WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Wednesday intensified his demand that schools fully reopen this fall, slamming the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pressuring it to loosen guidance and threatening to cut funding for schools that do not open.
The CDC was already planning to issue new guidelines for schools in the coming days. But Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday explicitly tied the effort to Trump's ire.
"The president said today we just don't want the guidance to be too tough," Pence told reporters. "And that's the reason next week the CDC is going to be issuing a new set of tools."
Pence, speaking at a briefing of the White House coronavirus task force, was replying to a question about the CDC's recommendation that students be kept six feet apart to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
School officials across the country have concluded they cannot fully reopen while following that guidance, because classrooms are too small to accommodate all students with the recommended distancing.
The White House is pressing the case that opening school is necessary for students' academic and social-emotional well-being, and Trump's allies see a political imperative in convincing Americans that the nation has recovered from the coronavirus crisis.
They're applying the same pressure to colleges and universities. Trump this week chided Harvard University for offering classes online. And immigration officials on Monday announced rules that would block international students from studying in the United States if they are not taking classes in person. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued over the rule on Wednesday.
The administration is finding it nearly impossible to control the situation, with the president's views often at odds with those of his health advisers, and decision-making resting with 50 states, more than 1,300 school districts and thousands of colleges and universities.
On Wednesday, New York City schools, the nation's largest school system, announced a plan that will have most students in school two days a week and learning from home the other three. Many other systems have announced or are considering similar plans.
Trump did appear to get help this week fromFlorida, where the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, ordered all schools to open five days a week. But even there, some superintendents quickly pushed back. Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said that he does not see a realistic path to reopening five days a week and that he "will never compromise the health" of students, teachers and staffers. Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said his district would not reopen until coronavirus rates have been reduced.
Administration officials gave conflicting answers Wednesday as to whether hybrid models like New York's would satisfy Trump's call for schools to reopen.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said schools "must fully open and they must be fully operational," and she singled out plans in Fairfax County, Va., for a hybrid system as a failure.
CDC Director Robert Redfield played down Trump's criticism of the CDC guidelines, saying after the briefing that the two were "totally aligned. "We're both trying to open the schools," he said.
But he said he is comfortable with different school systems adopting different approaches.
"The advantage of everybody not doing it in the exact same way is you begin to learn what aspects are more effective than others," he said after the briefing. "There's no definition of 'open.' It can be any variety of how the schools decide to do it."
He said his agency's goal is to work with districts to help them overcome challenges and find ways to open their doors.
He also sought to minimize the risks to children of a virus whose worst effects have been seen in older Americans. He noted that children are far less likely to become ill and said there is no evidence that children transmit the virus to others. Other experts say the ability of children to spread the pathogen is unknown.
Since the CDC guidance was issued in mid-May, the number of coronavirus cases has soared, driven by infections in the Sun Belt. On Wednesday, thousands of new cases in Florida and Arizona pushed the total number of confirmed infections in the United States past 3 million, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. The U.S. coronavirus death toll topped 128,000.
At the coronavirus briefing Wednesday, officials took an optimistic tack, saying the situation was improving in some states. And they pressed the administration's campaign to open school buildings. Pence and other senior officials repeatedly said the CDC guidance should not be used as an excuse to keep schools closed.
"Reopening schools comes with some risk, but there are risks to keeping kids at home, too," said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. "At home, kids aren't benefiting from social stimulation. They may be falling behind in learning. . . . They may not be getting the nutrition that they get at school. And it may be difficult for parents to get back to work" with their children still at home.
But Trump's dismissal of the agency's work again raised questions about whether its recommendations would be driven by science or by the president's preferences.
Four months from Election Day, Trump has also pressed local and state officials to reopen businesses and churches and to lift coronavirus restrictions, seeking to convince Americans that the nation is experiencing a "great American comeback" after the economy and American life slowed sharply this spring.
The president's allies see his reelection riding on whether Americans see the country as moving past the coronavirus crisis or still mired in it. Schools are a key element: Many parents cannot go back to work if their children are at home. And while there were successes, remote instruction cobbled together in the spring was a disaster in much of the country.
Still, parents are divided, with some eager to get back to normal and others fearful that reopened schools will put their children and families at risk. An ABC News-Ipsos survey last month found about half of parents of children under 18 were willing to send their children to school and about half unwilling.
School officials also are divided. A poll of 1,450 principals released Wednesday by the National Association of Secondary School Principals found just over a third were somewhat or extremely confident in their schools' or district's "ability to preserve the health of staff and students as schools physically reopen in the fall."
Districts also face budget cuts, making it difficult to pay for the supplies and staff they'll need to keep students and teachers healthy. Meanwhile, many teachers are reluctant to return to the classroom, especially as the number of virus cases continues to rise.
On Tuesday, Trump promised a pressure campaign aimed at opening schools this fall, and on Wednesday, he was true to his word. In a pair of morning tweets, he accused the CDC of issuing "very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools" and said he disagreed with the advice. Referring to the CDC, he wrote: "they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!"
He also asserted that schools have opened in other countries without problem and argued that Democrats think that opening them will be politically damaging. He ended with a nebulous threat: "May cut off funding if not open!"
Trump has no power to cut federal funding already allocated to states and districts, but the vice president suggested the administration would seek to tie any future aid to opening of schools.
"As we work with Congress on the next round of state support, we're going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and an encouragement to kids get back to school," Pence said.
Democrats agreed that schools should reopen but said Trump was putting politics ahead of safety. "The president is irresponsibly trying to bully schools into reopening, no matter the risk," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee.
Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House Education Committee, accused Trump of "prioritizing politics over the health and safety of students, parents and educators."
"This move is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous," he said.
The House has passed a new coronavirus stimulus package that includes $90 billion for education, but it has not advanced in the Republican-controlled Senate.
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The Washington Post's Toluse Olorunnipa and Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.
RICHMOND, Va. - Beth Almore played the cello as J.E.B. Stuart fell.
Sitting on a shady median along Monument Avenue Tuesday morning, Almore refused to look at the Confederate statue as a crane hoisted it from the base where it had stood since 1907. She played Bach, and the haunting "Spiegel im Spiegel" by Arvo Pärt, and afterward wouldn't even say the name of the man whose bronze likeness now lay on its side on a flatbed truck to be hauled away.
"That's a person who deserves to be a footnote in history," said Almore, 53, a public school music teacher in Richmond. A photo of her great-great grandmother, born into slavery in Mississippi, rested on her music stand. "What concerns me is that if it takes this much effort to get a statue removed, what is it going to take to get systemic racism dismantled in this country?"
After a solid month of day and night protests, all four Confederate statues on city-owned property along Monument Avenue are gone. Only the grandest and oldest monument - to Gen. Robert E. Lee, which towers 60 feet over state-owned land - remains. A judge has so far blocked Gov. Ralph Northam (D) from removing it.
A national reckoning with racism and inequity, triggered by police killings of blacks, has led in the South to a final attack on the icons of the Confederacy, with the battle flag banned by NASCAR and removed from the state flag in Mississippi.
In Richmond, a group of well-heeled residents is fighting in court to save Lee, arguing in part that losing the statue will harm property values in a grand part of the city that was the capital of the Confederacy. "It was mystical, magical to walk down the street any time of year," said Patrick McSweeney, 77, a lawyer who grew up around the corner from the monuments and now is representing the property owners.
The popular effort to take them down, he said, is "worse than the Bastille."
But the voices that once defined the former capital of the Confederacy have become hard to find in the past month. When Mayor Levar Stoney (D) ordered a statue of Stonewall Jackson removed last week, one white man rushed the base of the monument, openly crying and begging for the work to stop. He was hustled away by sheriff's deputies.
No one stood to defend Stuart on Tuesday, or Matthew Fontaine Maury when the city dismantled him the week before. Or Jefferson Davis when protesters hauled him down last month.
Instead,people who once felt unwelcome in this part of town have transformed the avenue into a monument of their own. The granite bases of the statues are splashed with colorful graffiti - some profane and angry, some in memory of African Americans killed by police. But it's the people - all ages, all races - who constitute the biggest transformation, filling public spaces that once stood grand and empty awith speeches and music and chanting.
"I grew up around here. . . . . Any time before the last month you would not see a soul out here," said one young man, 25, who declined to give his name as he stood with an assault-style rifle in an encampment near the Lee statue on Monday. He said he feared reprisals from statue defenders, who sometimes appear in small groups at night, or from police.
"This is all love - all community coming together," said the young man, whose shirt read "Legalize Being Black." Asked how his firearm fit in with a message of love, he replied that protesters have felt threatened and want to show that they have the same right to bear arms as anyone else.
For an older generation of African Americans, the statues represent a painful past that many had given up on reconciling.
"I think they should make them all mechanical and put quarters in them so the kids can ride them," said a man who would only give his name as Michael, age 69. He said he grew up in Richmond's public housing projects, and as a young man, "we didn't come over this way, okay? If you were black, they would arrest you or call the cops on you if you walked on the grass out here on the traffic circle."
Wren Vessel, who gave his age as "over 60," grew up in rural King and Queen County and used to come to town with his father selling tomatoes, green beans and butter beans at the Shockoe Bottom farmers market. He recalled wanting a hot dog but being turned away from long lines at the "colored" entrance to a Richmond diner when he was too young to understand segregation.
The statues were like that, too, he said. At first they just seemed like big works of art. Only recently has he grasped the history of racial injustice suggested by their very presence. If blacks had been given true equality after the Civil War, Vessel said, the statues might never have been built.
"My vision is for my grandkids and all people - not just my grandkids, but all kids regardless of race - that we have a more fair society," he said. "And the Constitution's not just a piece of paper, but it's something we live by," he said.
Keith June, 56, lives in Arlington, Va., but has visited Richmond for nearly 30 years, making a hobby of photographing the monuments. "Quite frankly I never thought they would come down," he said.
As an African American, June said he grew particularly interested in Confederate statues after being stationed in Germany for the Army and watching that nation wrestle with its World War II legacy.
"It's almost like the Civil War is finally ending," he said this week at the Lee statue. "Some of this is generational. Some of this is, you know, Richmond is changing, our nation is changing."
For many of the younger protesters, the statues are just the beginning.
Mikhail Smith, who is African American, said he grew up in Reston, Va., and came to Richmond in March after losing his bartending job to the coronavirus pandemic. The protests have given him a new purpose in life, he said, and sparked interest in a career in politics or the law.
"This is one of the things we were fighting for, why I've been out here for 30 days straight," said Smith, who turned 26 on Tuesday. Watching Stuart fall, he said, "is like my birthday present to myself."
At the same time, he said he sees the dismantling of the statues as a superficial change, and maybe even a distraction. "They're making a big deal out of this to kind of take away from other things, like evictions," Smith said, referring to the notoriously high eviction rate for low-income people in Richmond. "This is like painting an old car, it's not really like getting a new one."
Aaron Wade, 29, flew to Richmond late last month from Los Angeles to see the spectacle in the town where he was born and raised. He and his wife, who also grew up in Richmond, have been shooting film for a planned documentary.
"I didn't want to miss a piece of history in my hometown. I couldn't do it," Wade, who is African American, said last week as he watched work crews dismantle the Maury statue.
The fall of the Jackson monument the day before was so dramatic - torrential rain, thunder pealing, church bells ringing - that "Spike Lee couldn't have staged it any better," said Maria Warith-Wade, 26, a filmmaker.
Wade grew up in the east end of Richmond and attended a Catholic boy's high school located just blocks from the monuments. As a member of the school's cross country team, he ran down Monument Avenue all the time. "Going past a lot of these monuments, you know, you become numb to it, because it's so part of the ingrained history," he said.
Warith-Wade said she had a very different experience. "I had parents that were very much into social movements and history," she said, "and so I never had the privilege of seeing them as, you know, these beautiful things."
Her family took her to historic sites around Virginia, she said, but always made sure she knew the full story. They went to Jamestown, but also learned about Gabriel, an enslaved man who led a failed revolt in Richmond in 1800.
Warith-Wade said she tried to use those perspectives to see the statues from the point of view of the people who erected them. "The women of the Confederacy, I think that they really wanted to make something beautiful for what they believed in. And if I were in their shoes, maybe I would have thought that way - I don't know; I'm not a white woman."
Now, she believes, there's a chance to do something truly beautiful. "I really hope that one day, we're able to see a lot of these spots on Monument Avenue reclaimed in a way that is welcoming to all the Richmond community," she said.