WASHINGTON - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will issue new guidance on school openings, Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday, hours after President Donald Trump criticized earlier recommendations as ‘'very impractical'' and vowed to meet with the agency himself.
Citing Trump’s concern that the guidance might be ‘'too tough,‘' Pence said the CDC would issue additional recommendations starting next week that would provide ‘'more clarity'' and stressed that the guidelines should not supplant judgments by local officials.
‘'We don’t want the guidance from CDC to be a reason why schools don’t open,‘' Pence said. ‘'I think that every American, every American knows that we can safely reopen our schools. . . . We want, as the president said this morning, to make sure that what we’re doing doesn’t stand in the way of doing that.‘'
His comments, at a White House coronavirus task force briefing, came about two hours after Trump undercut the recommendations of administration health experts as he continued to ramp up pressure on state and local officials to reopen schools this fall.
‘'I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools,‘' Trump wrote. ‘'While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!‘'
In May, the CDC recommended social distancing policies for schools: desks at least six feet apart and facing the same direction, lunch in classrooms, staggered arrival times, cloth masks for staff members and daily temperature screenings for everyone.
Appearing alongside Pence at Wednesday’s briefing, CDC Director Robert Redfield said the additional guidance would reflect the fact that ‘'there is a variety of unique circumstances for different schools.‘'
‘'It would be personally very disappointing to me and I know my agency if we saw that individuals were using these guidelines as a rationale for not reopening our schools,‘' he added.
The announcement about additional CDC guidance came as Trump and other officials made a concerted effort Wednesday to portray reopening schools as key to the nation’s recovery from the pandemic.
‘'It’s absolutely essential that we get our kids back into the classroom for in-person learning,‘' Pence said at the outset of the task force briefing at which a parade of other officials argued that the health risks to children were outweighed by the downsides of keeping them at home, including stunted academic growth.
During the briefing, Pence, who leads the task force, struggled at times to explain what the president meant by his tweets, including another one Wednesday morning in which he threatened to withhold federal funding to schools that refuse to open.
About 90% of school funding comes from states and localities, and Trump has limited ability to curtail appropriations approved by Congress.
As Trump threatened federal intervention, Pence stressed the importance of local decision-making - even allowing that in coronavirus hot spots, officials could decide to curtail school openings in limited cases.
The far more dominant message was that the cost of keeping schools closed is greater than allowing them to open.
‘'We can’t let our kids fall behind academically,‘' Pence said.
Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said reopening schools was important so parents can schedule their work days ‘'in a predictable manner,‘' while Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said ‘'reopening schools safely may be the single most important thing that we can do to support healthy families during this pandemic.‘'
‘'Reopening schools comes with some risk, but there are risks to keeping kids at home too,‘' he said. ‘'At home, kids aren’t benefiting from social stimulation. They may be falling behind and learning. They may be more vulnerable to abuse that goes unreported by the mandatory reporters in our school system. They may not be getting special services.‘'
Redfield, meanwhile, sought to downplay the risks of a virus that has had a disproportionate impact on older Americans.
‘'Clearly, the ability of this virus to cause significant illness in children is very, very, very, very limited,‘' he said.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered a concise message.
‘‘Ultimately it’s not a matter of if schools should reopen, it’s simply a matter of how,‘' she said during a briefing staged at the Department of Education.