President Donald Trump rebuffed the country's health experts on Wednesday, saying their recommendations for schools to reopen in the coming weeks in the face of the surging coronavirus pandemic are too tough, expensive and "very impractical."
Trump, who on Tuesday pressed the country's 50 state governors and local school officials to restart in-person classes in August and September, said he disagrees with the guidelines produced by the government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning that normal classrooms full of students would pose the "highest risk" of spreading the disease.
"While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things," Trump said. "I will be meeting with them!!!" Trump said on Twitter.
He earlier said, "In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!"
On Tuesday, at a White House meeting with health and education officials, Trump said, "We want to reopen the schools. Everybody wants it. The moms want it, the dads want it, the kids want it. It's time to do it."
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At the White House on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said it was "absolutely essential we get our kids back in classrooms." He said many children from impoverished families rely on schools for midday lunches for essential nutrition, along with after-school programs.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said schools "must be fully open and operational." She said it was "not a matter of if...but how" they would be reopened.
Trump's push to reopen schools comes as community and university officials in the country grapple with what to do. Schools were almost uniformly shut across the country in March in favor of online instruction as the initial wave of the pandemic swept the U.S.
Some are calling for a mix of options and leaving it up to parents to decide whether to keep their children home with continued online classes or allow them to return to school for limited in-class instruction a couple days a week. The country's biggest city, New York, unveiled such a plan Wednesday for a mix of at-home and in-class instruction, but teachers in some communities are balking at any plan that calls for in-person instruction.
Trump criticized Harvard, one of the world's leading universities, for its plan that all students will learn remotely, even as 40 percent of students will be invited to live on campus.
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"They ought to be ashamed of themselves, if you want to know the truth," he said. "That's called the easy way out."
On CNN, the head of the National Education Association, a large teachers union, dared Trump to visit a classroom full of young pupils if health precautions have not been taken.
"I double dog dare Donald Trump to sit in a class of 39 sixth-graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we're going to bring our kids back safely," association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia said.
The National Education Association has called for more personal protective equipment, revamping classrooms to provide for social distancing and frequent deep cleaning of classrooms with disinfectants. But she said school systems do not have enough money to cover such additional public health initiatives.
Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said on ABC's "Good Morning America" show that Trump is right about parents wanting school to open, but added, "The question isn't, 'Do we want schools open?' The question is, 'What do we need to do to keep schools open?' And the single biggest thing we need to do is keep the level of virus low in the community."
Jha said schools in Arizona, Florida and Texas, three states that have recorded recent surges in coronavirus cases, wouldn't be able to remain open because too many people, including teachers and staff, would become ill and force another shutdown.
The CDC, in school reopening guidelines it posted in mid-May, said, "The more people a student or staff member interacts with, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread." The disease is caused by the coronavirus.
It said the "lowest risk" would be for students and teachers to "engage in virtual-only classes, activities, and events."
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The CDC said there was "more risk" with small, in-person classes, activities, and events, with groups of students staying together and with the same teacher throughout school days and groups not mixing. It said in this scenario, students would have to remain at least two meters apart from each other and not share objects in the classroom. Classes would have to be staggered or limited in size.
In the "highest risk" category, the CDC said there would be full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events, with students not spaced apart, as they share classroom materials and supplies and mix between classes and activities.
At the White House news briefing, CDC director Robert Redfield said the agency's guidelines for safe school reopenings are not "requirements" and should not be used by local officials to keep schools closed.
"President Trump continues to deny the severity of the problem and is instead focused on his own re-election campaign," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson said at the opening of a hearing into the crisis Wednesday. "Many state and local governments, public health officials, hospitals, and medical workers are doing the best they can under the circumstances, but we need real leadership at the federal level if our country is to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic."
The U.S. has now recorded more than 131,590 coronavirus deaths and more than 3 million confirmed cases, with both numbers being the biggest national figures across the globe. The latest model produced by health experts at the University of Washington shows that overall, more than 208,000 Americans will die from COVID-19 by November.
The number of new cases in the U.S. has surged past 50,000 a day in the past week, particularly fueled by businesses that reopened too soon across the southern tier of U.S. states and younger people who began socializing in public again without taking any precautions, such as wearing face masks or socially distancing themselves from others.
At the Homeland Security hearing Wednesday, Umair Shah, a health authority in Harris County, Texas, one of the areas of the country experiencing a spike in cases, said the nation's haphazard approach was problematic.
"When you have the federal government not having a national strategy, what that does is that everybody is fending for themselves, everybody is doing things differently. While we believe in, really, state and local nuances, we also believe there should be a path forward that the federal government provides, as we've seen in previous emergencies," Shah told lawmakers.