The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won’t revise its guidelines for schools during the coronavirus pandemic despite the president’s depraved threats of retribution if they don’t fully return to in-person classes, the agency’s director Dr. Robert Redfield said on Thursday. But he did say additional “reference documents” would be released to make the rules more “practical.”
Officials in Donald Trump’s administration, not to mention the president himself, keep contradicting each other on what exactly the plan is and generating confusion just weeks before the start of the fall semester. The current CDC guidelines include recommendations such as keeping desks six feet apart, closing communal gathering places like dining rooms and playgrounds, mandating face coverings for students and staff, and limiting the use of and regularly disinfecting shared items like electronics or gym equipment. They’re strongly suggested protocols for reducing public health risk, not binding law, and public school systems are run mainly on the local level.
Trump is angry about said guidelines because he is catastrophically unable to understand anything going on around him but plummeting poll numbers and believes rushing children back into schools as quickly and cheaply as possible during a raging pandemic will somehow restore the semblance of normalcy. So Trump has done what he always does: demand the reality he’d prefer instead of the one that actually exists.
On Wednesday, Trump threatened schools with the withholding of federal funding if they do not fully reopen, which he is apparently unaware he lacks the constitutional authority to do. He also insisted that Democrats were plotting to keep schools closed to hurt him politically.
After all, if you can’t beat the pandemic, join it!
A conveniently anonymous CDC official was also dispatched this week to tell CNN that “schools should be the first to open and the last to close.” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suggested on Thursday that if public schools don’t fully reopen, the White House will somehow “take that money” and give it to families to pursue education elsewhere (presumably private or religious institutions).
The risk level of reopening schools is unestablished. It might be more dangerous for teachers, staff, and local communities than the students themselves, and it also has to be weighed against the major consequences of continued shutdowns for students’ education and psychological wellbeing. Those public health experts in favor of reopening schools urge taking the kind of significant precautions that Trump is demanding to be watered down. Per the Washington Post, school administrators warn they cannot simultaneously follow rigorous safety guidelines and reopen in full, though administration officials like DeVos and Redfield have contradicted each other on whether a hybrid model is acceptable.
The CDC has largely been sidelined during the ongoing pandemic. Redfield is reportedly on thin ice with the White House for coronavirus testing debacles on the one hand and periodically contradicting Trump’s all-is-well narrative and supposedly counting too many coronavirus deaths on the other. In May, the CDC was reportedly stalled from releasing in-depth guidelines for businesses as states rushed to reopen and the president was busy proclaiming victory; it then took a week to post loosened guidelines and didn’t post the original set until days later. The rushed reopenings coupled with vague and contradictory messaging from health authorities are a big part of why confirmed cases in the U.S. have since surged to over three million.
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence seemed to indicate to reporters that the forthcoming supplementary material is designed to better assuage the president’s swelling anger lobes: “The President said today we just don’t want the guidance to be too tough, and that’s the reason why, next week, the CDC’s going to be issuing a new set of tools, five different documents that will be giving even more clarity on the guidance going forward.”
Redfield toed the party line on Wednesday, telling reporters, “I want to make it very clear that what is not the intent of CDC’s guidelines is to be used as a rationale to keep schools closed.” On Thursday, he insisted that everyone in the Trump administration is on the same page and that the guidelines wouldn’t be changed, just complemented with new material.
“Our guidelines are our guidelines, but we are going to provide additional reference documents to aid basically communities in trying to open K-through-12s,” Redfield said on Good Morning America. “It’s not a revision of the guidelines; it’s just to provide additional information to help schools be able to use the guidance we put forward.”
But Redfield also suggested that the guidelines might be made more flexible: “Right now, we’re continuing to work with the local jurisdictions to how they want to take the portfolio of guidance that we’ve given to make them practical for their schools to reopen.”
It does not appear that everyone is anywhere close to being on the same page. According to NBC News, the additional materials being prepared are being issued by the White House, not the CDC, and will “include some of those issued by the CDC in May and recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.” NBC News also reported that administration officials are considering a plan to “tie federal funding for schools to the pace of their reopening plans as part of congressional negotiations over a Phase 4 stimulus bill.”