WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday threatened to withhold funding for schools that do not reopen in the fall and assailed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for returning to the classroom as “very tough & expensive” — a condemnation that prompted Vice President Mike Pence to announce the CDC would soon change them.
“The president said today we just don’t want the guidance to be too tough, and that is the reason why next week CDC is going to be issuing a new set of tools,” Pence said during a briefing by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, prompting educators and Trump critics to accuse the administration of playing politics with children’s health.
Although Pence said administration officials “are going to respect those unique communities that may have challenges that have rising cases or rising positivity,” he emphasized “we don’t want the guidance from CDC to be a reason why schools don’t open.”
Trump’s focus on schools is his latest attempt to cajole the country back to normalcy — and, crucially for him, to reboot the struggling economy ahead of the November election — even as the virus tears through parts of the South and West, breaking records for daily new cases in California and threatening to overwhelm hospitals in Texas and Arizona.
With Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also ramping up pressure on all schools to open five days a week, a battle is shaping up between the administration and local officials who have been poring over reopening plans. In many cases, the local officials have concluded that it is not possible for school — one of society’s most basic public services — to reopen normally in a matter of weeks.
“I think it’s inappropriate for the feds to be thinking about this as a one-size-fits-all,” Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday. The GOP governor called on federal officials to work with local officials, parents, and teachers “to ensure that schools have the resources they need to be able to open.”
Trump began his offensive on schools Tuesday by holding an education round table where he suggested without evidence that his political opponents want to keep schools closed in an effort to hurt him.
“They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed — no way,” Trump said. “So we’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open.”
He ratcheted his tone up Wednesday with the funding threat — which could turn out to be mostly bluster, since the vast majority of school funding comes from state and local taxes, and Congress controls federal appropriations. He also directed his rhetoric at the CDC’s guidelines.
The agency’s guidance, which was last updated on June 3, advises schools to cancel large gatherings and encourage students and staff to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart at all times. It also says “extended school dismissals” may be necessary in areas with substantial spread of the virus. The social distancing recommendation has led school districts around the country to consider hybrid models that cycle groups of students into the classroom for a reduced number days each week, instead of the usual five.
“You can’t do social spacing any other way,” said Dan Domenech, the executive director of the School Superintendents Association. “For the president and his secretary of education to come out and say all the children should be in school five days a week, all the time, is irresponsible and it’s ignoring all the work that’s gone into planning.”
Trump is not alone in urging that students return to the classroom. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement last month saying that “schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development” and that the goal should be to have students “physically present in school” this fall. While acknowledging that social distancing was important, the statement said there is evidence that 3 feet might be good enough if students are wearing masks and are asymptomatic.
But the president’s push is the latest example of him skating over the advice of many public health experts and guidelines from his own CDC to get life back to normal and kickstart the economy. He encouraged churches to reopen even in places where spread of the virus was not falling — and new outbreaks have sprung up among worshipers in states including Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas. And Trump has cheered on states more broadly for reopening their economies, even as cases have risen dangerously.
“He’s the businessman, he’s the guy who can build the economy — he is trying to put all of his hopes into restarting the economy as quickly as possible,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “You can’t open the economy until parents have a place for their kids, and that’s school and child care.”
Parents around the country are desperate for schools to reopen safely, but a poll from Politico and Morning Consult in late June found 54 percent of Americans were at least somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of reopening schools at the beginning of the school year.
A group of teachers’ unions and other educational groups immediately pushed back on Trump Tuesday, saying the administration had “failed” students and has “zero credibility in the minds of educators and parents when it comes to this major decision.”
“We’re not going to let him play fast and loose with kids or teachers in schools,” said Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, which has endorsed presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden for president.
“This political game that he’s playing to try to create chaos is really going to hurt kids in the long run,” she said in an interview.
Several of the country’s biggest school districts have already announced plans to reopen with a scaled back schedule or have suggested that local surges in the virus could affect their planning. In New York City, most students will attend school two or three days a week under a plan announced Wednesday. The Miami-Dade school district in Florida will reopen entirely online if its county is still in Phase 1 of its own reopening process. And a top health official in Los Angeles said the local surge in cases there could endanger any plans to reopen schools.
In Massachusetts, the state has asked school districts to plan for three different scenarios: traditional in-school learning, remote teaching, or a mix of the two. Most districts haven’t said what their plans will include, and it’s not clear exactly when school will return.
When making plans to return, it’s important to consider the needs of immuno-compromised students, teachers, and other faculty for whom sitting in a classroom could be dangerous, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
“We can’t force the hand of what we’re learning in medical science,” he said.
Many educators, well aware that online learning has left many of their students behind, are eager to reopen in one form or another — but they say that doing so is a daunting process that will require more resources than they have. Congress appropriated money to help schools reopen in the CARES act, but a rule by DeVos has diverted some of that funding to private schools.
Stuart Packard, superintendent of the tiny Buttonwillow Union School District, in California, said he is planning to open for 5 days a week, but his students will have to be 3.5 to 4 feet apart, not six. He has come up with an elaborate system for taking student temperatures on the bus daily. “It’s not just a simple case of somebody saying you have to go back,” he said.
In Stratford, Conn., superintendent Janet Robinson says she has had more than 90 people planning various reopening scenarios. She is trying to figure out how to create isolation areas in nurses offices, in case students or staff come down with COVID-19, and she says the district needs to buy masks and thermometers because they donated those supplies to local hospitals at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Everybody wants to get some normalcy here,” she said, but she added it was her sense of student safety — not threats from the president — that will guide her decision to reopen.
And she said she is concerned that new guidelines from the CDC could be softer for political reasons.
“If it’s political,” she said, “the government will lose so much credibility.”
Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.