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White House Stumbles Over How Best To Reopen Schools, As Trump Blasts CDC Guidance

President Trump, seen here at a roundtable discussion at the White House on Tuesday, rebuked the CDC for its guidelines on reopening schools in a tweet Wednesday.
Jim Watson
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump, seen here at a roundtable discussion at the White House on Tuesday, rebuked the CDC for its guidelines on reopening schools in a tweet Wednesday.

Updated 3:40 p.m. ET

In the latest move from the Trump administration to push for states to reopen schools this fall, Vice President Pence couched guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to safely reopen schools, saying it shouldn't be used as a "barrier" to students returning to classrooms.

Speaking to reporters during a White House Coronavirus Task Force meeting at the Department of Education on Wednesday afternoon, Pence stressed that states and local governments should "tailor their plans" to enable to students to return to in-person instruction.

"None of the CDC's recommendations are intended to replace state and local rules and guidance," Pence said.

Pence was joined by CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, who emphasized that it is not the intent of the CDC to provide a "rationale to keep schools closed" and that existing guidelines aren't meant to be prescriptive.

Pence and Redfield's comments come after President Trump slammed the CDC Wednesday morning, calling its guidelines for reopening schools in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic "impractical" and "expensive."

"I disagree with the @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!" Trump wrote on Twitter.

Health officials' guidance

Existing CDC guidance includes temporary school dismissals if there is a substantial spread of COVID-19 within the community and, in cases of mild to moderate community transmission, modifying classes where students are in close contact, staggering arrival/dismissal times and enforcing social distancing.

The CDC continues to update its website with best practices, including this checklist for schools. It's unclear which specific guidance the president was rebuking.

Pence said the CDC will be issuing new documents next week about how to reopen schools, including guidance on screening for COVID symptoms.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a strong statement in June in favor of bringing children back to the classroom in the fall wherever and whenever they can do so safely. The statement included recommendations about physical distancing, cleaning and disinfection, hand-washing, and using outdoor space whenever possible.

Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, told All Things Considered's Mary Louise Kelly that one of the biggest challenges of reopening schools safely is taking into account the fact that some teachers may not be comfortable returning, which could result in a limited workforce.

"Even if we think kids tend to not get sick and they don't transmit very much, the process of opening a school involves a lot of adults interacting with each other and there definitely are many teachers, given the age of our teaching workforce, who are at higher risk for COVID," Oster says.

Oster said there's no "best" option when it comes to reopening.

"There is no way to do this in a way that means no one will get the coronavirus, and also means everyone will be in school," she explained. "I don't know how you trade off the risk of serious illness or death among staff against the kind of learning outcomes of a very large number of kids. That's the choice you have to make but that seems like an impossible choice."

Funding threat confusion

Trump on Wednesday went as far as to threaten to cut off federal funding if schools do not reopen and suggested that his political opponents are somehow interfering with the reopening process, saying Democrats think reopening would hurt them politically in the November election.

However, the decision to reopen schools — like the decision to close them in March — is not top-down. Rather, it is made by thousands of local and state school leaders and public health officials.

Still, Trump has made his desires clear.

"We're very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools," he said during a roundtable discussion on the subject Tuesday.

Meanwhile, senior administration officials told reporters on a background call Tuesday morning that while the White House will provide states with "best practices" on reopening, the decision remains a local one.

Hours after the threaten to withhold funding to states that choose not to reopen, Pence assured reporters that the White House would be "very respectful" of state and local communities who can't fully reopen schools because of "certain limitations."

Trump's comments and tweets and the subsequent clarifications from other members of the administration reflect the dissonance in the White House's messaging on this issue.

How school funding works

On average, public schools receive less than 10% of their funding from the U.S. government. That money is largely devoted to helping schools serve low-income students and children with disabilities — in short, the nation's most vulnerable students.

For decades, that funding stream has flowed through Congress with bipartisan support, and Trump has no authority to cut it off or add requirements to funding lawmakers have already allocated.

Following Trump's tweet, Evan Hollander, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee, underscored that the power of the purse rests with Congress, not the president.

"Congress provides federal education funding to support some of the most vulnerable young people in our country. The President has no authority to cut off funding for these students, and threatening to do so to prop up his flailing campaign is offensive," Hollander told NPR in a statement.

In fact, public schools are facing a financial crisis as states slash education budgets in response to the pandemic-driven recession, and the federal government has so far done little to help them make up for those cuts or shoulder the expensive, new burdens of following public health guidance: deep-cleaning schools, hiring nurses, creating socially distanced classrooms.

During Wednesday's briefing, Pence suggested that the administration is considering a new relief package for schools and could potentially create incentives in such a bailout for states and/or districts that reopen schools more broadly.

Congress set aside roughly $13 billion for schools as part of the CARES Act, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has complicated the distribution of that money by insisting that public schools use a far larger share of the aid to help students attending private schools. A bill passed by the House to provide school districts with another $58 billion has languished in the Senate.

NPR's congressional reporter Claudia Grisales and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.