President Trump and senior administration officials made a concerted effort Wednesday to downplay recommendations of their own health experts as they ramped up pressure on states to reopen their schools, characterizing the move as key to the nation’s recovery.

“It’s absolutely essential that we get our kids back into classroom for in-person learning,” Vice President Pence said at the outset of a White House coronavirus task force briefing at which a parade of other officials argued that the health risks to children were outweighed by the downsides of keeping them at home, including stunted academic growth.

The briefing — the first in two weeks by the group tasked with guiding the administration’s response to the pandemic — came about two hours after Trump publicly voiced disagreement with recommendations for reopening schools issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In morning tweets, Trump called the guidelines “very tough & expensive” as he continued to pressure local school districts to open in the fall, even as many states are facing a surge in coronavirus cases.

“While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things,” Trump said of CDC officials. “ I will be meeting with them!!!”

At the task force briefing, CDC Director Robert R. Redfield was among the administration officials who stressed that the guidelines were not mandatory and not meant to supplant the judgment of state and local officials.

“Our recommendations are not requirements, and they’re not meant to be prescriptive,” Redfield said.

In May, the CDC recommended a raft of social distancing policies for schools: desks at least six feet apart and facing the same direction, lunch in classrooms, staggered arrival times, cloth masks for staff and daily temperature screenings for everyone.

Citing Trump’s concern that the guidance might be “too tough,” Pence said the CDC would issue additional recommendations starting next week that would provide “more clarity.”

“We don’t want the guidance from CDC to be a reason why schools don’t open,” Pence said. “I think that every American, every American knows that we can safely reopen our schools. … We want, as the president said this morning, to make sure that what we’re doing doesn’t stand in the way of doing that.”

During the briefing, Pence, who leads the task force, struggled at times to explain what the president meant by his tweets, including another one Wednesday morning in which he threatened to withhold federal funding to schools that refuse to open.

About 90 percent of school funding comes from states and localities, and Trump has limited ability to curtail appropriations approved by Congress.

As Trump threatened federal intervention, Pence stressed the importance of local decision-making — even allowing that in coronavirus hot spots, officials could decide to curtail school openings in limited cases.

The far more dominant message was that the cost of keeping schools closed is greater than allowing them to open.

“We can’t let our kids fall behind academically,” Pence said.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia argued that reopening schools was important so that parents can schedule their work days “in a predictable manner,” while Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said “reopening schools safely may be the single most important thing that we can do to support healthy families during this pandemic.”

“Reopening schools comes with some risk, but there are risks to keeping kids at home too,” he said. “At home, kids aren’t benefiting from social stimulation. They may be falling behind and learning. They may be more vulnerable to abuse that goes unreported by the mandatory reporters in our school system. They may not be getting special services.”

Redfield, meanwhile, sought to downplay the risks of a virus that has had a disproportionate impact on older Americans.

“Clearly, the ability of this virus to cause significant illness in children is very, very, very, very limited,” he said.


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