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White House Pushes to Reopen Schools Despite A Surge In Coronavirus Cases

By: Barbara Sprunt, NPR

Updated at 3:58 p.m. ET

The Trump administration kicked off a day of programming Tuesday aimed at pushing for the reopening of schools this fall despite a spike in COVID-19 cases around large parts of the country.

President Trump will participate in a roundtable discussion Tuesday afternoon alongside first lady Melania Trump, administration officials and teachers to address reopening schools with a focus on the “holistic health and learning needs of America’s students,” according to senior administration officials.

Speaking on a background call with reporters Tuesday morning, Trump administration officials stressed that the decision remains a local one.

“Our goal right now is to work hand in hand with the local jurisdictions now to help let them see the best ways to reopen these schools in a safe way and get back to where we would have really preferred to have been through the spring of this year, which was to have that active educational component available to the students,” one official said.

But the president has made his preference abundantly clear, tweeting Monday: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” He quickly got buy-in on Twitter from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who said, “American education must be fully open and fully operational this fall!”

The administration officials acknowledged the risk of students spreading the contagion to more vulnerable populations but emphasized that school closures disrupt “critical services to children and their families.”

They pledged the administration would share “best practices” with states on reopening in accordance with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but offered no concrete proposals on how states might mitigate risks to students and their families should schools reopen.

Notably absent from the discussion was a mention of new federal aid. Education groups have asked for at least $200 billion in federal funding to reopen safely and plug holes in state budgets due to the recession. So far, $13.5 billion has been appropriated to K-12 education.

The Republican-controlled Senate has not taken up a bill passed by House Democrats that would allocate hundreds of billions more.

The shuttering of schools this spring has taken an economic toll on parents, many of whom have been working from home alongside their children as they receive online education.

In guidance issued last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for bringing children back to the classroom this fall wherever and whenever it can be done safely.

Trump has politicized the decision to reopen schools, tweeting that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden doesn’t want schools to open in the fall for “political reasons.” He did not elaborate on what that means.

Tuesday’s programming also included a call between Vice President Pence and governors (which administration officials said was his second such call) and a panel discussion with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and DeVos led by Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The push to reopen schools follows new regulations released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that foreign students attending American colleges operating online cannot remain in the country, forcing schools to weigh the risk of holding in-person classes with losing their international students.

NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz contributed to this report.

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