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Minnesota political leaders and residents discussed the challenges of schools reopening amid the pandemic at a virtual “kitchen table conversation” hosted Wednesday by the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris presidential campaign.

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith kicked off the conversation by introducing Harris, of California, and fellow Minnesota Democrats Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Ojibwe, state Rep. Rena Moran and state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion. Laura Carpenter, a mother of two and public school employee, and Cherie Smith, a social worker who works with special needs students, also joined the call.

Participants focused on schools and distance learning, parents’ needs and fears, and what they described as a lack of direction, leadership and support from President Donald Trump and his administration.

“Trump is offering no real plan to help schools reopen safely; the safety of our children is the last thing on his mind,” Harris said.

On Wednesday, she noted, Biden called on Trump to treat the needs of schools and students as a national emergency and use the powers of the Stafford Act to direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide funding and support.

Biden spoke at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, assailing Trump for his vilifying of protesters as well as his handling of the pandemic that has killed nearly 190,000 Americans and crippled the national economy, leaving millions out of work, schools straining to deal with students in classrooms or at home and parents struggling to keep up. An American president, Trump’s challenger declared, should be able to lead through multiple crises at the same time.

Trump answered almost immediately with his own event in North Carolina, where he continued casting the protests generally as “violent mobs here at home” that must be met with a strong show of force. “These people know one thing: strength,” he said. If local leaders would ask for federal muscle, Trump said, “We’ll have it done in one hour.”

The Trump campaign also noted the president has asked Congress for $105 billion in aid for schools.

At the Minnesota roundtable, Harris, Moran, Flanagan, Tina Smith and Champion repeatedly called on people to vote and emphasized the influence their votes can have on electing leaders who respond to their families’ needs during the pandemic.

Politicians on the call harshly criticized Trump’s leadership regarding response to the pandemic and its impact on reopening schools.

“We should have a leader who leads by example, not by tweets,” Champion said.

He went on to describe Trump as the “denier in chief.”

Minnesota citizens Carpenter and Cherie Smith described the challenges of using distance learning to educate their children and noted special needs students are unable to receive the attention and support they need with distance learning.

Smith wiped away tears as she described being unable to hug special needs students who often don’t understand the need for social distancing.

Criticizing Trump for relying less on science than on concerns over his political career in addressing the challenges of COVID-19, Harris promised that she and Biden would deliver support for children and families returning to school in the form of ample personal protection equipment, school custodians, more teachers and funding from the federal government.

Flanagan ended the call by thanking everyone in the Ojibwe language.

“Chi migwiich (thank you very much) to all of our panelists for sharing their personal stories; this is how we will make connections to get people out to vote,” Flanagan said.

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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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