“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 step up pressure on state and local officials to reopen school campuses 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 a raft of 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 and daily temperature screenings for everyone.
Appearing alongside Pence at Wednesday’s briefing, CDC Director Robert R. Redfield said that he recognized that “there is a variety of unique circumstances for different schools”and that the additional guidance would reflect that.
“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 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 disadvantages 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 on Wednesday morning in which he threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that refuse to open their campuses.
About 90 percent 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 argued that reopening schools was important so that parents can schedule their workdays “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 in 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 play down 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 perhaps the most concise message of the administration officials.
“Ultimately it’s not a matter of if schools should reopen, it’s simply a matter of how,” she said, during a briefing at the Department of Education.