White House kicks off push to open schools even as new coronavirus cases shatter records

'SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!' Donald Trump tweeted on Monday

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Tuesday 07 July 2020 15:09
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The White House is kicking off a public pressure campaign intended to push local, state and tribal leaders across the country to open schools in the fall despite a record-shattering spike in coronavirus cases.

Senior administration officials began a day of what was dubbed "programming" at the executive mansion that will include events with Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump on the topic with a call with reporters. What they offered, however, were few ideas or new guidelines for how local and tribal school systems can open their schools in the fall without risking virus spikes in their communities. But it remains unclear how parents can go back to work with their young children at home, complicating efforts to reopen the economy.

The United States is in the midst of a remarkable surge in Covid-19 cases after a brief plateau during which some states, mostly run by Republican governors feeling pressure from Mr Trump, threw open their economies. During the first six days of July alone, the country has reported 300,000 new cases; the president and his team have mostly shrugged that spike off, saying the increase in confirmed cases is from an increase in testing.

Whatever the cause, hundreds of thousands of Americans are now sick with the highly-contagious disease and the virus is showing no signs of, in Mr Trump's words, "disappearing" any time soon.

But the president and White House officials continue downplaying the severity of the pandemic, with Mr Trump saying over the weekend that 99 per cent of cases are "totally harmless." Health experts disagree, noting they just beginning to track long term effects like a loss of the ability to smell and taste, reduced lung capability and other body changes.

As their Covid-skepticism continues, two senior administration officials passed a phone between each other during the call even though Covid-19 is incredibly contagious and can live on surfaces. That isn't stopping the day's schools "programming" or a presidential-endorsed effort to pressure local and tribal officials into getting children back in classrooms in a few months.

Repeatedly during the call, officials stressed that schools are "important" and children's lives can be "disrupted" when learning institutions are closed. (Neither was a new revelation, however.)

The officials, notably, did not talk of any coming executive order Mr Trump might sign on reopening schools.

"School decisions are local decisions so we're going to provide folks the resources ... and provide best practices ... to make sure this can be done safely moving forward," said a senior administration official, granted anonymity to be candid.

The comment was an acknowledgement that the Trump administration has little legal authority over the country's school systems, which are controlled within communities.

Instead, they promised to provide local and tribal education officials "guidelines" and "best practices" and "common sense measures" designed to allow them to "do this safely." That came even as the officials acknowledged there is a risk that children will contract Covid-19 at school and pass it on to an older family member.

But the White House is offering no new thinking or proposals for protecting older people who are most at risk of getting gravely ill or even dying from coronavirus. Instead, the officials offered mere words, saying once schools open local and tribal leaders must "double down" on protecting those most vulnerable to the disease.

The officials did note they have $13 billion in federal funds to help schools deal with coronavirus, implying those that meet the president's desire for class to be in session this fall might receive payments first. But one official batted away a question that the monies could be used as a carrot or stick by the administration.

House Republicans are joining the White House push, with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy penning an op-ed urging Congress to provide help like aid for childcare facilities and schools. Among the GOP ideas are assistance to help existing daycare facilities stay in business and new, "home-based" ones to open, while providing protections to school systems for lawsuits if children contract Covid-19 at school.

Mr Pence will speak with governors late Tuesday morning about efforts to reopen, and Mr Trump and his wife will participate in a mid-afternoon event on opening schools.

The president made his view clear with a Monday afternoon tweet: "SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!"

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