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Trump administration pushes for school reopenings as coronavirus cases surge

In a series of events at the White House, the Trump administration will promote a plan to provide financial resources and share best practices as it strongly urges a return to school for what it says is the “holistic health” of the nation, according to administration officials who briefed reporters.

The school year is rapidly approaching, in some places as soon as August. Being able to safely reopen schools would not only help resume a normal education environment but alleviate parents of the obligations that come with having children at home, and free more adults to return to pre-pandemic jobs. But experts continue to struggle with ways to do so safely, especially at a time when the virus is reaching record highs in some parts of the country.
The Trump administration’s push to reopen schools is particularly notable as the federal government has largely left reopening decisions up to state and local governments.

Tuesday morning, the administration officials cast the push as an effort to protect the nation’s “most vulnerable” students due to the critical services schools provide. The officials closely echoed the President’s rationale for reopening the country, saying school closure disruption has had “significant negative impact.”

“It’s important to consider schools as high-priority settings within the community given the unique and critical role they play in our society,” a senior administration official said.

The official continued, “The local context and needs of all school districts are unique, and as such, plans for returning to school should be tailored in a way that minimize the risk of Covid-19 spread while providing students with the critical services, academic resources, and social emotional supports that they need. CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) encourages school districts to make reopening plans that anticipate Covid-19 cases, minimize the risk of spread, and then limit the need for the potential of school closures.”

Pressed about concerns with spiking cases in various areas, the senior official said there are “a variety of different strategies that schools can adopt that really minimize the risk and can open these schools quite safely,” but declined to provide specific details on those strategies.

There is risk, the official conceded, that students and others in school settings could get infected and “somehow then transmit that infection to someone who’s more vulnerable in the community,” adding that the administration will “double down on our commitment to protecting the vulnerable,” but declining to say how.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been largely out of view amid the pandemic, with other top health officials taking the lead on the reopening issue. She has appeared publicly at the White House only four times since March.

Tuesday morning, Vice President Mike Pence held a call with the nation’s governors on school reopening, the second such call with this focus. And a variety of stakeholders, including higher education and K-12 administrators, teachers, students, and parents, will be at the White House in the afternoon for a “robust afternoon discussing the importance” of school reopening, another senior administration official said. They are expected to discuss best practices.

Health and education leaders from the state level are also expected to attend, the official said, including Dr. Sally Goza of the American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP put out a report last week with recommendations pushing for students to be physically present in classrooms rather than continue remote learning.

A senior CDC official similarly told CNN’s Nick Valencia on Monday that “schools should be the first to open and the last to close,” adding, “Kids need to physically be in school.”

The CDC is planning to release new guidance on how best K-12 students can physically return to the classroom this year, the senior CDC official with knowledge of discussions said, though the exact timetable for the proposed new guidance is unclear.

The recommendation was presented internally to leaders at the CDC early last week and is “a priority this week,” according to the senior official. Over the weekend, senior officials at the agency presented CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield with details on the science behind why schools should reopen, the source said. The specifics of the guidance were not available.

CNN has reached out to the CDC and the White House coronavirus task force for comment on the new guidance.

There will be a series of conversations at the White House Tuesday afternoon, including a panel with DeVos and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that will be led by Dr. Deborah Birx. The day will culminate in a roundtable discussion in the afternoon with Trump, Pence, first lady Melania Trump, second lady Karen Pence and about 20 others.

Trump has repeatedly called for schools to reopen, tweeting Monday, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” He then suggested that Democrats “don’t want to open schools in the Fall for political reasons, not for health reasons!” ahead of the November election. His campaign has also used the issue to criticize presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, asking Tuesday morning if he will “side with union bosses who want to keep schools closed or parents who want their kids to keep learning?”
School reopenings has emerged as one of the trickiest — and most sensitive — issues as the nation looks to adopt a sense of normalcy under the pandemic. Some schools have made multiple plans so they can stay flexible just a few weeks before the start of the 2020-21 academic year.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

CNN’s Nick Valencia contributed to this report.




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