In Reversal, Trump Says Schools In Coronavirus Hot Spots Should Delay Reopening

Jul 23, 2020
Originally published on July 24, 2020 12:32 pm

Public schools should delay reopening in coronavirus hot spots but should open fully if they want to receive tens of billions of dollars in new federal aid, President Trump said in a White House briefing.

At the news conference Thursday, Trump talked in more detail than he has in the past about the reopening of schools. He also announced new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reopening schools.

He had previously called the existing guidance "very tough [and] expensive," while Vice President Pence said "we don't want the guidance from CDC to be a reason why schools don't open."

The new guidance emphasizes the "critical" importance of opening schools in person. For example, it removes a statement from the previous document that "virtual-only classes, activities, and events" are "lowest risk."

It also provides an update on emerging evidence that children are less likely to become seriously ill from the virus: "As of July 21, 2020, 6.6% of reported COVID-19 cases and less than 0.1% of COVID-19-related deaths are among children and adolescents less than 18 years of age in the United States," the new guidance says.

Standing in front of a U.S. map covered in dark red splotches to symbolize the many regions of the country with virus spikes, Trump acknowledged the scientific consensus that in those hot spots, public schools might have to delay opening in person for "weeks."

"Teachers are essential workers," Trump said. "But every district should be actively making preparations to reopen." As of Thursday, according to Education Week, nine of the 15 largest school districts in the country plan to start the year remote-only.

Trump quoted the American Academy of Pediatrics on the physical, social and emotional risks to children of school closures and also talked about learning loss and food security issues. The association has underlined that schools should open only when safe according to public health authorities.

He mentioned emerging evidence that young children are at lower risk for getting or spreading the coronavirus. He also repeatedly used the term "China virus," which some have called a racist incitement to harassment.

On July 8, Trump tweeted that he might withhold funding from schools that didn't reopen. At Thursday's press conference he backed that up with details.

He said the White House was recommending that the Senate include $105 billion for schools in the coronavirus aid package currently being debated to support smaller class sizes and more teachers — but only if schools reopen in person. If not, he said, the money should go directly to parents to pay for private schools or home schooling. He specifically mentioned religious schools.

"If the school is closed, the money should follow the student," he said.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been a strong advocate for alternatives to public schools. She's being sued by several state attorneys general, school districts and the NAACP for what they allege is illegally siphoning money from the initial coronavirus aid package toward private schools.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

At a White House press conference on Thursday, President Trump kept pushing for schools to reopen. He did this even while acknowledging that it might not be possible in places where the virus is surging.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Districts may need to delay reopening for a few weeks, and that's possible. That'll be up to governors. The decision should be made based on the data and the facts on the grounds in each community, but every district should be actively making preparations to open.

GREENE: The president also announced new guidance on school reopening from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Anya Kamenetz from NPR's ed team has been following all of this. Good morning, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what's this new guidance from the CDC? What does it say?

KAMENETZ: So you might remember President Trump calling the previous guidance very tough and expensive on Twitter.

GREENE: Yeah.

KAMENETZ: And his press secretary even said this science should not stand in the way of schools coming back in person. The new guidance isn't necessarily any less tough or expensive. It still includes the hand washing, the mask or cloth face coverings, social distancing, keeping kids separated. But what I noticed was kind of a shift in tone.

GREENE: In what way?

KAMENETZ: So for example, on one webpage, there are 15 separate references now to the word critical - the critical role that in-person schools play, the critical services that in-person schools provide. And so that's - yeah, I mean, I think that's - that kind of underlines what they're trying to say here.

GREENE: So stressing that in person is important, trying to get the president's own sentiments kind of in these CDC guidelines - is that what's happening?

KAMENETZ: That's what I perceived, and it - of course, this is also in line with some scientific recommendations, like from the American Academy of Pediatrics, not to mention the feelings of many educators, many families, that, yes, vulnerable students are suffering out of school. Yes, there are big learning gaps opening up with virtual learning.

GREENE: Well, is there anything new in here in terms of science and what it's telling us?

KAMENETZ: You know, there's a little bit, David, but it's pretty mixed. And of course, if you've been following our coverage, you'll hear that the guidance takes a look at different countries, for example, that have reopened schools, and it's a mixed bag. You know, where community transmission is very low, like in Denmark, it's gone pretty well. In other places like Israel, cases surged after schools reopened, and some schools had to close down again. They also look at emerging evidence, like a study recently from South Korea that showed that children under 10 are both less likely to get the virus and less likely to give it to adults.

And the guidance also highlights the latest statistics here in the United States that as of July 21, less than one-tenth of 1% of all COVID-19 related deaths have been among children under 18, so a very low proportion. And finally, they get into a little bit more detail about the fact that when you do open up, you know, some people are going to test positive if the virus is circulating in the community. So what do you do about that? What is the protocol for closing, disinfecting, testing, tracing, quarantining?

GREENE: So where does this leave everyone - parents, educators, everyone trying to balance, you know, public health and also the desire to get kids back into these classrooms?

KAMENETZ: You know, as of right now, according to Education Week, of the 15 largest public school districts in the country, nine of them are beginning the year all remote. So even during the time that the president has been pushing for in-person school, cases are rising, and so I think the tide is really turning the other way. And even though parents are very - you know, feeling very caught without child care and their kids are not learning, they're also speaking about a lot of caution that they have about sending kids back to school while there's still some danger.

GREENE: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thanks.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.