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‘Sending Teachers and Students Into a House Fire With a Squirt Gun.’ Chasten Buttigieg and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García Discuss Trump’s School Reopening Plans

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During a TIME100 Talks discussion, educator and author Chasten Buttigieg told TIME correspondent Justin Worland that, in its push to re-open schools in the fall, the Trump Administration is prioritizing the U.S. economy over the health and safety of America’s students and teachers.

“It feels like, in many places, we’re sending teachers and students into a house fire with a squirt gun,” Buttigieg, who worked as a teacher up until his husband, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg, ran for president, told Worland.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that don’t re-open in the fall, despite U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that say schools must first see a two week long decline in the community’s COVID-19 infection rate before considering re-opening. Numerous U.S. states are currently experiencing dramatic spikes in infection rates.

President Donald has argued that Democratic governors are “purposely keeping their schools closed” for political reasons.

Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association (NEA), said schools need to implement a number of key measures to re-open, such as regular health screenings, tracking community spread and implementing social distancing measures. (NEA has released its own guidance based on the CDC’s guidelines.) She said the policies will vary based on each’s school’s specific circumstance.

“My 6th grade was a germ factory on a good day,” Eskelsen García added. “Now they cough on you and you end up in the ICU.”

“We need the disinfectants, the hand sanitizers, we need the protective gear, the masks or the face shields,” she noted.

Buttigieg echoed Eskelsen García’s point, telling Worland that officials must ensure that “every teacher, every staff member, every child, has the proper PPE to even go back to school.” But, he continued, if “doctors and nurses can’t get enough PPE, how are we going to make sure teachers and staff are getting them?”

“To this President and to this Secretary of Education, school is just childcare,” Buttigieg told Worland. “It is a way to get the economy back on track, open up the doors so you have a place to put your kids so you can go back to work.”

“School is not just childcare,” he explained. “There are many other things that need to take place in order to have a proper educational environment.”

Many of his friends who are young educators are writing wills “because they are terrified that they are going to get sick,” Buttigieg continued. “There’s already a flight risk of teachers fleeing the profession. I don’t want to see teachers leaving the profession on gurneys.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com