‘I’m So Furious’: Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan on America’s Dismal COVID-19 Response

Arne Duncan is not optimistic about the fall. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Shutterstock

Few questions loom larger for millions of Americans than what, exactly, school will look like for their children in the fall. California’s two largest school districts announced on Monday that they would start the year online only, joining New York City — which is expected to try a hybrid system, with some students in classrooms and some learning from home — in acknowledging that the coronavirus pandemic would prevent them from fully reopening. The debate is underpinned by the lack of conclusive science about the coronavirus’s effects on children, but it has also taken on a political dimension in recent weeks, as Donald Trump tries desperately to turn it into a culture-war-style campaign issue. Barack Obama’s first Education secretary, Arne Duncan, who now works at the Emerson Collective on an initiative to help young Chicagoans, isn’t optimistic about the fall as long as virus cases continue spiking in states like Texas and Florida. Intelligencer spoke with Duncan about how districts and schools can build plans to protect their most vulnerable students, even if their classmates won’t be returning to the classrooms anytime soon.

We’re now at a point where we can look at other countries that have handled school reopening in a variety of ways and try to draw some lessons on what’s working or not. So let’s start with a simple question: Is anyone doing it right?
I haven’t studied every country, but what you’re seeing with schools abroad is a little bit like what you’re seeing here with states: When people try to do too much too fast, it doesn’t work. When people ease into it, that seems to work. And that logically makes sense. I’m not an epidemiologist, but the goal here is slow and steady, not fast and furious. The goal is not to open but to stay open.

There are countries that have done a much better job of beating down the number of cases in communities. This is not about what schools can do; this is about what we can do as communities to give schools a chance to open. And so where we’re seeing success in other places, that’s not necessarily because schools are doing a better job — it’s because the country is doing a better job.

How about here, then? Have you seen any districts’ schooling plans that actually make you think they’re at least being reasonable about the fall?People are being unbelievably thoughtful at the local level. The lack of leadership at the federal level has been devastating. But I’m talking to superintendents on basically a daily basis, and people are thinking this through carefully, thoughtfully, and together, trying to get to the right spot with health and safety coming first, and then trying to do the best thing educationally. So it’s going to look different. Obviously, Wyoming is going to look different from New York City or Chicago. Cases in California are spiking, which is why San Diego and L.A. shut down schools. Unfortunately, cases are spiking in Florida, so it’s just a matter of time. Those districts won’t be able to open.

There are also plans like the one in New York City, where the idea is to mix in-person and at-home learning, at least to start.
It’s the hybrid model. There are two scenarios: One is where everyone goes back. That’s the most optimistic but the least likely. The second is the hybrid, like New York, or San Diego and L.A. going all virtual at the beginning. I think most people will end up in a hybrid to start, and the goal would be to get more kids coming to school over time. You don’t want to have to shut down after two or three weeks.

Obviously, the science about how often and how seriously children are infected, and how or whether they can transmit the virus, is a massive part of the debate. How comfortable are you with the latest thinking from school districts about children’s safety?
Well, we’re learning every day. All you can do is make the best decisions based on the available science and not based on silly politics.

Well, there is that. So given Trump’s politicization of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, do you find its guidelines for school reopening actually adequate?
The CDC guidance that was buried, that had to be leaked to get out, is adequate. But there are deeper district-by-district considerations. Look, if there’s a district in Florida, they’re inevitably going to have to close, though they haven’t made that final determination yet. Even if they close physically, what if they brought a few of the kids that they’re the most worried about, the most vulnerable kids, back to school every week on a rotating basis, to do a health and safety check? To talk to their counselor, to talk to their social worker, to talk to their homeroom teacher? That’s the kind of thinking that’s needed, to help the kids who are most vulnerable. So while school won’t technically be open, they’ll still be able to sit with kids, to check and see how they’re doing, and to go from there.

Even then, there’s still the matter of testing capacity. If you’re looking at a district that’s trying to be as open as possible, what would you consider to be an adequate testing plan?
Well, one, it’s not just testing, it’s reliable testing, accurate testing. And then it’s getting the results back very quickly: 24, 48 hours, tops. And where you’re seeing now a backlog, where it’s taking six days, eight days, ten days, well, what’s the point of even getting that test back? Because then you have to contact trace. And then you have to isolate. People like the sound bite about tests, but if you’re just testing and those tests aren’t reliable, or you’re not doing anything about the results, or the results come back a week later, then it’s almost useless. You have to have all of these pieces working well together.

That’s what’s so heartbreaking to me, why I’m so furious. This is not rocket science, but there’s a real discipline to it that other countries have been relentless on, and we have acted like it was optional. Had we done what we should have done in March and April and May, you and I wouldn’t even be talking right now. We’d just be opening schools, and it would be a nonissue. The fact that we’ve had such horrific leadership with such disregard for science is why we’re having this debate.

It’s embarrassing now — I was naïve. I pushed very hard in April and May to have summer schools starting now, in July, to help kids catch up. I honestly thought that was going to be possible. My thinking was that it didn’t have to be mandatory, but we could bring kids back, bring teachers back, let parents get back to work. You’ve got this “COVID slide” — we know about the “summer slide” — so let’s get ahead of it. Forget the school-calendar year; why even wait for the fall? Clearly, that was not even close to possible.

So is there any way this fall to avoid exacerbating some of the massive inequalities in education that we’ve known about but that are only getting much worse as a result of this crisis?
Everyone has to fight to avoid that. We have to look at this to be as fair as possible, and do the work through an equity lens. Think back to the earlier example: If you can only bring a small handful of kids back to start with, who are you bringing back? How do you think about that? Is it younger kids, where virtual learning is clearly the hardest? Is it the most vulnerable kids who need to be checked on? Is it kids whose parents might be essential workers, who’ve got nobody home with them? This is not just district-by-district; this is down to the school and to the grade level. My child has access to Wi-Fi and the internet, has a mom and dad at home and three meals a day, but another child in that class may not have one of those things or all of those things. And that school might have to make a hard call that the other child goes to school three days a week or five days a week, and my child goes back to school maybe two days a week, or can’t go back to school, depending on the age.

This has got to bring out the best of us. We’ve got to see our common humanity here. I keep saying: This is one fall. This is just one fall. We need to get to the other side of this as thoughtfully and compassionately, as empathetically, as we can.

So, inevitably, we come to the national leadership. We’ve already seen Trump threaten schools’ federal funding, so what role does funding and guidance from the federal government need to play in pushing forward this vision for the fall and winter?
Well, first of all, he’s bluffing. He has no power to do that. It makes no sense; it’s just a bully trying to be a bully. But the fact that we can even have a conversation about them withholding funding, taking funding, just shows how insane he is. What we need is between $150 billion and $200 billion in investments in schools across the country right now. If we really want to get schools open in August and September, we would do that today. Yesterday. And that would be additional PPE — that’s additional cleaning supplies, it’s additional custodians, if you need that. And I would love to see a massive, massive tutoring program. I would love to see hundreds of thousands of tutors hired to help those kids catch up, whether that’s physically, virtually, or hybrid.

But if you honestly cared about kids, if you honestly cared about education, you would’ve done that yesterday. The fact that we’re even talking about a fake threat of withholding funds? Trump simply does not care about kids, or education, or their families. Doesn’t care about education, doesn’t care about their safety.

I assume neither the Trump team nor Betsy DeVos’s team are asking for your advice these days, but let’s say we’re looking at a Joe Biden administration in January. It’s clearly entirely plausible that the virus situation is not that much better by then, so if you were to call a newly elected President Biden, how would you counsel him to approach the spring semester? Or, at least, what should be his first steps?
The truth is nobody knows, now. It’s changing by the day. Whether we’re talking about folks planning to open up a month from now, in mid-August, or after Labor Day, everyone has to have at least three plans: a full open, a full close, and a hybrid. And the truth is that I think most people will not be able to make that final call until about a week before school opens. It’s a game-time decision.

So for me to forecast what’ll happen in January, I would just be lying to you. If we’re seeing the virus being beaten down, we’re containing cases or cases are going down, that’s a great scenario. If the virus is spiraling out of control in different states, that’s a very different scenario. I pray to God we’re in the first category and not the second one, but I can’t sit here today with any confidence. My confidence has been beyond shaken because of our inability relative to other countries to do anything that is good for kids, good for education, good for our country, good for our economy. We’ve done everything to make things worse. It’s so sad. It’s like we saw this tsunami coming and we just stood there and let ourselves be drowned. We’ve been taken over by this tidal wave. This is not a medical disaster. It’s a man-made catastrophe now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

‘I’m So Furious’: Arne Duncan on Dismal COVID-19 Response