Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday assailed plans by some local districts to offer in-person instruction only a few days a week and said schools must be "fully operational" even amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Anything less, she says, would fail students and taxpayers.
DeVos made the comments during a call with governors as the Trump administration launched an all-out effort to get schools and colleges to reopen. Audio of the call was obtained by The Associated Press.
"Ultimately, it's not a matter of if schools need to open, it's a matter of how. School must reopen, they must be fully operational. And how that happens is best left to education and community leaders," DeVos told governors.
President Donald Trump has insisted that schools and colleges return to in-person instruction as soon as possible. Trump said Monday on Twitter that Democrats want to keep schools closed "for political reasons, not for health reasons."
"They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it!" Trump tweeted.
Trump scheduled a White House event for later Tuesday to press his case for reopening schools. Vice President Mike Pence and education and public health leaders were expected to attend.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out guidance for schools last month, including staggering schedules, spreading out desks, having meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria, adding physical barriers between bathroom sinks and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.
In the call with governors, DeVos slammed districts that plan to offer in-person instruction only a few days a week. She called out Fairfax County Public Schools, which is asking families to decide between fully remote instruction or two days a week in the classroom.
"A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all," DeVos said, noting that the district's distance learning last spring was a "disaster."
Her criticism of schools' distance education efforts extended across the country. DeVos said she was disappointed in schools that "didn't figure out how to serve students or who just gave up and didn't try." She said more than one state education chief told her that they also were disappointed in districts that did "next to nothing to serve their students."
The same thing can't happen again this fall, she said, urging governors to play a role in getting schools to reopen.
"Students across the country have already fallen behind. We need to make sure that they catch up," DeVos said. "It's expected that it will look different depending on where you are, but what's clear is that students and their families need more options."
Alan Suderman contributed to this report.