President Trump’s tone on the coronavirus changed noticeably this week. He expressed a new level of concern about the outbreak, said things would “probably, unfortunately, get worse,” and called mask-wearing a “patriotic” act.
But his heels still appear to be deeply dug in on one increasingly pressing question, despite broad public opposition: He continues to insist that schools must reopen in person.
On Thursday evening, Mr. Trump argued that schools ought to be able to “reopen safely,” even as he abandoned plans to hold the Republican National Convention in Florida because of concerns over spreading the virus.
“We cannot indefinitely stop 50 million American children from going to school, harming their mental, physical and emotional development,” he said, arguing that federal funding should be rerouted away from schools that don’t reopen in person and put toward voucher programs. “Reopening our schools is also critical to ensuring that parents can go to work and provide for their families.”
But polls show that Americans — parents in particular — remain gravely worried about sending students back to school.
An Associated Press/NORC poll this week found that most Americans said they were very or extremely concerned that reopening K-12 schools for in-person instruction would contribute to spreading the virus. Altogether, 80 percent of respondents said they were at least somewhat concerned, including more than three in five Republicans.
“I have yet to see any data where there are appreciable numbers of people who say, ‘Yes, I want my kids back in school,’” Glen Bolger, a veteran Republican pollster, said in an interview. “They want their kids back in school, but not right now. I think safety is taking priority over education.”
“It shows you how nervous Americans are about coronavirus,” he added. “Because let’s face it, virtual learning couldn’t be worse — yet large numbers of parents say, ‘We’re not putting our kids back in school.’”
Sixty percent of respondents to the A.P./NORC poll said it was “essential” that schools be able to provide a mix of in-person and virtual learning. Another 24 percent viewed this as important, though not essential.
Seventy-seven percent of Americans said in the poll either that K-12 schools should reopen only if they made major adjustments (46 percent), or that they shouldn’t reopen at all (31 percent). Even among Republicans, 57 percent of respondents chose one of those options.
By a two-to-one margin, Americans said in a Quinnipiac University poll released last week that they thought it would not be safe to send children back to elementary school in the fall. And by roughly the same spread, they said they disliked how Mr. Trump was dealing with the reopening of schools.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released on Thursday, 60 percent of parents with children in elementary school said that they would rather schools reopen more slowly to ensure safety, versus 34 percent who said they wanted schools to prioritize reopening swiftly so that parents can get back to work and students can return to a normal learning environment.
Mollyann Brodie, the director of Kaiser’s polling operation, said her team’s research showed that many Americans — particularly working-class people — were indeed worried about getting the economy back up and running. But safety concerns won out.
“Getting parents back in the work force and getting the economy going again — he has a lot to gain from that, right?” Dr. Brodie said, referring to Mr. Trump. “But the problem is that before you get that win, 60 percent are worried about coming back.”
“Parents are between a rock and a hard place,” she said.
From a political perspective, this issue touches on a more deeply seated problem for Mr. Trump, one that his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., has worked to exploit: the degree to which Americans do — and more frequently, do not — see the president as empathetic and understanding.
In a recently filmed conversation with former President Barack Obama, Mr. Biden tweaked Mr. Trump for his “inability to get a sense of what people are going through” when it comes to the virus.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week, when asked to choose between Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden on who better “understands the problems of people like you,” 52 percent of Americans chose Mr. Biden; 35 percent chose the president.
Since the pandemic began, approval of Mr. Trump’s response has flipped from being generally positive to decidedly negative. Most polls now show the president’s coronavirus approval rating about 20 percentage points in the red.
Looking ahead to November, the issue of school reopenings could become an especially hot topic in key battleground states, particularly those like Florida and Texas where the virus continues to surge.
A Quinnipiac poll of Florida released Thursday found that 62 percent of voters there thought it would be unsafe to send students back to elementary school in the fall.
The state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has echoed Mr. Trump’s insistence that schools come back for in-person classes, drawing rebukes from Democrats and a lawsuit from teachers’ unions.
By a 19-point margin, Florida voters tended to disapprove of how their governor was handling reopening schools. They disapproved of the president’s approach by 23 points.
In Texas, recent polls have shown Mr. Biden with a roughly even shot at becoming the first Democrat since 1976 to win the state’s plentiful Electoral College haul. Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, backed off a demand that all schools return to in-person classes within the first three weeks of the semester.
Fifty-two percent of Texas voters told Quinnipiac interviewers that Mr. Abbott had pushed to reopen the state too quickly, versus just 13 percent saying he had moved too slowly, according to a poll of the state released this week. As in Florida, roughly six in 10 Texas voters said they thought it would be unsafe to bring K-12 schools back in person.
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