The Trump administration on Sunday continued its push for schools to resume in-person education, even as public health experts warn that a one-size-fits-all reopening could drive infection and death rates even higher.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doubled down on President Donald Trump's insistence that kids can safely return to the classroom.
"There's nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous," she said on "Fox News Sunday."
"Parents are expecting that this fall their kids are going to have a full-time experience with their learning, and we need to follow through on that promise," DeVos said.
She said nothing, however, about what school superintendents have been saying they need in order to reopen their districts: billions of dollars in additional federal funding to cover the costs of changes they have to make and personal protective equipment they need to buy.
But rather than seek additional money, the administration has threatened to withhold funds from districts that don't reopen, even though it can't unilaterally stop funding approved by Congress.
"American investment in education is a promise to students and their families," DeVos said. "If schools aren't going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn't get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise."
Also appearing on CNN's "State of the Union," DeVos said there was "no desire to take money away," but she didn't specifically remove the administration's threat.
"Kids need to be in school," she said. "They need to be learning; they need to be moving ahead. And we can't -- we cannot be paralyzed and not allow that or not be intent on that happening."
Public health experts are urging a more cautious approach, which many local governments and school districts are already pursuing. They say there are too many uncertainties and variables for back-to-school to be back-to-normal.
Among the uncertainties are questions of where is the virus spreading rapidly, whether students live with aged grandparents, whether teachers have high-risk health conditions that would make online teaching safest, and whether infected children easily spread covid-19 to each other and to adults.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that local districts should have the discretion to determine their own strategy for resuming in-person lessons, including steps such as reducing classroom density. He called the reopening of schools a critical issue.
"No other country, with the exception maybe of Sweden, reopened their schools or kept their schools open against the backdrop of so much spread that we're attempting to do in this country, so we do face a unique risk," Gottlieb said.
Some evidence suggests that children do not easily spread the disease, but a big government study aims to find better proof. Results won't be available before the fall, and some schools are scheduled to reopen in just a few weeks.
"These are complicated issues. You can't just charge straight ahead," Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week in an online briefing.
Children infected with the coronavirus are more likely than adults to have mild illnesses, but their risk for severe disease and death isn't zero. While a virus-linked inflammatory condition is uncommon, most children who develop it require intensive care, and a few have died. Doctors don't know which children are at risk.
"The single most important thing we can do to keep our schools safe has nothing to do with what happens in school. It's how well we control covid-19 in the community," Frieden said. "Right now there are places around the country where the virus is spreading explosively, and it would be difficult if not impossible to operate schools safely until the virus is under better control."
READY TO PIVOT
The American Academy of Pediatrics, whose guidance the Trump administration has cited to support its stance, says the goal is for all students to be physically present in school. But, it adds, districts must be flexible, consult with health authorities and be ready to pivot as virus activity waxes and wanes.
"It is not that the American Academy of Pediatrics thinks this is a done deal because we have put out guidance," said Dr. Nicholas Beers, a member of the academy's school health council. "But what we do know is that we need to have a more realistic dialogue about the implications of virtual learning on the future of children. We have left whole swaths of society behind, whether it's because they have limited access to a computer or broadband internet," or because of other challenges that online education can't address.
DeVos said local school officials are smart enough to know when conditions are not right.
"There's going to be the exception to the rule, but the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall," she said.
"And where there are little flare-ups or hot spots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis."
Following CDC and academy guidelines would mean big changes for most schools. Mask-wearing would be strongly encouraged for adult staff members and students, except for the youngest. Desks would be distanced at least 3 feet apart; the CDC recommends 6 feet. Both groups suggest limiting adults allowed in schools, including parents, and canceling group activities such as choir and assemblies. Staggering arrival and dismissal times, holding outdoor classes, and keeping kids in the same classroom all day are other options.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called DeVos' comments "malfeasance and dereliction of duty."
"They're messing, the president and his administration are messing with the health of our children," the California Democrat said on CNN.
Congressional Democrats say Trump has no ability to defund schools that do not reopen five days a week, and they instead urged the administration to support funding to aid schools as part of a covid-19 stimulus bill expected to come up for votes at the end of the month.
Senate Democrats have proposed a $430 billion infusion for schools, and the Democratic-controlled House passed a bill in May with $100 billion.
While most funding typically comes from state and local sources, experts say schools will need more federal funding, not less, to reopen safely. Masks, extra cleaning supplies or janitors, additional classroom space, and mental health support for students and staff members are among potential costs. And with more parents out of work, more children will qualify for federally funded school lunches.
Zahrah Wattier, who teaches high school in Galveston, Texas, where cases and deaths have been spiking, expressed concern about returning. Until the state recently said schools must reopen to in-person classes, her district had been weighing options many others are considering, including full-time online teaching or a hybrid mix.
Wattier's school has mostly Hispanic and Black students, many from low-income families; almost 70% qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, and many have parents who work in "essential" jobs that increase potential exposure to the virus. Online education was hard for many with limited internet access, and Wattier knows that in-person classes can help even the playing field.
"My school has over 2,000 students. That's over 2,000 exposures in a day," said Wattier, whose parents live with the family and are both high-risk. "It's a lot to think about. It's my job. It's something I choose to do; it's something I love. Now it comes at a really high risk."
Lynn Morales, 49, teaches eighth-grade English at a high-poverty public school in Bloomington, Minn., that is considering several options, including in-person classes.
Some colleagues are considering not returning to the classroom because their children's day care centers aren't reopening. Some say they won't return until there's a vaccine.
"I am concerned, and it's because of the age group," Morales said. "Middle school students ... are lovely and I love them, but they touch, they get close, they roughhouse. It is their nature. They're 13 years old. They are defiant."
"If masks are required and a kid isn't wearing a mask, is my job description going to be to chase down this kid and insist they wear a mask? And what if they don't?"
Dr. Emily Landon, a University of Chicago infectious disease specialist, is helping the university and a campus prekindergarten through 12th-grade school decide how to reopen safely.
"Things are evolving from, 'We can't do it unless it's perfectly safe,' to more of a harm-reduction model, with the caveat that you can always step back" if virus activity flares, Landon said.
Single-occupancy dorms, outdoor classes, socially distanced classrooms and mask-wearing by students and faculty members are in the plan for the university. Face coverings will be required at the school, too. Policies may change depending on virus activity.
Landon dismissed complaints from some parents who say mask requirements represent a loss of personal freedom.
"It's not harmful for your child," she said. "If you see wearing masks as a loss of personal freedom, then you have to think the same of pants."
Information for this article was contributed by Lindsey Tanner, John Leicester and Arno Pedram of The Associated Press; by Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post; and by Erik Wasson and Ryan Beene of Bloomberg News.