WASHINGTON, D.C., — President Donald Trump launched an all-out effort Tuesday pressing state and local officials to reopen schools this fall, arguing that some are keeping schools closed not because of the risks from the coronavirus pandemic but for political reasons.
“They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed,” Trump said at a White House discussion. “No way. We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.”
The White House’s roundtable gathered health and education leaders from across the nation who said schools and colleges are ready to open this fall and can do so safely. They argued that the risks of keeping students at home outweigh any risks from the virus, saying students need access to meal programs and mental health services.
“We want to reopen the schools,” Trump said. “Everybody wants it. The moms want it, the dads want it, the kids want it. It’s time to do it.
Iowa’s school districts faced a deadline last week for submitting plans to the state for three scenarios — a return to face-to-face instruction; continuing distance and online learning; and a hybrid of the two. But there was no state-required date by which districts must say which plan they’ll use.
The Iowa City Community School District said its guidelines for the return of students and staff include socially-distanced classroom configurations, plexiglass guards in high-density areas and required face masks or shields, with medical exemptions.
Other districts in the Corridor said they’d announce more specifics in the coming week.
In guidance given to the districts as they fashioned the plans, the Iowa Department of Education recommended against requiring face masks — a suggestion that brought a swift rebuke from the state’s teachers union.
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Asked at a news conference Tuesday about Trump’s remarks, Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said “we need to get the kids back in school for a whole host of reasons. I believe without hesitation that there is a way that we can do it in a safe and responsible manner. We are innovative and we are resilient and we are determined, and so we need to take that same type of mind-set and work with our educators and work with our young people and work with parents to make sure that we can get our kids back in school and do it in a safe and responsible manner.”
At the University of Iowa, which plans to bring students back to campus this fall with a mix of in-person classes and some virtual instruction, 45 teachers last week wrote an open letter to students expressing fears as the number of new virus cases was spiking in the university’s home county.
“We’d love to say that we’re eagerly anticipating meeting you this fall, but we have to be honest. We’re scared,” the group wrote. “We write this on the twelfth consecutive day of new, double-digit COVID-19 cases in Johnson County.”
The president of the nation’s largest education union said Trump was more interested in scoring points for reelection than in keeping students and staff safe.
“Trump has proven to be incapable of grasping that people are dying — that more than 130,000 Americans have already died,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association. “Educators want nothing more than to be back in classrooms and on college campuses with our students, but we must do it in a way that keeps students, educators and communities safe.”
At the White House event, Trump repeated his claim that Democrats want to keep schools closed for political — not health — reasons. He made the same claim on Twitter a day before, saying: “They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it!”
Some health experts have said politicizing the issue will actually make it harder to work toward reopening schools.
Jennifer Nuzzo, of Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 Testing Insights Initiative, said she was “deeply troubled” by Trump’s assertion.
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“When you make it about politics and just people trying to score points and get elected, I mean, I really think it’s a disservice to how incredibly important this issue is,” Nuzzo said in an interview. “And it really distracts from what I think we need, which is real solutions and a plan in order to make this happen.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sent mixed signals on the issue of reopening schools and universities, saying students should return to the classroom but also noting that virtual classes present the lowest risk of COVID-19 spread.
Speaking at Trump’s event Tuesday, however, the agency’s director said unequivocally that it’s better for students to be at school than home.
Dr. Robert Redfield noted that COVID-19 cases tend to be mild in young people, adding that the greatest risk is transmission from children to more vulnerable populations. He said the CDC encourages all schools to reopen with customized plans to minimize the spread of the virus while giving students access to school services.
“It’s clear that the greater risk to our society is to have these schools close,” Redfield said. “Nothing would cause me greater sadness than to see any school district or school use our guidance as a reason not to reopen.”
The CDC’s guidance for schools recommends that students and teachers wear masks “as feasible,” spread out desks, stagger schedules, eat meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria and add physical barriers between bathroom sinks.
Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.
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