Coronavirus

Education secretary won’t say if schools should listen to CDC guidelines on reopening

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee discussing proposed budget estimates and justification for FY2020 for the Education Department on March 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Sunday refused to say whether schools should follow guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reopening, saying those guidelines are meant to be “flexible.”

“The CDC guidelines are just that, meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation,” DeVos told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

The CDC guidelines for schools to reopen contain steps to keep children safe, including keeping desks placed six feet apart and for children to use cloth face coverings. The CDC suggests the closing of communal areas like dining rooms and playgrounds and the installation of physical barriers like sneeze guards where necessary.

“There is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them,” DeVos said, when asked by Bash if she can assure parents and students that schools will be safe and pressed on health guidance that says children are at highest risk when meeting in full-sized, in-person classes — doubling down on a similar comment she made last week.

The comments from the education secretary come as she and other members of the Trump administration push for US schools to reopen this fall amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic. President Donald Trump and the White House recently pushed for the CDC to revise its school reopening guidelines, but the agency’s director, Dr. Robert Redfield, said last week that they will not be loosened.

“Kids need to be in school. They need to be learning, they need to be moving ahead. And we can’t — we cannot be paralyzed and not allow that or not be intent on that happening,” DeVos said.

Pressed repeatedly on whether schools should implement remote learning in the event that there is a flare-up of coronavirus cases in their district, DeVos said: “I think the go-to needs to be kids in school, in person, in the classroom.”

“Where there are little flare-ups or hotspots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis,” she said, without providing any recommendations for what schools should do if outbreaks occur.

Internal documents from the CDC warned that fully reopening K-12 schools and universities would be the “highest risk” for the spread of coronavirus, The New York Times reported last week.

The 69-page document obtained by the Times marked “For Internal Use Only” was among materials for federal public health response teams deployed to coronavirus hotspots to help local public health officials handle the outbreak, the newspaper reported. The document mentions reopening plans from states, districts, and individual schools and universities, identifying some proposals as consistent with CDC guidance and criticizing the “noticeable gaps” in other plans, the newspaper reported.

DeVos also dodged questions about Trump’s recent threat to cut off funding for schools if they don’t open despite the fact that the President can’t unilaterally cut current federal support of schools and that only a small portion of school funding comes from the federal government.

“There is no desire to take money away. In fact, we want to see schools open and have been committed to ensuring the resources are there to do that,” the secretary said, refusing moments later to say whether or not Trump’s threat still stands.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Bash later in the program that CDC guidelines should be a requirement and called DeVos’ comments on schools being safe for students a “malfeasance and dereliction of duty.”

“This is appalling,” said Pelosi, a California Democrat. “The President and his administration are messing with the health of our children. We all want our children to go back to school. Teachers do, parents do and children do. But they must go back safely.”

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