Trump administration officials pushed for a full reopening of U.S. schools in the fall on Wednesday, though they stopped short of providing detailed plans for how to return students to the classroom as the coronavirus pandemic worsens.
“It’s time,” Vice President Mike Pence said at a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing. “It’s time for us to get our kids back to school.”
The stance sets the stage for a fight between the federal government and local authorities that are planning only part-time, in-person learning. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos cited Fairfax County, Virginia’s plans for bringing students back for either no days or two days a week at the briefing as an example of “false paradigms” she said were being created.
“In the end it’s not a matter of if schools will open, but how,” she said. “They must fully open.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has previously issued some guidance about how to reopen schools, plans additional recommendations for next week, the officials said. CDC Director Robert Redfield emphasized at the briefing that the guidance contained only recommendations, and weren’t intended “to be used as a rationale to leave these schools closed.”
President Donald Trump attacked the CDC’s existing guidelines for schools in tweets on Wednesday, calling them “very tough & expensive.” He threatened to cut off funding to schools that don’t reopen.
When asked about the threat at the press conference, Pence said “We’re going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back to school.”
The world has learned much about how the new coronavirus spreads and the risks it poses since it emerged late last year, but the role of children — who have become infected with Covid-19, but much less frequently than adults — remains mysterious. While some research has found that school-aged children appear to be less contagious, another study done earlier this year found the opposite, that kids may be as contagious as adults.
That has posed an unbearable conundrum for policymakers, educators, parents and children alike, especially as outbreaks worsen in Texas, Arizona, Florida and other states. Months of virtual learning in the U.S. have exacerbated racial and economic inequities, yet there are also very real concerns about kids’ ability to wear masks, stay six feet apart and properly hand-wash.
The risk of serious illness for children from the new coronavirus is very low, members of the task force said, while emphasizing that closed schools could risk kids falling behind academically, mental health issues, unmet nutritional needs for those who rely on school meals and the impact on parents.
Whether schools can accommodate smaller class sizes aimed at facilitating social distancing, though, remains a continuing challenge. In New York City, for instance, Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week that classrooms would reopen but with students only attending in-person few days a week.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, said that Trump doesn’t have the legal authority to demand schools will open. New York schools will open if it’s determined to be safe, he said. The state will start deciding about individual districts in August, Cuomo said.
Pence emphasized during the briefing though that “We don’t want federal guidance to be a substitute” for local guidance.
CDC guidance for schools has recommended but not required measures widely endorsed by public-health experts, like social distancing between desks and staggered arrival and dismissal times. The true threat to reopening schools is instead the rising number of cases and hospitalizations in many parts of the U.S.
Though the president pointed to countries like Denmark and Norway as an example that schools could be reopened without issue, these countries have in fact have reopened schools while taking stringent safety precautions.