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CDC to issue more guidance on school openings amid Trump criticism

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will issue additional guidance next week on reopening schools, Vice President Pence said Wednesday, hours after President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE criticized the agency’s current guidelines as “very tough and expensive.”

Pence appeared to frame the upcoming guidance as a response to Trump’s criticisms, saying they would offer “more clarity.” But just a day earlier he had said the CDC would be releasing additional guidelines on school openings that would address face coverings, symptom screening, school settings and “decisionmaking tools” for parents and caregivers.

“Well, the president said today, we just don’t want the guidance to be too tough,” Pence said at a coronavirus task force press briefing on Wednesday. “That’s the reason why next week, the CDC is going to be issuing a new set of tools, five different documents that will be giving even more clarity on the guidance going forward.”

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Asked whether the agency would adjust its recommendations in response to Trump’s critical tweet earlier Wednesday, CDC Director Robert Redfield said officials will continue to “develop and evolve” guidance for schools.

The president threatened to cut funding to schools that don’t fully reopen this fall and complained on Twitter that compliance with the CDC’s guidelines, which are nonbinding, would be “very tough and expensive.” Trump’s tweet marked the latest instance of public disagreement with his own health officials on the coronavirus and underscored how the federal government has struggled to offer a clear message throughout the pandemic.

The broadside from Trump was even more puzzling since state and local officials will be the ones making final decisions on whether to allow in-person learning.

“None of the CDC’s recommendations are intended to replace state and local rules and guidance,” Pence told reporters at the coronavirus task force briefing, which was held at the Department of Education instead of the White House.

Redfield echoed Pence's remarks afterward, saying, “The purpose of CDC guidance is — remember, it’s guidance, not requirements, and its purpose is to facilitate the reopening and the keeping open of schools in this country.”

The Trump administration has been careful throughout the pandemic to defer to governors and local officials on the final decisions about shuttering businesses, mandating masks and other measures to slow the spread of the virus, even though Trump at times has gone after state leaders he disagrees with.

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But when it comes to reopening schools, the administration has been far more forceful, muddying its messaging in the process. Trump said Tuesday he would pressure governors to reopen schools, while Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said education officials should not “hide behind” CDC guidelines as a way to avoid reopening.

“Ultimately, it’s not a matter of if schools should reopen, it’s simply a matter of how,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosNational reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Women set to take key roles in Biden administration America has a civic education problem — here's how to fix it MORE said Wednesday. “They must fully open, and they must be fully operational.”

Pence insisted CDC guidelines are not intended to be hard and fast rules and said federal officials would “respect those unique communities that may have challenges.” 

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci: Restrictions likely won't be reversed before Christmas Health officials warn of post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 case surge Year-end parties banned in South Korea MORE, a member of the coronavirus task force who was not present at Wednesday’s briefing, has been even more cautious in embracing school reopenings, particularly in virus hot spots.

“You don't want to be risking the health of the children or their families, but you've got to follow the guidelines depending upon the level and the penetrance of infection in the community,” Fauci said at a virtual press conference hosted Tuesday by Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.), one of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats.

Fauci said it makes sense for schools in areas with low rates of infection to have minimal restrictions, while schools in parts of the country facing outbreaks might want to consider mask requirements, decreasing class sizes and spacing desks six feet apart.

The U.S. reported a record-high 60,000 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, mostly driven by outbreaks in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, though cases are on the rise in 40 states.

States are taking different tacks to reopening schools in the fall. In New York City, where new cases have dropped precipitously since the spring, Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioDe Blasio to reopen New York elementary schools in reversal Macy's will still hold Thanksgiving Day Parade amid pandemic The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday MORE (D) said schools would be open one to three days a week. Florida will require all schools to reopen next month, even though the state is one of the largest coronavirus epicenters in the country.

“The latest surge of COVID-19 cases in these states puts the communities, including the schools, at great risk,” said former CDC Director Tom Frieden, who served during the Obama administration.

He said it would be “difficult, if not impossible” to safely operate schools in areas of the country where the virus is spreading uncontrollably.

The CDC’s guidance, which was updated more than a week ago, strongly emphasizes reopening safely by keeping desks six feet apart, staggering arrival and dismissal times and canceling field trips and other large gatherings in communities where there is “minimal to moderate” spread of COVID-19. The agency only recommends dismissals of longer than two weeks in communities where there is “substantial” spread of the disease.

Teachers unions, however, argue the guidance isn’t detailed enough and schools are not getting the financial support they need from the federal government.

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"We believe that we have to reopen in a far better way than the haphazard way that schools were closed and the economy was paused," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told The Hill on Wednesday.

She cited the need for physical distancing, the use of masks, proper cleaning and ventilation of school spaces and ensuring proper resources for at-risk students and staff.

Pence said Wednesday that it is possible schools could get additional federal support, but noted that state and local governments have only drawn down about 1.5 percent of funding made available in a COVID-19 aid bill passed by Congress earlier this year. He suggested funding in a future relief package could be used to incentivize schools to resume in-person learning.

Trump has in the past made empty threats to withhold funding from states or organizations. While the vast majority of education funding comes from the state and local levels, the Department of Education could withhold billions of dollars in COVID-19 aid that Congress appropriated for schools. DeVos indicated Tuesday evening she was “very seriously” considering withholding funds for schools that don’t resume in-person operations this fall.

Trump’s push to reopen schools comes as growing evidence shows the risk of large in-person gatherings indoors. Kids appear to be less likely to get COVID-19 or become sick from it, and there is not much evidence that they are spreading the virus.

“The ability of this virus to cause significant illness in children is very, very, very limited,” Redfield said Wednesday.

“We really don’t have evidence that children are driving the transmission cycle in this," he added.

Steve Clemons contributed. Updated at 6:42 p.m.