WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump ramped up his pressure campaign to get public schools to fully reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, tweeting Wednesday that he may withhold federal funding from schools that do not resume in-person classes this fall.
The tweet was the latest step in an administration-wide effort to convince schools nationwide that the risks of not reopening for in-person classes outweigh those posed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has reached record levels across the country in recent weeks.
The lion's share of school funding in America comes from states and municipalities, and not from the federal government. Nonetheless, the White House is exploring ways to use the next coronavirus relief bill to tie the slice of school funding that does come from Washington to the pace of different schools' reopenings.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that the Trump administration is looking to the upcoming Phase 4 coronavirus relief bill as a potential way to exert leverage over schools. "As we work with Congress on the next round of state support, we're going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back in school," said Pence.
Shortly after Trump's first tweet about defunding schools, the president pivoted to attacking his own administration's health guidelines for reopening schools, calling them tough, expensive and impractical.
But instead of laying out a plan to enable schools to meet the existing CDC guidelines, Pence said that next week the CDC will "be issuing five new documents." These documents will include new guidelines on preparing communities for school reopenings, as well as "decision making tools for parents and caregivers," and "symptom screening considerations" for students and teachers.
"As the president said today, we just don't want the guidance to be too tough," Pence told reporters. "That's why the CDC will be issuing more guidance going forward, because we know each school system has unique capabilities and different facilities."
Reopening schools is also a key component of helping the U.S. economy get back on solid footing after record breaking job losses this spring. More than 50 million children attend school in the United States, and the near blanket closures of schools and daycare centers in March and April forced millions of parents to become teachers overnight, often on top of holding down their own full-time jobs.
But with the traditional start of the school year just weeks away, there are still few concrete plans in place on either the state or the federal level to help schools determine how best to reopen safely.
And now, with daily rates of new coronavirus cases soaring, parents and educators are growing increasingly anxious about whether there is any way to make in-person school safe enough to convince both students and teachers to return to the classroom.
The president's threat to cut off school funding and his subsequent attack on the CDC prompted a swift rebuke from governors and educators, who have been saying for months that more federal funding will be needed if schools are to safely reopen in the fall.
On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also dismissed the idea that Trump has the legal authority to require schools, which are controlled at the state and local level, and not the federal level, to reopen.
"This has been there, done that. School reopenings are state decisions. Period," Cuomo said at a press conference. "That is the law. That is the way we're going to proceed. It's not up to the president of the United States."
But while Trump lacks the authority to force schools to reopen, when it comes to providing additional money for schools, that authority rests firmly with Congress.
The nation's second largest teachers union announced the launch Wednesday of a $1 million ad campaign aimed at lobbying Congress to approve additional funds to help schools prepare for the demands of reopening in the midst of a pandemic that shows no sign of abating.
"We can't reopen the economy without reopening schools, and we can't reopen schools without the resources to do so safely," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which sponsored the ad campaign.
"Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos demanding schools reopen but failing to produce a plan or the resources required is not doing what kids and educators need," Weingarten said.
On Capitol Hill, there is growing support for including additional funds for schools in the next coronavirus relief bill, which is expected to pass later this month.
"The surest step back to normalcy in our country is when 70-75 million college and high school and elementary school students go back to school," Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Senate committee that oversees education, said in a late June appearance on CNBC. "If we need more money for that, I'm for that."
Despite Pence's effort to downplay the severity of Trump's threats on Wednesday, the president's tweets nonetheless represent an escalation of Trump's battle with his own health experts over how to reopen the country.
Earlier this week, Trump directly contradicted the nation's premier infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is also a key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
"The current state [of the virus spread] is really not good," Fauci said Tuesday on Facebook Live. "We are still knee deep in the first wave" of Covid-19 infections, he added.
When asked later in the day about Fauci's assessment of the current state of the pandemic, Trump replied, "I disagree with him."
"I think we are in a good place," the president said in an interview with the "Full Court Press" show. "We've done a good job. I think we are going to be in two, three, four weeks ... I think we are going to be in very good shape."
For much of the day Tuesday, Trump and other top officials, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, hosted a series of conference calls and public events to push for school reopenings.
"Ultimately, it's not a matter of if schools need to open, it's a matter of how," DeVos said during a conference call with the nation's governors. "School[s] must reopen, they must be fully operational." Partial reopenings that combined in-person classes with online learning were unacceptable, she said.
Speaking at a White House event Tuesday afternoon, Trump laid out his plan to mount a pressure campaign on schools to reopen.
"We're very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open. It's very important. It's very important for our country," said the president. "It's very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we're going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall."
Speaking at that same White House event, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, listed several of the most basic safety measures the CDC recommends that schools adopt in order to safely reopen.
They included reconfiguring classrooms to keep students at least 6 feet apart, closing common areas and updating ventilation systems.
It was unclear Wednesday exactly how the five new documents Pence said the CDC plans to release next week will impact or overlap with the existing guidelines.