An empty classroom at Sinclair Lane Elementary School in Baltimore
Erin Schaff—The New York Times/Redux
July 9, 2020 6:22 AM EDT

The President practically snarled as he made the accusation. “They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed,” Donald Trump said in the East Room of the White House on July 7, referring to Democratic governors. “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.”

With that, Trump waded into a debate that’s come to the fore of America’s pandemic response. Mere weeks before schools start, a brutal reality has descended on parents: after months of hunkering down with their kids, there may be no end in sight. The coronavirus is still raging, which means the school closures imposed as temporary measures in March will be difficult to reverse. Schools at every level are struggling to figure out when and how to resume in-person instruction. Most have not announced a path forward.

The debate is coming both too late and too soon. Too late because there’s now scant time to devise a plan to fully reopen schools in a safe fashion. And too soon because the pandemic’s jagged advance–and scientists’ evolving understanding–make it impossible to know how things will look by Labor Day. So parents and teachers wait in limbo, anxious and enraged by the looming dilemma and the lack of federal guidance or support.

Trump entered the fray with his usual subtlety. “Schools must open in the fall!!!” he tweeted out of the blue on July 6. The issue came to the President’s attention in part because White House staff were affected by the news that public schools in the D.C. suburbs of Fairfax County, Virginia, would offer just two days per week of in-school instruction, a former White House official told TIME. New York City, the nation’s largest district, announced a similar “hybrid” plan on July 8.

But the alternatives are as unclear as the need is evident. Children have been falling behind in their studies since the abrupt closures. Those in poor and minority communities–the same ones disproportionately ravaged by the virus–have been hardest hit. Many low-income children rely on public schools for food and social services; they are less likely to have parents who can work from home, or computers and wi-fi to connect to the “distance learning” curricula hastily devised in the spring. Meanwhile, millions of parents unexpectedly thrust into improvised day care and homeschooling are desperate for a break, businesses can’t reopen if their workers don’t have a place for their young children to go during the day, and teachers and school staff crave normality–even as they worry they’re the ones most at risk.

Despite the dismal ratings Trump has received for his handling of the pandemic, the question of how to handle school in the fall presented the President a political opportunity. Public-health experts mostly deplored Trump’s drive to reopen consumer-oriented businesses such as bars and shops. But when it comes to schools, the experts are broadly on his side. The American Academy of Pediatrics “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” There is evidence that children–especially young children–are at minimal risk of getting the virus and appear not to spread it efficiently, either. The risk, the academy says, should be weighed against the harm children suffer when they miss out on the educational, social and emotional experiences schools provide.

But experts caution that getting back into classrooms safely is a balancing act. “When you say you’re going to reopen, you can’t just unlock a door,” says Emily Oster, a Brown University economist. Many other countries have reopened schools in recent months without spurring new outbreaks, but they’ve done so with extensive precautions, including protective equipment, reduced and restructured classes, distancing requirements, modified schedules and beefed-up staffing. On July 8, Trump tweeted that he disagreed with his own Administration’s “impractical” public-health guidelines for schools.

These calculations have to be made with an eye to local conditions, everything from climate to density to demographics. “American localism–the fact that we have 14,000 school districts–is a great blessing in a situation like this,” says Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and former Education Department official under George W. Bush. “We’re going to see literally thousands of different approaches that hopefully reflect the needs of different communities, not a single national solution.” The federal government should provide information and support, Smarick argues, not dictate or pressure local school boards.

Parents, teachers and advocates note that Congress was able to rush through multitrillion-dollar relief packages when small businesses were at risk. Yet the state and local governments that moved quickly to build field hospitals, source protective equipment and put business regulations in place now seem helpless to restore families’ most important government support. “There are 3 million teachers and support staff out there who desperately want to hug their kids,” says Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association teacher union. “But we will not be complicit in standing by and letting politicians cavalierly warehouse those kids without caring about their safety because, oh, we need their moms and dads to go back to work. We could do this in a safe, medically sane way, but it’s going to take money. Why was that not even a question when it was Shake Shack that might have to lay people off and go bankrupt?”

Trump’s demands for reopening have not been accompanied by pledges of more resources. Indeed, the Administration has yet to disburse most of the $13 billion allocated to education in the CARES Act. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives pledged an additional $58 billion to education in the HEROES Act, which passed on a near party-line vote in May, along with billions more in aid to state governments whose budgets have been gutted by pandemic-related revenue declines. But that legislation has gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.

All this comes against a backdrop of a presidential election in which Trump is trailing in the polls, a deficit largely driven by suburban voters, especially the college-educated suburban women who swung decisively to Democrats in the 2018 midterms. Trump’s campaign sees the school-reopening issue as a way to appeal to those voters, which is why the President and his allies have sought to cast it as a binary question pitting Trump and his concern for kids’ education against the cautious, shut-it-down Democrats.

Yet most governors get far better ratings than the Administration for their handling of the pandemic, and Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, has proposed a detailed school-reopening plan. The upshot is that Trump’s message may not be landing. A USA Today/Ipsos poll in May found 59% of parents of K-12 students weren’t comfortable sending their children back to school full time. “Parents feel very sympathetic toward what school districts and teachers are dealing with,” says Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “I find it disgusting to intentionally make students a pawn in all this.”

Trump has squandered an opportunity to tap parents’ frustration, says GOP strategist Liam Donovan. “There’s a nonpolitical sense among working parents of all kinds that they can’t send their kids back to school soon enough,” Donovan says, “but the President has bigfooted it, and not in a thoughtful way.” As usual, Trump has polarized the debate. The result may be angry parents flooding local school-board meetings this fall to yell at one another about mask requirements.

With reporting by Brian Bennett

This appears in the July 20, 2020 issue of TIME.

Write to Molly Ball at molly.ball@time.com.

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