need to be tested. We needed grants and funding for schools to buy masks, tests, plexiglass, and enhanced air filtration technology. We needed money to expand broadband capabilities and buy electronic devices to support schools that are virtual learning. 

What we got was an unconstitutional effort to funnel money away from public schools to fund private, mostly religious, schools. We needed an education secretary who cares deeply about American schools and American children. What we got was a cruel woman who holds a deep disdain for public education and the students it serves. Back in 2018, we all had a nice laugh when Betsy DeVos’s yacht was set adrift (The yacht was fine). But little did we know, DeVos must have stowed the federal leadership of the Department of Education in the brig. Because it’s nowhere to be found.