President Donald Trump continues to push states to reopen schools. But senior officials working on the federal government’s response to the pandemic are increasingly worried about the rush to open schools as case numbers continue to climb.
Over the last several weeks Trump and his closest advisers have insisted that children will suffer mentally and emotionally if classrooms remain closed. Trump has pressed forward with his call to reopen schools and colleges as part of his campaign to reopen America’s economy. “This thing’s going away. It will go away like things go away,” Trump said of the virus during a recent Fox & Friends interview, adding that children were “virtually immune.”
Despite significant outbreaks in the south and the southwestern parts of the country, Trump’s coronavirus task force has supported the president’s demands. On calls with the nation’s governors, Vice President Mike Pence, task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield have asked governors to consider reopening schools because, they claimed, it could be done safely. But officials said little about exactly how local officials could ensure students do not contract the virus during school hours. In one call with governors, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos seemed to deflect concerns about transmission, saying “risk is embedded in everything we do,” from “learning to ride a bike, to the risk of getting in a space capsule and getting shot off in a rocket into space.”
Now, senior officials working on the government’s efforts to try to contain the virus say they are increasingly worried state officials, particularly those in the southern portion of the country, are not seriously considering the health risks associated with reopening. Officials said they have in recent days raised the issue directly with White House officials, requesting the administration ramp up the messaging about the potential risks, particularly for those counties experiencing a case positivity rate of 5 percent or more. (In New York, where the governor has recently committed to reopening statewide, that rate is just 0.78 percent.) So far those officials close to the president have pushed back on the idea of spending time on warnings; some instead suggested dedicating additional air time to underscoring the president’s leadership on the government’s virus response.
Officials’ fears are rooted in part on the fact that the White House has not accurately addressed concerns that gathering hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of students at a time in schools may not be safe. It’s increasingly clear that COVID-19 spreads most easily in enclosed spaces like schools, and a growing body of research shows that children are better carriers of the coronavirus than originally thought.
“If you have Trump going out there and saying everything is fine there’s a risk that that’s what people are going to think going back,” one senior official said. “There’s a real possibility that counties won’t implement all the measures outlined in the CDC guidelines and will just say, ‘Look, we’re doing the best we can and that’s it.’ There’s no one to enforce that stuff.”
Officials said they are particularly worried about an uptick in cases in schools that have not yet developed concrete plans to implement proper social distancing, including grouping students in cohorts to better track potential outbreaks. Those fears were exacerbated Sunday with the news of nine positive cases emerging at a school in Georgia where days earlier pictures of crowded hallways circulated on social media.
“This is exactly what I was afraid of,” another senior official said, referring to the positive cases emerging in the Georgia school. “This is inevitably going to happen when we send kids back to school. But the real question is whether school districts are prepared for this and whether they will take it seriously.”
When asked for comment on this story Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson, said: “Not only does the president want to see schools open safely but so do teachers, students, parents, and health professionals. We cannot allow our children’s mental and social development to be held hostage.”
On July 23, the CDC issued guidelines for schools recommending teachers and administrators group students in “cohorts” over an extended period of time to limit contact, use extra school space to diminish class sizes, and require students wear masks as well as educate students about best hygiene practices. According to two officials with direct knowledge, the CDC is currently working on an additional document with recommendations for schools on how to better protect teachers and administrators from contracting the virus. One official described it as an “update” and said the agency has been working on the document for several weeks.
Even with additional guidelines, officials said they do not foresee the White House or the coronavirus task force raising the alarm on the risks for children and teachers before school opens for the fall semester.
“So much emphasis has been put on supporting this idea of getting kids back to school that they aren’t going to backpedal down,” one of the officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said.
Over the last month Pence and Redfield have spent a significant amount of time on calls with governors and in television interviews promoting the message that the federal government, and the CDC guidelines in particular, should not be viewed by local leaders as an impediment to reopening schools. “We don’t want to be the reason you don’t open schools,” Pence told governors on a private call in July, saying the federal government would ensure states had the resources they needed to teach children in person starting in September.
Redfield told governors in early July that it was never his recommendation schools stay closed and that he did not want the CDC to be the reason why they didn’t open. He repeatedly told governors that the guidelines were not prescriptive.
Some officials, including Birx, have spoken up in recent weeks about the risks to counties experiencing an increase in positivity rates and hospitalizations. In a recent interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, Birx said she agreed with the CDC’s recommendations that schools should conduct virtual learning under certain circumstances. Those guidelines, though, only call for the consideration of virtual learning. Birx said that if there is “high case load and active community spread … we’re asking people to distance learn at this moment.”
Her comments marked a significant departure from the White House’s public stance on school reopenings. The following day, Trump took to Twitter, denouncing Birx, calling her “pathetic.”
Since then, there’s been an unwillingness on the part of senior officials working with the task force and the White House to speak up publicly about the potential for outbreaks in schools and the need to divert additional resources to local communities to contain the spread.
There are already signs that some state officials are not planning on implementing the strictest of protocols come September.
In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee told reporters last week that the state would adhere to the CDC’s guidelines “to the degree that we can.” Lee told Channel 5 in Nashville that his administration will require students to remember if they have come into contact for more than 10 minutes with a classmate who tests positive. Lee said only those individuals would be required to quarantine, not the entirety of the cohort, which the CDC recommends.