Donald Trump’s aggressive push to fully reopen schools this fall is being driven by a belief inside the president’s orbit that the policy will be a political winner for him this November. Their confidence, they say, is backed up by the campaign’s private polling data.
According to two sources familiar with the surveys, the Trump re-election team has conducted polling in recent days on the topic of reopening schools by September, and saw data that they found broadly favorable to the president’s position. Senior White House officials, as well as Trump himself, have been briefed on the numbers, which they are hoping could portend gains in some critical demographics, including in the suburbs where the president has been bleeding support, the sources noted.
In the past several days, Trump has fielded phone calls from various friends, major donors, and prominent political supporters on his drive to reopen schools, according to three individuals with knowledge of those calls. Some of those who corresponded with the president have young children and expressed reservations about sending them back during a still-raging pandemic.
And even some of Trump’s most hardcore supporters concede that they are approaching the issue of reopening schools with extreme caution. Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, a Fox News contributor and a top informal faith adviser to the president, said on Wednesday that while “no one has reached out to” him from the White House on the topic, “our church school is carefully looking at [the] situation in Dallas—a hot spot—and currently planning for a hybrid model of in-person and virtual instruction.”
Jeffress continued. “Like all of us, the administration is trying to strike the balance between the need for safety and the need to resume life,” he said, stressing that “going too far in either direction could have serious consequences.”
But some Trump supporters and donors have also been enthusiastic with the president’s demands that schools open their doors, telling him that he had found the perfect issue to hammer at with less than fourth months to go in the presidential election. Trump too is increasingly convinced that pushing for school reopenings could help him rally a public that has largely soured on his handling of the pandemic.
One person who has been in the room with Trump recounted that he spoke repeatedly about the hot meals that kids get at schools that they might not be able to get at home. Another source said that Trump has also told those close to him that many voters are with him on this one, largely because parents “don’t want their kids to be dumb,” citing the greater benefits to younger, developing children when they learn in a classroom versus doing so remotely or via video chat.
“The severe negative impacts of keeping schools closed, including mental and social development, are well documented, including by pediatricians,” White House spokesman Judd Deere wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast on Thursday afternoon. “The President wants to see schools open and the Administration is committed to working in partnership with university presidents, superintendents, principals, counselors, teachers, health professionals, parents, and students to ensure in-person learning resumes in a safe and healthy way.”
But Trump’s beliefs are running up against concerns from some medical professionals about the safety of packing classrooms as COVID cases are rising, with the pandemic having killed more than 133,000 and infected 3 million people. And for Trump’s critics, they underscore the White House’s broader willingness to set aside scientific caution in pursuit of quick political wins.
Even among senior administration officials working with the coronavirus task force and within the Centers for Disease Control there is fear that they may incur the wrath of the president if they deviate even slightly from his push for states to open schools no matter the risk. Those fears have resulted in crosscurrent messaging over the past few days.
On Wednesday morning, just before a meeting between coronavirus task force members and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education, President Trump tweeted that he would push the CDC to revamp its guidelines on school reopenings, claiming they were too restrictive. Then he posted that he would consider pulling funding from states which did not move to reopen classrooms.
The tweets set off a chaotic 24 hours in which Vice President Mike Pence and CDC Director Robert Redfield faced a slew of questions about what exactly the president was referring to. No one seemed to have a clear answer, with officials telling reporters that the president’s posts were merely a reflection of the idea that the administration did not want guidelines to prevent states from reopening schools.
At the White House, officials scrambled to schedule a press conference that would address the discrepancies. The press team put a briefing on the books only to remove it minutes later. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon Wednesday that White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany took the podium to relay that, among other items, the president was not on board with the part of the CDC’s recommendations that focused on food services, in particular that students bring their own lunches.
Even before Trump’s remarks Wednesday, Redfield had told governors that it was never his recommendation that schools stay closed and that he did not want the CDC to be the reason why they didn’t open. He said the center was preparing a set of additional documents to supplement its June 30 guidelines and repeatedly told the governors that they were not prescriptive.
Two senior CDC officials said that they worried the White House, and the president in particular, would demand that they change the recommendations just as they did with the guidelines for reopening religious institutions. In that case, too, Trump thought the guidelines were too strict and would not allow Americans to worship in churches. Some of those CDC recommendations were ultimately shelved.
In order to prevent a repeat of that episode, those same officials said, the CDC had wanted to work more closely with the White House coronavirus task force to ensure continuity on a school reopening policy. But those hopes were dashed when Trump tweeted before the groups had finalized a set of recommendations.
While President Trump has created a foil of sorts in the CDC, he has found an ally in his push to reopen schools in DeVos. In the governors’ call, DeVos chastised those on the line for doing “next to nothing” to accommodate students during the pandemic and insisted that the risk reopening schools was akin to the risk of riding a bike or being “shot off in a rocket into space.”
Both she and Pence have also repeatedly cited the American Academy of Pediatrics’ assessment that students should return back to school because the classroom structure helps with mental health, provides children nutrition and meal options and helps with emotional and social development. The guidelines make clear that schools will have to reopen understanding that there are risks associated with doing so. They do not, however, advocate that schools reopen without implementing social distancing and face covering guidelines.
It’s unclear if Trump’s gambit—aimed largely at suburban female voters and moms—will work in his favor. Various other recent attempts to win back large chunks of these voters have been tried and fallen flat almost immediately in the face of the global pandemic, a cratered U.S. economy, and a mass protest movement against institutional racism.
Still, the president’s campaign has been more than eager this week to use the issue of schools opening as a cudgel against Biden, and to try to paint Trump as a champion of education.
“President Trump understands education is the single greatest equalizer in our society and that we need to get children back into the classroom so they do not fall behind and parents can return to work,” said Trump 2020 spokeswoman Samantha Zager in a statement to The Daily Beast earlier this week, adding that “Joe Biden puts his loyalty to the teachers union ahead of the well-being of students and families in America.”