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DeVos defends push to reopen schools as Trump administration is accused of 'messing with' children's health

"Going back to school presents the biggest risk for the spread of the coronavirus," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "They ignore science and they ignore governance to make this happen."
Image: Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at a White House coronavirus task force briefing at the Education Department in Washington on Wednesday.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos defended the Trump administration's aggressive push to reopen schools in the fall amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic, saying Sunday that a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning is "not a valid choice for families."

Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," DeVos also refused to say whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines for schools should be followed uniformly.

"The CDC guidelines are just that, meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation," she said.

The guidelines say children meeting in groups "can put everyone at risk," adding that children "can pass this virus onto others who have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19." The guidelines also call for 6 feet of social distancing and other measures to decrease the risk of spreading the virus.

With the coronavirus running rampant throughout much of the Southern U.S., where record caseloads and increased hospitalizations are being reported, schools are scrambling to figure out plans for the imminent school year.

Some districts, such as the New York City public schools, are planning on such a hybrid model. In recent days, President Donald Trump and his administration have pressed for schools to fully reopen, with the president claiming that Democrats want schools to stay closed to hurt his re-election chances. He has also threatened to withhold money from districts that don't reopen in the fall.

"School leaders across the country need to be making plans" to have students in the classroom, DeVos said. "There will be exceptions to the rule, but the rule should be kids go back to school this fall. And where there are little flare-ups or hot spots, that can be dealt with school by school or a case-by-case basis. There's ample opportunity to have kids in school."

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Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Dr. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health and human services for health, said: "We have to do this safely, but kids not being in school risk their social and emotional health, risk many people with nutrition, the recognition of child abuse, child sexual abuse. It's really important to get kids physically back in school.

"But we do have to do that safely," he said. "And the first thing we need to do is we need to get the virus under control. When we get the virus more under control, then we can really think about how we put children back in the classroom."

Giroir said the Trump administration's guidelines "tend to be a little bit academic and long," adding that the administration is working to make additional school guidelines "much more concise so people can really follow them and understand them."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on "State of the Union" that DeVos' interview was evidence of "malfeasance" and "dereliction of duty."

"This is appalling," she said. "The president and his administration are messing with the health of our children. We all want our children to go back to school. Teachers do. Parents do. And children do. But they must go back safely.

"And when you hear what the administration is saying, we know they have no appreciation for the failure that has brought us to this point," she added. "Going back to school presents the biggest risk for the spread of the coronavirus. They ignore science and they ignore governance to make this happen."

She said that the CDC's guidelines should be a requirement for schools and that Trump should invoke the Defense Production Act to help provide necessary personal protective equipment and testing supplies to school districts.

In Florida, Miami-Dade County Public Schools are "going to obviously do our very best in our community considering where the health data currently is," Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"Positivity rate of 29.1 percent. A month ago, it was at 6 percent," he said of his area. "Our start to the school year is six weeks from now."

He said that if people follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks, among other measures, "conditions may be appropriate and healthy for students to return to the very best model of teaching and learning, which is in person."

"But we need the community's collaboration. We need the science to drive the practice rather than politics influencing what is legitimately a community concern," he said.

Scott Brabrand, the superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, said on "State of the Union" that the CDC's guidelines "simply mean that you can't put every kid back in a school with the existing square footage footprint. It's just that simple."

"We're the size of five Pentagons," he said. "You would need another five Pentagons of space to be able to safely accommodate all of the students in Fairfax County Public Schools."

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Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said on "Fox News Sunday" that issuing an ultimatum for schools to open is wrongheaded.

"Mandating it under a tough timeline is the wrong approach," he said, adding, "There are going to be many challenges to opening schools safely."

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that although "kids are less susceptible to the infection and less likely to transmit it, less susceptible doesn't mean they're not susceptible."

He said the country has "got to take measures to make sure" that the coronavirus "doesn't become epidemic in children."