White House preps school reopening guidelines as Trump threatens funding

Trump's tweet came as the White House ramps up their focus on reopening the economy.
Image: Governor Cuomo And Mayor De Blasio Argue Over New York School Closures Until Fall
A closed public school in Brooklyn, N.Y., in April.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

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By Carol E. Lee, Peter Alexander and Lauren Egan

WASHINGTON — The White House is preparing to release new reopening guidelines for schools as President Donald Trump threatened Wednesday to “cut off” funding for those that do not reopen this fall.

White House officials said Wednesday that the guidance released earlier this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was too restrictive.

The White House's heavy-handed approach and Trump's mounting pressure campaign on state and local officials to fully reopen schools this fall, viewed by the administration as crucial to economic recovery, comes despite a surge in coronavirus cases across the country.

"We are safely reopening our country and very importantly, we are safely reopening our schools," Trump said in an appearance on Wednesday. "We want the schools to be reopened and going."

Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday at a briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force that the CDC next week would issue "a new set of tools, five different documents that will be giving more clarity on the guidance going forward.”

Among the CDC guidelines for re-opening schools that the White House finds too restrictive is limiting the sharing of toys, electronic devices and books, a senior administration official said.

“There are concerns they’re overly prescriptive, making it virtually impossible for many schools to reopen,” the official said.

Whether to reopen schools in the fall is one of the most consequential decisions facing Americans in the response to the pandemic. While some teachers and parents have urged schools to reopen, they have also warned that school districts will need more federal resources to create a safe environment for kids and educators to return to.

Trump has sought to cast the debate about schools as politically partisan, arguing that Democrats are trying to keep schools closed to hurt his re-election chances. Democrats have dismissed the charge as unfounded, pointing to teacher and parent groups that are concerned about the health risks.

The administration official said the new guidelines from the White House will include some of those issued by the CDC in May and recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which had advocated for in-person learning in the fall. The White House also is discussing ways to tie federal funding for schools to the pace of their reopening plans as part of congressional negotiations over a Phase 4 stimulus bill, according to the official.

The dueling guidelines are similar to the White House’s decision to issue its own guidance for reopening churches in May because, officials said at the time, the CDC guidelines were too restrictive.

Trump on Wednesday criticized the CDC, pointing to schools that have opened in European countries where the virus spread has slowed and positioning the debate over American schools as a partisan political division.

“In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.

Trump also tweeted that he disagreed with the CDC's “very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools," adding that they ask schools to do "very impractical things" and that he would be meeting with the CDC.

Pence took a softer approach at Wednesday's briefing.

“We know each school system has unique capabilities, different facilities, and what parents around the country should know is that we are here to help,” Pence said. “We are here to work with their governors, with their local education officials, to get our kids back to school.”

Although most of school budgets come from state and local property taxes, those resources have been significantly depleted as states face steep budget shortfalls due to the coronavirus.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended at the end of June that students be “physically present in school,” citing social and educational risks of keeping kids at home this fall. The AAP’s recommendation took some by surprise as it appeared to contradict guidance from other health officials, such as the CDC, which recommended remote learning.

New York City public schools, the nation's largest school district, announced Wednesday that they will return to classrooms this fall on a part-time basis with in-person instruction two or three days a week.

Reopening schools could also have an impact on Trump's re-election. If schools remain closed, parents would be forced to stay at home, unable to work at their same capacity, hindering the economic resurgence Trump is hoping to deliver before November.

Trump has accused Democrats of not wanting to reopen schools for "political reasons" because they "think it will help them in November."

Trump and other White House officials hosted a series of public events Tuesday focused on reopening schools and universities.

“We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open. It’s very important. It’s very important for our country,” Trump said Tuesday.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos backed up Trump during a conference call with governors, saying that it was "not a matter of if schools need to open, it’s a matter of how."