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White House Stumbles Over How Best To Reopen Schools, As Trump Blasts CDC Guidance

President Trump calls the recommendations “impractical” and says he’ll pressure states to open schools this fall — even threatening to cut funding. But the decision largely lies with states.

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In the latest move from the Trump administration to push for states to reopen schools this fall, Vice President Pence couched guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to safely reopen schools, saying it shouldn’t be used as a “barrier” to students returning to classrooms.

Speaking to reporters during a White House Coronavirus Task Force meeting at the Department of Education Wednesday afternoon, Pence stressed that states and local governments should “tailor their plans” to enable to students to return to in-person instruction.

“None of the CDC’s recommendations are intended to replace state and local rules and guidance,” Pence said.

Pence was joined by CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, who emphasized that it is not the intent of the CDC to provide a “rationale to keep schools closed” and that existing guidelines aren’t meant to be prescriptive.

Pence and Redfield’s comments come after President Trump slammed the CDC Wednesday morning, calling its guidelines for reopening schools in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic “impractical” and “expensive.”

“I disagree with the @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Health officials’ guidance

Existing CDC guidance includes temporary school dismissals if there is a substantial spread of COVID-19 within the community and, in cases of mild to moderate community transmission, modifying classes where students are in close contact, staggering arrival/dismissal times and enforcing social distancing.

The CDC continues to update its website with best practices, including this checklist for schools. It’s unclear which specific guidance the president was rebuking.

Pence said the CDC will be issuing new documents next week about how to reopen schools, including guidance on screening for COVID symptoms.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a strong statement in June in favor of bringing children back to the classroom in the fall wherever and whenever they can do so safely. The statement included recommendations about physical distancing, cleaning and disinfection, hand-washing, and using outdoor space whenever possible.

Funding threat confusion

Trump on Wednesday went as far as to threaten to cut off federal funding if schools do not reopen and suggested that his political opponents are somehow interfering with the reopening process, saying Democrats think reopening would hurt them politically in the November election.

However, the decision to reopen schools — like the decision to close them in March — is not top-down, but made from the bottom-up by thousands of local and state school leaders and public health officials.

Despite this, Trump has made his desires clear.

“We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools,” he said during a roundtable discussion on the subject Tuesday.

Meanwhile, senior administration officials told reporters on a background call Tuesday morning that while the White House will provide states with “best practices” on reopening, the decision remains a local one.

Hours after threatening to withhold funding to states that choose not to reopen, Pence assured reporters that the White House would be “very respectful” of state and local communities who can’t fully reopen schools due to “certain limitations.”

Trump’s comments and tweets and the subsequent clarifications from other members of the administration reflect the dissonance in the White House’s messaging on this issue.

How school funding works

On average, public schools receive less than 10% of their funding from the U.S. government, and that money is largely devoted to helping schools serve low-income students and children with disabilities. In short, the nation’s most vulnerable students.

For decades, that funding stream has flowed through Congress with bipartisan support, and Trump has no authority to cut it off or add new requirements to funding lawmakers have already allocated.

Following Trump’s tweet, Evan Hollander, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee, underscored that the power of the purse rests with Congress, not the president.

“Congress provides federal education funding to support some of the most vulnerable young people in our country. The President has no authority to cut off funding for these students, and threatening to do so to prop up his flailing campaign is offensive,” Hollander told NPR in a statement.

In fact, public schools are facing a financial crisis as states slash education budgets in response to the pandemic-driven recession, and the federal government has so far done little to help them make up for those cuts or shoulder the expensive, new burdens of following public health guidance: deep-cleaning schools, hiring nurses, creating socially distanced classrooms.

During Wednesday’s briefing, Pence suggested that the administration is considering a new relief package for schools and could potentially create incentives in such a bailout for states and/or districts that reopen schools more broadly.

Congress set aside roughly $13 billion for schools as part of the CARES Act, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has complicated the distribution of that money by insisting that public schools use a far larger share of the aid to help students attending private schools. A bill passed by the House to provide school districts with another $58 billion has languished in the Senate.

NPR’s congressional reporter Claudia Grisales and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.

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