A top U.S. health official signaled Thursday he has no plans to relax guidelines for how the nearly 100,000 public schools in the country can reopen safely in the coming weeks in the face of the surging coronavirus pandemic, even though President Donald Trump complained that the standards are too tough, expensive and "very impractical."
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told ABC News' "Good Morning America" show that the agency is "committed to reopening these schools safely."
But he did not commit to changing any of the agency's guidelines calling for students to socially distance from each other by two meters, wear face masks and sit at desks that are two meters apart. The guidelines also call for schools to close cafeterias and playgrounds where students gather in large groups.
Trump decried the guidelines in a Twitter comment on Wednesday, saying that while the CDC wants schools to reopen, "They are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!"
I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 8, 2020
Redfield said the CDC in the coming days would be providing additional "reference documents" for schools, parents and students about the guidelines.
"They're not requirements," he said. "It's intentionally nonprescriptive," rhetorically asking "what's the right mix" for individual schools and school districts across the United States.
"These decisions about schools are local decisions," he said. "Do it in a way they're comfortable with," which might include staggered school schedules to cut the number of students in classrooms at any given time.
School systems throughout the U.S. are grappling with how to reopen schools in August and September that have mostly been shut since March, when the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic became widely apparent and online instruction for students at home became the norm.
Some are calling for a mix of options and leaving it up to parents to decide whether to keep their children home with continued online classes or allow them to return to school for limited in-class instruction a couple of days a week. The country's biggest school district, in New York City, unveiled such a plan Wednesday for a mix of at-home and in-class instruction, but teachers in some communities are balking at any plan that calls for in-person instruction.
Trump criticized Harvard, one of the world's leading universities, for its plan that all students will learn remotely, even as 40 percent of students will be invited to live on campus.
"They ought to be ashamed of themselves, if you want to know the truth," he said. "That's called the easy way out."
Trump: 'We want to reopen the schools'
On Tuesday, at a White House meeting with health and education officials, Trump said, "We want to reopen the schools. Everybody wants it. The moms want it, the dads want it, the kids want it. It's time to do it."
On Wednesday he tweeted that the United States is lagging other Western countries in reopening schools and blamed opposition Democrats.
"In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS," Trump said. "The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!"
Trump said he would pressure the 50 U.S. governors to reopen schools in their states with in-person classes in the coming weeks.
At the White House on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said it was "absolutely essential we get our kids back in classrooms." He said many children from impoverished families rely on schools for midday lunches for essential nutrition, along with after-school programs.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said schools "must be fully open and operational." She said it was "not a matter of if ... but how" they would be reopened.
CDC's levels of risk
On CNN, the head of the National Education Association, a large teachers union, dared Trump to visit a classroom full of young pupils if health precautions have not been taken.
"I double-dog dare Donald Trump to sit in a class of 39 sixth-graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we're going to bring our kids back safely," association President Lily Eskelsen García said.
The National Education Association has called for more personal protective equipment, revamping classrooms to provide for social distancing and frequent deep cleaning of classrooms with disinfectants. But she said school systems do not have enough money to cover such additional public health initiatives.
The CDC, in school reopening guidelines it posted in mid-May, said, "The more people a student or staff member interacts with, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread." The disease is caused by the coronavirus.
It said the "lowest risk" would be for students and teachers to "engage in virtual-only classes, activities and events."
The CDC said there was "more risk" with small, in-person classes, activities and events, with groups of students staying together and with the same teacher throughout school days and groups not mixing. It said in this scenario, students would have to remain at least two meters apart from each other and not share objects in the classroom. Classes would have to be staggered or limited in size.
In the "highest risk" category, the CDC said there would be full-sized, in-person classes, activities and events, with students not spaced apart, as they share classroom materials and supplies and mix between classes and activities.
The U.S. has now recorded more than 132,000 coronavirus deaths and more than 3 million confirmed cases, with both totals the biggest national figures across the globe. The latest model produced by health experts at the University of Washington says that overall, more than 208,000 Americans will die from COVID-19 by November.
The number of new cases in the U.S. has surged past 50,000 a day in the last week, with a peak of more than 62,000 on Wednesday. The surge of new cases has particularly been fueled by businesses that reopened too soon across the southern tier of U.S. states and younger people who returned to socializing in public without taking any precautions, such as wearing face masks or socially distancing themselves from others.