HHS secretary says schools shouldn't 'hide behind' CDC virus guidance

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Alex Azar downplayed agency guidance this week meant to keep schools safe for students and teachers.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday that state and local leaders should not let coronavirus safety guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stop them from fully reopening schools this fall.

"Our CDC guidance is guidance. When it comes to reopening our schools, nobody should hide behind CDC's guidance to not reopen schools," Azar said at a White House event to discuss the topic.

"Our guidance is to enable and empower the reopening of schools and physical attendance by our kids," he added.

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The CDC's guidance for schools is focused on ways to slow the spread of coronavirus, and notes that it is not meant to be used in place of local, state, or federal dictates.

It states that "full sized, in-person classes" put students, teachers, and staff at the highest risk for spreading the virus. The lowest risk is for teachers and students to participate in virtual classes, the agency writes.

In addition, the CDC guidance advises schools to consider closing for short or long durations in the event of outbreaks at the school or in the wider community.

"You will likely dismiss students and most staff for 2-5 days," the CDC states about what to do if a student or staff member has a confirmed coronavirus case. In the event of widespread community transmission, the guidance states schools may need to consider dismissing school for two weeks or longer.

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment on Azar's statement about its guidance.

Other Trump administration officials have also pushed for schools to reopen in the fall even if the pandemic continues to worsen.

"Ultimately, it's not a matter of if schools need to open, it's a matter of how," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told governors during a phone call on Tuesday, according to the audio obtained by the Associated Press. "School must reopen, they must be fully operational."

Second lady Karen Pence said this week, during the same White House event at which Azar spoke, that reopening schools was necessary to prevent "emotional, mental health challenges that our kids will face if they don't get back into school."

And in an op-ed published Tuesday in USA Today, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a staunch Trump ally, argued that schools must reopen in order to help the U.S. economy.

Continued school closures will "exacerbate the economic crisis caused by the pandemic by preventing parents across the country from returning to work," McCarthy wrote.

Donald Trump himself has called on schools to reopen in the fall.

"SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" Trump tweeted on Monday.

Trump followed that tweet with another accusing Democrats of wanting to keep schools closed "for political reasons." He did not offer evidence to back up the claim.

Education experts have expressed concern about reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic.

The American Federation of Teachers, a teachers union, estimated it would cost more than $116 billion to implement appropriate safety measures necessary to protect students, teachers, and staff from the virus. The funds would be necessary for personal protective equipment, additional cleaning and disinfecting of schools, and the costs of more school buses to ensure safe distancing for students.

Health experts told Education Week, a trade publication, that every school also needs at least one full-time registered nurse to help monitor student health. However, 25% of schools don’t have any nurses on staff, and 35% of schools employ a part-time nurse only.

Several states have experienced a spike in coronavirus cases after rushing to reopen businesses too early, against expert advice. The governors of Florida, Texas, and Arizona were forced to roll back efforts to reopen their economies after cases began to surge.

On Tuesday, the United States had more than 2.9 million confirmed cases, according to the New York Times. At least 130,810 people have died.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.