The first act of the final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden centered on the two candidates' very different approaches to reopening the country—schools in particular.
Asserting that the mitigation efforts to thwart COVID-19 cannot be worse than the disease itself, Trump echoed sentiments he has expressed since nearly the start of the pandemic. Biden, on the other hand, signaled a greater willingness to reimpose lockdowns on the areas of the country if coronavirus cases rise.
"I'm not shutting down today, but look, you need standards," said Biden. "If you have a reproduction rate above a certain level, everybody says slow down, do not open bars and gymnasiums, until you get this under more control."
On schools—a pivotal issue for many American families—Biden said that more funds were needed to make reopening safe: Schools need to be able to hire more teachers, improve their air filtration systems, provide socially distanced classrooms, and implement other procedures to counter the pandemic.
"Schools, they need a lot of money to open," said Biden. "They need to deal with smaller classrooms."
Trump countered that the disease largely spares the young, and there's little evidence thus far of transmission between students and teachers in schools that have reopened.
Biden then attacked Trump for being insufficiently concerned about teachers' lives, unfairly characterizing the president's position as, "All you teachers out there, not that many of you are going to die, so don't worry about it."
These remarks should worry working-class families who want their kids to return to school in cities like New York City, Baltimore, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Chicago. The most powerful forces on the side of keeping schools closed are the teachers unions, which have threatened strikes, dumped fake body bags in front of lawmakers' offices, and called in sick when asked to go back to their jobs. The union representing teachers in Fairfax, Virginia, has maintained that it will not be safe for their members to return to the classroom until at least August 2021. Union activists have taken the completely unreasonable position that there is essentially no way to reopen schools until a highly effective vaccine is widely available and actively working to reduce cases to almost nothing.
This means that any official who wants to push schools to reopen must do so over the objections of the unions. Biden has made it perfectly clear he will never be that guy—and reiterated that during the debate. His reopening plan hinges on schools receiving additional funding and support. That's unlikely to happen, but even if it did happen, it's quite likely that teachers unions would still oppose reopening. Biden has given every indication that he has no intention of bucking one of the Democratic Party's main sources of political support.
Despite his more aggressive rhetoric on the subject, Trump didn't propose any specific policy to help schools reopen faster, either, or to otherwise support families and kids who are struggling. That's a shame: The current moment calls for giving individual students and families more control over their own educational options, perhaps by linking public education dollars to students rather than schools. This is a project that the federal government—which gives billions of dollars to school districts—could play some small role in fostering; sadly, young people have become a very low priority in the time of COVID-19.