WHITE HOUSE – Amid a surge of COVID-19 infections, especially among younger people, the White House is pressuring schools across the United States to reopen.
“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,” President Donald Trump said Tuesday at a White House event, where he heard from a chorus of invited voices echoing his sentiment.
Trump, the previous day, tweeted: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”
“Children’s mental health and social development must be as much of a priority as physical health,” Melania Trump, the first lady and mother of a school-age child, said during Tuesday’s East Room roundtable discussion on the safe reopening of America’s schools.
A significant unknown is whether young children, who are efficient transmitters of the influenza virus, will spread this coronavirus to older teachers and staff, and take the novel coronavirus home to their family members and elderly relatives.
“We don’t know that yet about the COVID virus. Does it really infect the children and they can transmit it or is it very difficult for this virus to infect children? Those studies are still under way,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told VOA.
The American Academy of Pediatrics “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
The pediatricians’ group says the “importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “never recommended school closures,” Director Robert Redfield told reporters on a conference call prior to the president’s event. ”We didn’t feel that was really an effective public health strategy that needed to be operationalized.”
Conflicting messages from the administration, public health officials and others is certain to create tension in the weeks ahead.
“I think what we’re going to find is a clashing between parent groups, teacher groups, school administrator groups, all trying to wrestle with what safety and well-being looks like as the schools reopen this fall,” John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA.
Education groups want at least $200 billion in federal funding to safely reopen at a time state coffers have been depleted due to the economic recession caused by the pandemic. Only $13.5 billion has been appropriated.
DeVos: ‘School must reopen’
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told governors during a conference call Tuesday that she opposes plans by some local school districts to limit classroom instruction to only a few days per week.
“Ultimately, it’s not a matter of if schools need to open, it’s a matter of how,” DeVos said on the call. “School must reopen, they must be fully operational and how that happens is best left to education and community leaders.”
The education secretary singled out for criticism Fairfax County, Virginia — one of the country’s biggest school districts — which wants families to choose between fully remote instruction or two days per week in the classroom.
“A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” DeVos said, calling the school district’s distance-learning program earlier this year a “disaster.”
Fairfax County Public Schools, in a statement to VOA, acknowledged problems, stating, “We would all prefer to have our school year, this fall, as a ‘normal’ in-person school year. However, the health and safety of our staff, our students and our community must outweigh all other factors. We are following the guidance of local, state and federal health officials in developing our return-to-school plan.”
The school district is working hard to ensure that all of its “students will receive meaningful instruction — both virtually and in-person — along with the opportunity to engage with students and staff this fall,” the statement added.
Reaction to possible reopening
The 3 million-member National Education Association is blasting Trump and DeVos.
“They have zero credibility for how to best support students, and how to reopen classrooms safely,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, a sixth-grade teacher, said in a statement issued while the White House event was underway. “The country must listen to the health experts on when to reopen schools and to educators on how to return to in-person instruction.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom said he expects schools to hold in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible” when the new instruction year begins, but physical classes remain uncertain in the country’s most populous state.
School districts in the second-largest state, Texas, are still attempting to figure out what to do when classes are to begin next month.
Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an emergency order Monday, requiring all “brick-and-mortar schools” to open next month “at least five days per week for all students.”
Florida is the third-biggest U.S. state in terms of population.
In the state of New York, the fourth most populous, Governor Andrew Cuomo is reasserting he is the sole authority to determine when schools will reopen.
“There has been no decision yet as to whether we are reopening schools,” Cuomo said Monday. “We want kids back in school for a number of reasons, but we’re not going to say children should go back to school until we know it’s safe.”
Trump, at the conclusion of Tuesday’s event, called it “ridiculous” that Harvard University and other institutions have decided it is too risky to hold classes on campus during the upcoming semester.
“They ought to be ashamed of themselves,” he said. “That’s called the easy way out.”
For such colleges and universities, the Trump administration is applying pressure another way by forcing campuses to reopen to in-person classes if they want to keep their international students enrolled.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday the State Department will not issue visas to students in online-only programs and Customs and Border Protection will not allow such students to enter the country.
VOA’s Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.