Mike Pence, the US vice-president, on Wednesday followed up demands made by Donald Trump and declared: “It’s time for us to get our kids back to school,” even as the coronavirus surged beyond the bleak milestone of 3 million cases across the US – setting up what could be the next big battle of the pandemic.
Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus taskforce, said the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would issue new guidance next week for the reopening of schools in the autumn, prompting criticism that it is yielding to pressure from the president.
“We’re working to reopen America and reopen America’s schools,” the vice-president said at a taskforce press briefing at the education department, where the top infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci was notably absent. “It’s time for us get our kids back to school.”
Pence added: “It is absolutely essential that we get our kids back in the classroom for in-person learning.”
In May the CDC issued guidelines for schools that included staggered arrival times, temperature screenings, face masks for staff, lunch in classrooms and desks positioned at least 6ft apart to ensure physical distancing.
After months of remote learning, school districts across the country are wrestling with how to physically reopen as the virus rages in some states, especially heavily populated Florida, Texas and California, while Arizona’s health system is under strain.
The US broke another record on Tuesday, reporting more than 60,000 new confirmed infections of Covid-19. Last week it recorded what was then the highest daily rise in the world, with more than 55,000 new infections on Thursday.
Critics warn that, having pushed state governors to reopen too soon, Trump is at risk of doing the same with schools, putting children, teachers and parents in danger of the unpredictable pathogen.
On Wednesday, he tweeted a threat to cut off funding to schools that did not reopen and made clear his displeasure with the CDC’s current advice. “I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools,” he tweeted. “While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!”
The healthcare advocacy group Protect Our Care condemned the tweet. Zac Petkanas, its coronavirus war room director, said: “It’s outrageous but not unsurprising that Donald Trump is openly pressuring his own medical experts at the CDC to weaken their scientific guidelines intended to keep school kids safe.”
He added: “Everyone wants schools to reopen as soon as possible but parents, teachers and staff are right to expect it to be done safely and based on the independent advice of medical experts. Trump’s election-driven rush to reopen states has already caused enough death and destruction. We cannot allow him to do the same with our schools given how many precious little lives are on the line.”
Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, tweeted: “The President thinks what the @CDCgov is asking schools to do is ‘impractical’. I think it’s incomprehensible in the midst of a soaring #covid pandemic to send students & staff back to school with no guidance, no safety guardrails & no funding.”
But Pence said the CDC would be issuing five new documents next week, raising fears that it is bowing to Trump’s demands. “I think every American knows that we can safely reopen our schools,” he insisted.
Dr Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, denied that the agency’s recommendations were meant to discourage schools from reopening. “I want to make it very clear that what is not the intent of the CDC guidelines is to be used as a rationale to keep schools closed,” he told the briefing. “We are prepared to work with each school, each jurisdiction to help them use the different strategies we have proposed so they come up with the optimal strategy for those schools.”
Asked if the CDC was going to weaken its guidelines because of pressure from the White House, Redfield avoided a direct answer, saying: “As the president said today, we just don’t want the guidance to be too tough. That’s why the CDC will be issuing more guidance going forward.”
He added: “Our recommendations are not requirements, and they’re not meant to be prescriptive.”
Pence, who noted that he had been married to a schoolteacher for 35 years, was also questioned about the president’s tweet. He said: “We don’t want the guidance from CDC to be a reason why schools don’t open. We want to partner with states, with local education officials, with governors, with local health officials to find a way to meet their needs to open up. I think the president’s statement this morning was simply reflective of that desire.”
He was backed by Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, who insisted: “Ultimately, it’s not a matter of if schools should reopen, it’s simply a matter of how. They must fully open and they must be fully operational and how that happens is best left to education and community leaders.”
The vice-president confirmed that more than 3 million Americans had tested positive for the coronavirus and over 130,000 have died, the highest numbers in the world. But he pointed to a slowing coronavirus death rate nationally and early indications of the number of positive tests flattening in Arizona, Florida and Texas – three states that in recent weeks have seen some of the biggest climbs in infections.
“We are encouraged that the average fatality rate continues to be low and steady,” Pence said. “We’ve slowed the spread before and we can do it again.”