White House Pushes for Schools to Reopen in Fall

A custodial staffer sprays disinfectant in a high school classroom in Brownsville, Texas, on March 11, 2020. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Despite Covid-19 cases rising in over 30 states and America’s top infectious disease expert saying the country is still in the first wave of infections, the Trump administration on Tuesday urged schools to reopen this fall.

President Donald Trump, joined by First Lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials, called for the reopening of K-12 schools and universities during a roundtable Tuesday at the White House.

“We want to get them open quickly, beautifully in the fall. As you know this is a horrible disease, young people do extraordinarily well,” the president said after claiming that “the moms want it, the dads want it.”

According to the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 tracker, nearly 3 million Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and over 130,800 are dead.

“I encourage parents, teachers and schools to teach children about the importance of CDC guidelines,” Melania Trump said. “Children’s mental health and social development must be as much a priority as their physical health.”

There is no vaccine yet for the novel coronavirus. Public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, have suggested a vaccine could be available this winter or sometime early next year. He has also said the U.S. is still “knee deep” in the first wave of infections.

President Donald Trump speaks at a roundtable on reopening schools at the White House on Tuesday.

Fauci aired concerns during a conference hosted by the National Institutes of Health on Monday that first round vaccines for Covid-19 will likely be limited in number, meaning booster shots would be necessary to keep the virus at bay. Boosters are typical of new vaccines where the uncertainty of a virus and drug efficacy meet head to head. They are commonly administered to school-age children for diseases like whooping cough, chickenpox or measles.

The prospect of sending students back to school portends a potentially formidable confluence where the pandemic meets the return of seasonal influenza. This is coupled with a dip in other childhood immunizations across the U.S. from at least March to May, according to reports issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Much like during Tuesday’s roundtable, senior administration officials on a call with reporters heralded a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics as the definitive argument to bring students back into the classroom.

Citing the impact of school closures on overall childhood development, nutrition and mental health, the AAP also emphasized the need to ensure schools practice social distancing, routine cleaning and mask wearing.

The White House has increasingly touted low rates of infection among young children as the basis to reopen schools.

An official during Tuesday’s call said the biggest risk in K-12 and higher learning environments was that children and students who became infected could “somehow then transmit that infection to someone who is more vulnerable in the community, in the society.”

The New England Journal of Medicine has reported low mortality in children infected with Covid-19 in from Wuhan, China. Other studies, including one conducted in Switzerland and published by the medical journal The Lancet, drive home the importance of distinguishing how the virus effects different age groups among children.

The Lancet study found little infection among some of the youngest children who participated, students spanning 5 to 9 years old. But others in the next bracket, ages 10 to 19 years old, had higher rates of Covid-19 antibodies in their system. That same group had just as many antibodies in their system as adults age 20 to 49.

But the average age of teachers in the United States is 42, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This age group has become increasingly vulnerable to infection from the virus, particularly in places like Florida, which has seen a Covid-19 spike in recent weeks following relaxed social distancing restrictions and the clawing back of business closures.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said this week that the median age for infection in South Florida is now 33, with Miami-Dade County hovering around 41 and Palm Beach reporting a median infection age of 40. Nonetheless, Florida’s Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said Monday that schools would be required to provide opportunities for both in-person and remote learning.

“We hope most schools will be open. We hope most states will open,” President Trump said Tuesday, adding that he didn’t want to see schools in states closed for “political reasons.”

“No way. It’s very important for our country and the wellbeing of the students and parents. We are going to put a lot of pressure to open schools in the fall,” he added.  

It may be hard to predict how the pandemic will be influenced by schools reopening, as nearly 60 million K-12 students would be reintroduced into the system, along with 4 million K-12 teachers, 20 million higher education students and almost 1.3 million post-secondary teachers.

White House officials were mostly mum on how school funding disparities from state to state might dictate how students resume their studies successfully if the pandemic continues into the winter.

Factors like school location, class size and resources for things like remote learning or even cleaning supplies can shape outcomes. Race is also a factor, considering the disproportionate rate of Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths among black and brown communities compared to white people.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports 12.6 million children in America under 18 live in poverty and most of those children are black, Latino or Asian, prompting concern from some school district officials that many students will be left much further behind than others.

For now, $13.5 billion has been awarded to K-12 programs to assist with reopening during the Covid-19 pandemic from the CARES Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has so far refused to consider the $3 trillion Heroes Act, which appropriates billions more in funding for schools and universities.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel joined other Democratic attorneys general from California, Maine, New Mexico and Wisconsin in a lawsuit Tuesday challenging Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ interpretation of funding rules for private and public schools in the CARES Act.

Taxpayer funds for schools are typically allocated under a Title I formula, meaning that a portion of federal funding goes to low-income districts. The Education Department in April issued a rule effectively altering that by directing school districts to choose how to allocate Title I funds based on the number of all students present in a region, not just those from low-income households.

This prompted concerns that already disadvantaged students would be doubly harmed. In June, DeVos revised the rule by giving school districts the choice to allocate funding for private schools based on the number of low-income students, instead of all.  

But for Nessel, the revised rule still falls short and will leave thousands of public-school students at a distinct disadvantage.

“At a time when Michigan schools are facing an unprecedented crisis, every single child deserves the chance to succeed. But, yet again, Secretary DeVos has decided to tip the scales in favor of private schools, leaving the state’s public-school students behind,” the attorney general said.

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