WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday said the White House plans to pressure state governors and educators to reopen schools in the fall, despite a soaring rate of coronavirus infections in several states and an overall increase nationwide.
"We're very much going to put pressure on the governors and the schools to reopen," Trump said at a White House event Tuesday on school reopenings. "Open your schools in the fall," the president told attendees, who were seated close together despite the fact that very few were wearing masks.
The question of just how to reopen schools has become one of the thorniest issues of the entire national response to the deadly pandemic.
More than 50 million children attend school in the United States, and the near blanket closures of schools this spring forced millions of parents to become teachers overnight, often on top of holding down their own full-time jobs.
As the traditional start of the school year approaches, there are few concrete plans in place at either the state or the federal level about how to open schools safely. And as the rate of coronavirus cases has soared to record levels in the past week, parents and educators have become increasingly anxious about whether there is any way to make in-person school safe for both students and teachers.
According to experts, decisions about whether to reopen school systems should be made at the local level in most cases, although they stress that schools across the nation will need additional federal funding in order to retrofit classrooms and common areas to accommodate social distancing.
"We should try the best as possible to get the children back to school and the schools open for the simple reason that the secondary, unintended consequences of having children not being able to go to school has ripple effects for the family that might have deleterious effects that really override the so-called safety benefits," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's premier infectious disease specialist, during a livestreamed event Tuesday with Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama.
"So you don't want to be risking the health of the children or their families, but you've got to follow the guidelines depending upon the level and penetrance of infection in the community," said Fauci.
In some counties with few or no coronavirus cases, officials and parents might not need to worry much about reopening schools, Fauci said. He added that in other counties, modifications might be necessary to reduce the risk of spread such as staggering class schedules to reduce density in school buildings.
But for Trump, who faces an uphill battle for reelection, the question of whether schools reopen in the fall is quickly becoming one the president is weaponizing to serve his campaign. Over the past several weeks, Trump has begun accusing his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, of deliberately trying to keep schools closed for no reason other than to damage Trump's reelection prospects.
"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," said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, a sixth-grade teacher and president of the 3 million-member National Education Association, in a statement Tuesday.
"The reality is no one should listen to Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos when it comes to what is best for students. Trump has not once proven credible, compassionate or thoughtful when it comes to this pandemic," said Eskelsen Garcia, also referring to the Education secretary.
Fauci has been careful not to underestimate the potential risk to families of reopening schools. While young people are less likely to develop serious illnesses from Covid-19, Fauci warned earlier this week that the virus could still "put them out of action for weeks at a time."
They should also remember that when they are infected, there's the likelihood that they could spread the disease to people who are at high risk of serious illness, he said.
"They could infect someone who infects someone, and then all of a sudden someone's grandmother, grandfather or aunt who's getting chemotherapy for breast cancer gets infected," Fauci said.
"You're part of the propagation of the pandemic, so it's your responsibility to yourself as well as to society to avoid infection."
— CNBC's Will Feuer contributed to this report.