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Betsy DeVos publicly absent as critical decisions are made on public school reopenings

As public schools grapple with the challenge of reopening during a pandemic, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is getting criticism for her low profile.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Education Secretary Devos attends signing ceremony at the White House in Washington
Education Secretary Betsy Devos attends a signing ceremony for the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative at the White House on July 9.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

DETROIT — As public schools grapple with the challenge of reopening during a pandemic, public education advocates are criticizing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for working remotely from Michigan, where she owns a sprawling waterfront estate with a round-the-clock security detail paid for by taxpayers.

And while keeping herself largely physically distanced as the coronavirus continues to spread, DeVos has been a forceful advocate for President Donald Trump's demand that schools reopen in full and in person — potentially placing millions of teachers and students at risk of infection.

It's a striking bit of mixed messaging for DeVos, a billionaire heiress, major GOP donor and charter school advocate who had no experience with public education before she became education secretary. DeVos is the nation's top education official as school administrators deal with one the biggest health crises facing the nation: how to safely bring 51 million American children back into classrooms or administer virtual education during a pandemic.

Questions persist as to why DeVos requires full-time protection from the U.S. Marshals Service, which NBC News reported she began receiving shortly after she was confirmed — the only Cabinet official with such an arrangement. In all, her security detail has cost taxpayers at least $25 million, NBC News has learned.

The Marshals Service wouldn't comment on the arrangement or any specific security threat DeVos faces.

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Rather than actively offer guidelines to public schools as they struggle with the immense financial and logistical challenges of reopening, DeVos told the Washington Examiner in June that she was working mostly remotely from Michigan, her home state — where she owns the 22,000-square-foot estate on Lake Macatawa — with a public schedule that has been mostly empty for the past several weeks, including no events on her public schedule for this week.

Education Department spokeswoman Angela Morabito said DeVos has been dividing her time among Michigan, Washington and road trips to meet with stakeholders.

“The Secretary was among the first cabinet heads to establish a coronavirus working group at the Department,” said the department's communications director, Liz Hill. DeVos, who also hosted a meeting of the White House Coronavirus Task Force in early July, has had 92 meetings with governors and state education leaders, including superintendents, said Hill.

“Everything she’s done over the last 5 months has been in a effort to help all students, including public school students,” said Hill, citing $30 billion in federal funding under the CARES Act made available in less than 30 days “to ensure that K-12 education leaders and governors could use the money in the ways that would best support their students.”

DeVos has been holding events not listed on her public calendar, including several sponsored by the conservative Federalist Society, according to Federalist Society postings. She has also participated in a few events related to private schools and advocacy for vouchers, including a roundtable July 23 at a private Christian school in Ohio and two events in the Carolinas with Vice President Mike Pence.

Her press office said she has been in constant contact with governors and state superintendents virtually and in person. Yet NBC News couldn't find a record of similar events with public school officials; Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy at AASA The School Superintendents Association, representing public school superintendents in 49 states, said the group hasn't heard from DeVos this year.

"We would stand ready to answer that call. That's my job, to be a direct liaison to the federal government," said Ellerson Ng, who said she facilitated many such meetings for previous education secretaries of both parties. The group has been critical of DeVos' proposed education budget cuts.

State officials are also pleading for more assistance.

With school reopening in three weeks, Gov. Ned Lamont, D-Conn., told MSNBC on Friday that he still doesn't know "what, if anything, the feds are going to do to help."

Days after DeVos' and Pence's visit July 29 to a classroom at Thales Academy, a network of private nonsectarian community schools in North Carolina, to highlight the school as a model for reopening, several fourth-grade students were asked to quarantine after a student tested positive for COVID-19. "Thales is a great example more schools could emulate," DeVos said during the visit. "You didn't wait for guidance from the Department of Education. You didn't ask for permission."

DeVos had no events on her public calendar last week.

Still, she continues to echo the president's demand that public schools reopen for in-person instruction, regardless of the levels of infection in their communities. She also insists that it isn't her job to help localities determine how to do so safely.

"The secretary of education isn't the nation's superintendent," DeVos said July 21 at a roundtable in South Carolina with Pence.

DeVos declined to appear at a House coronavirus subcommittee hearing on safely reopening K-12 schools "so she could explain why she is pressuring schools to fully reopen, despite the risks," James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, said Thursday.

"I offered to accommodate her schedule. But she refused to appear," Clyburn said. DeVos' press office said it offered Assistant Secretary Frank Brogan to appear on 11 alternative dates in August and September. Among the witnesses: Angela Skillings, a second-grade teacher in Arizona who contracted COVID-19 this summer after working in a classroom with a teacher who died.

DeVos' absence as schools struggle with their next steps hasn't been lost on public education advocates.

A Michigan-based group, Protect Our Public Schools, is sponsoring a mobile billboard calling on DeVos to "stop hiding in your mansion." This week, the billboard will travel to Grand Rapids and Holland, Michigan, where DeVos' summer home is located. Critics also point to the Grand Rapids aviation charter school that DeVos' husband, Dick, founded, which is offering a fully virtual option for the fall.

"What Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump are doing is equivalent to sending our military in harm's way without ammunition or bulletproof vests. Except nobody signed up for this," said the group's vice president, Ellen Offen, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher. "It is simply gambling with the lives of our children, teachers and school parents. It is totally unacceptable."

A Politico/Morning Consult poll last month found that 65 percent of voters said they disagree with Trump's threat to cut federal funding for schools that don't reopen.

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Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a Michigan-based school choice advocacy group founded by DeVos, said, "There is no one-size-fits-all solution." School districts and communities must "work together to provide guidance and plans for their own school buildings," she said.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the ranking member of the subcommittee, said there "are road maps everywhere" on reopening schools, including one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Furthermore, he said, children are suffering in other ways. "When children aren't in school, there are very devastating things happening to them," he said Thursday.

Public school officials say there is a strong need for greater federal involvement as schools approach reopening. Glenn Maleyko, superintendent of schools in Dearborn, one of Michigan's largest districts, said he's gotten little direction from the federal government.

"The guidance that we've received, if anything, from a health perspective is from the county," Maleyko said.

Given the pandemic and its potential mental and physical health effects on schoolchildren, the education secretary could have, for example, convened an emergency interagency task force to ensure coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services, states and school districts to provide detailed guidance, said Chris Lu, who was President Barack Obama's Cabinet secretary.

"You have a secretary who has expressed, philosophically, little interest in public schools and in terms of her travel has visited very few public schools," Lu said. "So the idea of her actually convening an interagency task force on public schools is so antithetical to everything she's done or believes."