As school systems across the country reckon with the innumerable challenges of re-opening amid the pressures of a resurgent coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has reportedly isolated herself within her expansive Michigan estate.
At the same time, public attitudes about reopening have soured as schools experimenting with in-person learning report nearly immediate outbreaks of COVID-19. In a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, almost 60% of Americans rejected fully in-person learning. That figure rose from 53% in July, when DeVos compared the risk of returning to schools with riding a rocket ship into space in a phone call with governors.
As DeVos has apparently distanced herself from population centers while the pandemic's effects impact new parts of the country, she has simultaneously pushed for the nation's public schools to put teachers and students back in the classroom full-time. DeVos' hardline advocacy, which flouts both the warnings from public health officials and increasingly robust medical data, drew fierce criticism from Democrats before she supposedly disappeared into her summer home.
Recently, a mobile billboard featuring three LED screens with slogans blasting DeVos — "stop hiding in your mansion" and "start protecting our kids" — has been making its way across cities throughout Michigan.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education rejected the reports of DeVos' isolation.
"That's simply not true," the spokesperson told Salon via email. "Secretary DeVos has held 9 roundtables, 4 briefings, 30 calls with governors, 62 calls with state superintendents, 28 interviews and 13 conference calls about this pandemic. She provided 7 major flexibilities, took 5 steps to protect students' rights, and made $30B for schools available in 30 days."
But NBC News reported Tuesday that it could not find any records of a significant number of public events held by DeVos with public school officials. Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director for advocacy at the School Superintendents Association, told the outlet that the group had not heard from DeVos at all this year.
Dubbed the "McMansion from hell" by BuzzFeed, the education secretary's 22,000-square-foot estate on the shore of Lake Macatawa commands a 24-hour, taxpayer-funded security detail courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service when she is present.
DeVos, who is the only Cabinet member protected by the agency, was afforded the unusual arrangement in February 2017 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions after her encounter with protesters at a Washington-area middle school. The total taxpayer bill could run to $26 million, or about 0.1% of DeVos $2 billion net worth, should she serve through Trump's full term.
DeVos told the Washington Examiner in June that she would work mostly from her Michigan estate as the school year approached, and the Detroit Free Press reported that she had made good on the promise in July.
During that time, DeVos' public schedule has been almost entirely empty, according to NBC News. A Washington event was added this Wednesday after the outlet reported another blank slate for the week: the "Kids FIRST: Getting America's Children Safely Back to School" forum, featuring education officials, teachers and parents, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
DeVos was, in fact, present at the event, seated onstage without a mask along with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway. The education secretary spoke for one minute and fifteen seconds at the top of the 40-minute session before sitting silently for the duration.
DeVos faced backlash earlier this summer for participating in publicly unlisted Federalist Society events, where she and top staff held virtual meetings with society chapters in Alabama, Arizona and Ohio to discuss her recently released Title IX rule which overhauls how schools and colleges handle accusations of sexual misconduct. The rule goes into effect Aug. 14.
DeVos, who reportedly participated in recent events related to school voucher advocacy and private schools, has admitted to using the pandemic as a way to further her private school agenda. The education secretary has diverted millions of dollars in coronavirus relief to private schools, resulting in a lawsuit. A Salon investigation found that charter schools which received federal funds might have double-dipped as much as $1 billion in small business loans.
Amid a vacuum of public consensus on science, school reopening plans have become almost wholly political. A recent data analysis by Senior Brookings Institution fellow Jon Valant found that "there is no relationship — visually or statistically — between school districts' reopening decisions and their county's new COVID-19 cases per capita."
"In contrast, there is a strong relationship — visually and statistically — between districts' reopening decisions and the county-level support for Trump in the 2016 election," Valant added.
In late July, DeVos and fellow school-choice advocate Pence visited Thales Academy — a network of private nonsectarian schools in North Carolina — to applaud the school's reopening model. Following the visit, several fourth-grade students had to quarantine after a classmate tested positive for COVID-19.
"Thales is a great example more schools could emulate," DeVos had said during the visit. "You didn't wait for guidance from the Department of Education. You didn't ask for permission."