WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Wednesday that if he were president, he would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use national disaster funds to help schools reopen safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
"This is an emergency, and Donald Trump and his FEMA should treat it as one," said Biden, speaking in Wilmington, Delaware, after a briefing with education and school safety experts.
Biden's remarks came just a day after FEMA officials told state emergency managers that it had issued new guidance indicating that the agency would no longer reimburse states for the cost of PPE in places such as schools, courthouses and public housing.
"If I were president today, I would direct FEMA to make sure our kids K-12 get full access to disaster relief and emergency assistance under the Stafford Act. I'd make sure PPE and sanitation supplies for schools qualify as 'emergency protective measures,' which is a phrase they use to fully be eligible for federal assistance. On top of that, I'd be working with the leaders of Congress now, today, to pass emergency packages for schools so they have the resources they need in order to be opened safely."
The guidance issued Tuesday effectively narrowed the definition of an "emergency protective measure" that would be covered by FEMA's public assistance funds, so that schools are excluded from the coverage.
Biden's remarks were part of an effort to keep the focus of his campaign on the pandemic, during a week when millions of children and teachers are starting virtual and in-person classes under difficult and potentially unsafe circumstances.
Already, schools and universities across the country that have reopened for in-person classes are reporting clusters of coronavirus outbreaks. One of the worst outbreaks appears to be at the University of Alabama, where more than 1,000 students have tested positive for the coronavirus since the school opened its doors in late August.
"This is a national emergency, and President Trump still doesn't have any real plan for how to open our schools safely," said Biden. "No real plan for how to help parents feel secure for their children. He's offering nothing but failure and delusions from start to finish, and American families and our children are paying the price for his failures."
Rather than focus on the pandemic this week, Trump has chosen to direct his attention to the violence that erupted in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after racial justice protesters were met by armed vigilantes last week, resulting in a double homicide. A White 17-year-old, Kyle Rittenhouse, has been charged in the killings.
Trump visited Kenosha on Tuesday, where he met with law enforcement and claimed that "reckless, far-left politicians continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist." The remarks are part of a concerted effort on Trump's part to lay blame for the racial unrest roiling the country during his presidency at the feet of Democrats and to position himself as the solution, rather than part of the problem.
Biden was asked by a reporter on Wednesday how he would respond to the mistrust between law enforcement and communities of color in the wake of several high-profile police shootings of unarmed Black men and women this year.
"I'd have law enforcement at the table. I'd have the community at the table. I'd have people saying, 'How do we get through this, what do we do to deal with this?' I believe the vast majority of the community at large, as well as law enforcement, want to straighten things out, not inflame things," said Biden. "But this president keeps throwing gasoline on the fire every place he goes."
This week, Biden's campaign announced last-minute plans for the candidate to visit Kenosha on Thursday. Both state and city officials have asked all politicians to avoid the area while emotions are still running high and National Guard troops are still helping to keep the peace.
Asked what he hoped to accomplish by going to Kenosha, Biden replied, "We've got to put things together, bring people together. And so, my purpose in going will be to do just that, to be a positive influence on what's going on."
Outside of the twin news stories of the pandemic and the violence in Kenosha, Biden was also asked a question about whether he had concerns over new reporting on Trump's health, published in a book by New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt.
Schmidt reported that when Trump made an unannounced trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2019, Vice President Mike Pence was told to be on standby to take over in case the president had to receive anesthesia. To this day, neither the president nor the White House has explained the purpose of Trump's hospital visit.
"I'm not going to speculate on what it means" that traditional protocol for presidential hospital trips wasn't followed, said Biden. "But what I can say is that nothing this administration does is normal ... So who in God's name knows what it's all about? I don't know, and I'm not going to speculate. I'll let the experts do that."
Trump has vehemently denied speculation that he might have suffered from a mini-stroke or a cardiovascular event while in office.