Reopening Schools Poses ‘Highest Risk’ of COVID-19 Spread, Internal CDC Documents Warn

Get the latest from The Mind Unleashed in your inbox. Sign up right here.

(TMU) – Federal health authorities have warned that fully reopening K-12 schools and universities remain the “highest risk” for spreading the coronavirus, even as President Donald Trump continues to push for students and teachers to return to in-person classes while COVID-19 infections dramatically rise across the country.

In a 69-page internal document from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) obtained by the New York Times and meant for federal public health response teams deployed to coronavirus hotspots to help local officials cope with the outbreak, the CDC criticizes reopening plans in states such as Florida, Oregon, Oklahoma and Minnesota and individual schools, districts, and university as having “noticeable gaps” and jarring with CDC guidance.

The document marked “For Internal Use Only” was circulated this week as President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have pressured schools to fully reopen this fall and have even gone so far as to threaten to pull tax exemption for schools and colleges.

On Friday, Trump said on Twitter that he had instructed the U.S. Treasury Department to re-examine the tax-exempt status of schools he accused of providing “Radical Left Indoctrination” rather than education. Accusing educational institutions of “Propaganda or Act Against Public Policy,” the president added: “our children must be Educated, not Indoctrinated!”

Trump’s attack on schools on ideological grounds comes after he spent the week demanding that K-12 schools reopen “quickly and beautifully” while states remain locked in a debate about the wisdom of reopening schools while states experience a terrifying resurgence in COVID-19 infections and mortality rates.

Trump has also threatened to slash federal funding for schools and universities that refuse to reopen, although he lacks the apparent authority to unilaterally do so. Additionally, about 90 percent of public school funding comes from state and local governments. The bulk of federal funding goes toward disadvantaged, low-income, and special needs students, reports CNN.

While it remains unclear as to whether the president has reviewed the CDC document, on Wednesday he did blast the public health body’s guidelines for safe school reopenings as “very tough” and “expensive.”

The CDC document is a packet of material that is mostly already public, but it also contains pointed criticisms of various reopening plans across the country.

“While many jurisdictions and districts mention symptom screening, very few include information as to the response or course of action they would take if student/faculty/staff are found to have symptoms, nor have they clearly identified which symptoms they will include in their screening,” the ‘talking points’ section says. “In addition, few plans include information regarding school closure in the event of positive tests in the school community.”

In CDC guidelines for K-12 schools, administrators are instructed to encourage hygiene, the use of cloth face masks, and staying at home when appropriate. The guidelines also suggest that staggered scheduling of classes, backup staffing, and modified seating norms that upholds physical distancing be established.

The guidelines, which were last updated in May, also note that the “lowest risk” setting to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is virtual-only learning options, while in-person classes lacking social distancing remain the “highest risk” setting.

The Trump administration has largely dismissed the possibility of offering parents fully online instruction, however.

“Now that we have witnessed it on a large scale basis, and firsthand, virtual learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning,” Trump wrote in a Twitter post on Friday. “Not even close! Schools must be open in the Fall.”

While the transition to online schools has dealt setbacks to the educational plans of students – especially students in low-income areas who were already struggling in public schools – educators have demanded that states and school administrators ensure prioritize the safety of students and educators amid the growing surge of COVID-19 cases.

In an open letter to California lawmakers published Wednesday, the California Teachers Association noted that its members are “deeply concerned that politics are being played with the lives of children and the educators who serve them.”

“President Donald Trump [has] implored the nation’s schools to physically open amid a new wave of COVID-19 diagnoses,” the teachers’ union wrote. “In doing so, he pointed to other countries’ abilities to reopen their schools as evidence that America’s schools needed to do the same. President Trump ignores the fact that these other countries invested heavily in PPE, health and safety protocols for education and testing – the very resources that he is threatening to withdraw.”

On Friday, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement alongside teachers’ unions and school superintendents to defend schools from the administration’s threats to withhold funds from schools that don’t reopen this fall. The doctors blasted the “one-size-fits-all approach” as inappropriate for deciding to reopen schools.

“Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person fulltime would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers,” the children’s doctors wrote in a statement with the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

“We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”