As he tried to rescue his reelection campaign this week, President Donald Trump seemed to be in full retreat on key coronavirus topics – from the efficacy of mask-wearing to the risks of holding the GOP convention in Florida. The one exception was school reopenings, which he has insisted must happen in person this fall.
Of all the mind-bending coronavirus decisions that Trump has made, the political risks of his back-to-school gamble are perhaps the greatest. At a time when he is struggling with shrinking support among women, moderates and seniors, he is urging parents to send their children back into the classroom even though much is still unknown about the long-term risks to their health and how rapidly they could spread it to vulnerable adults, including grandparents and teachers.
It was nearly impossible to follow the President’s logic this week when he expressed fresh concern about the safety of convention-goers in Jacksonville, Florida, but in the same briefing argued that parents should not be worried about sending their children back to school or bringing the virus home.
He acknowledged Thursday that schools in some hotspots may need to delay reopening until infection rates come down, and said his administration was asking Congress to provide $105 billion in the next stimulus bill to schools that reopen, while in districts that don’t reopen, he’s requesting the money “go to the parents” so they can decide whether to send their children to private or charter schools.
But his threats to tether funding to school districts’ willingness to reopen is quickly becoming the next political battle of wills between Trump and local officials. Not to mention Senate Republicans – some in tight reelections – who have dismissed Trump’s call to withhold more federal aid from schools that remain shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump’s belief that schools must reopen is clearly grounded in his desire to get the economy moving again – which he thinks is the lynchpin of his reelection chances – but once again, he has staked out a position at odds with where the majority of Americans are in this uncertain moment.
As the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its latest guidance on returning to the classroom, three major national polls released this week found many parents are unwilling to send their children back to school and are concerned their childrens’ schools do not have the resources to make them safe. In an ABC/Ipsos poll released Friday, 55% of adults said they did not want to see public schools reopen in their area for in-person instruction.
And 60% of parents with school-aged kids said schools should delay opening to minimize the risk of infection in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released Thursday.
The push to reopen
Those findings came as Trump inaccurately said during a briefing this week that children don’t transmit the virus easily and don’t bring it home easily, two claims that are still being investigated by the scientific community. (Researchers in a recent South Korea study found that children between 10 and 19 transmit the virus just as easily as adults).
“We would like to see schools open. We want to see the economy open,” Trump said Wednesday. “I would like to see the schools open – open 100%. And we’ll do it safely; we’ll do it carefully.”
But the President does not seem to be heeding the warnings raised by his top public health advisers about what is unknown. Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, has repeatedly cautioned that scientists and doctors are still studying how quickly children under the age of 10 can spread the virus, in part because many of them have been at home, away from their peers, during the peak months of the outbreak.
Despite efforts to minimize the risk, certain children have suffered severe consequences from contracting the disease, including death, and those with underlying conditions such as obesity, asthma and lung disease are at far greater risk. Some children were hospitalized in the United States and the United Kingdom with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which has symptoms that are similar to Kawasaki disease, which causes inflammation in the walls of blood vessels.
Beyond that, more evidence is emerging that some Americans who contract Covid-19 may have long-term health consequences after they have recovered, and the long-term impact of the virus on children is still unknown.
Despite those uncertainties, White House officials without medical or public health credentials have largely echoed the President’s line, stressing the importance of getting children back to the classroom, because of the negative consequences of missing in-person studies.
Speaking to “The Conservative Circus,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made the wildly inaccurate claim that children are “stoppers of the disease” who “don’t get it and transmit it themselves” as part of her argument that “the default” should be getting children back into the classroom.
During an early July task force briefing, as Trump began ramping up the pressure for schools to reopen, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield emphasized that “the ability of this virus to cause significant illness in children is very, very, very limited” and added that unlike influenza, where children are often the instrument of transmission, “we really don’t have evidence that children are driving the transmission cycle of this.”
Yet in the same briefing, Birx noted that the medical community still doesn’t have much data to draw conclusions about how they transmit the virus to older adults, including vulnerable grandparents. (In a huge complicating factor for schools, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 24% of the nation’s teachers have underlying conditions — including age — that put them at higher risk of Covid-19 related complications).
Birx again underscored the limitations of the data in an interview on NBC’s “Today” Friday, stating that while children under 18 are less sick, “there are some that suffer terrible consequences if they have underlying conditions.”
She referenced the recent South Korea study that found children in that country who were nine years old and under transmitted the virus at lower rates than older children: “I think that is still an open question that needs to be studied in the United States. We certainly know from other studies that children under 10 do get infected – it’s just unclear how rapidly they spread the virus.”
But White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany stressed Friday that CDC officials have said the rate of infection has generally been low among children and argued that schools “are essential places of business” and “teachers are essential personnel.”
“The best available evidence indicates if children become infected, they are far less likely to suffer severe symptoms,” McEnany said, pointing to CDC guidance. “Death rates among school-aged children are much lower than among adults, and far lower than during the H1N1 pandemic, for instance, when schools remained open.”
Like Birx, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, walked a careful line in several appearances Friday as the administration continued its campaign to reopen schools this fall to help spur an economic recovery.
“As a broad, default position we should try as best as we possibly can to keep the children in school and to get them back to school when the school season starts,” Fauci said during a live interview with The Washington Post, “because of the downstream, unintended ripple-effect consequences of keeping children out of school, and the impact on parents who need to take care of them.”
But as a caveat, Fauci said parents should look to their local school district for guidance and make the decision on whether to put children back in school based on the prevalence of the virus where the family lives and how much the school district is doing to protect kids who return to in-person classes.
Confusion and fear among American parents
The back-and-forth has understandably left parents adrift, struggling to figure out how to balance their safety concerns with their eagerness to return to productive lives, which, for many, depends on their children being in school during the day.
Many parents of means are hiring teachers and tutors on the side to supplement online instruction this fall, a luxury that seems certain to widen the gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children as the entire education system tries to transition to distance learning.
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Schools also serve as a refuge for students who would go hungry at home, with some 22 million children accessing free or reduced lunch at school. Educators are also a frontline defense for children who may be experiencing abuse at home.
The push-pull between fears about the spread of the virus if children return to school and parents’ frustrations about trying to work from home with children underfoot were captured in the Kaiser Family Foundation survey released Thursday.
While the majority of parents favored delaying school openings, only 34% of parents said they preferred for schools to open sooner so parents could work and children could access services. Parents of color were more likely to say their own child’s school lacked the resources need to open safely.
Illustrating the Gordian knot of the pandemic, however, about two-thirds of parents also said they are worried that their children will fall behind socially, emotionally and academically while out of school – and 51% said they are concerned about losing income if they aren’t able to go to work because their children are at home.
Clearly the President’s effort to course correct this week was driven by a realization that he was likely to lose in November, as huge majorities disapproved of his handling of the pandemic. But there is no evidence yet that his epiphany will extend to schools and how parents will view his willingness to put their children at risk.
When asked about the President’s change in tone this week, and the more cautious approach he is taking after months of insisting that the virus would magically disappear, McEnany insisted there has been no shift in Trump’s mindset: “There has been no change,” she said. “The President has been consistent on this.”