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The Trump Administration Pushes To Reopen Schools In The Fall

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Trump administration delivered a clear message today about whether kids should head back to school this fall.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want to reopen the schools. Everybody wants it. The moms want it. The dads want it. The kids want it.

KELLY: President Trump, Vice President Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos all participated in separate events today all built around that same message. They met with teachers and spoke with governors and said, time and time again, getting K-12 schools up and running again is in the best interests of our kids. But with the coronavirus surging, many school leaders are not so sure. And with the presidential election drawing closer, the issue is inevitably becoming more political. We're going to tackle that from both ends with NPR's education correspondent Cory Turner and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Hey, there.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Franco, you start. What is the president's actual role here? I'm thinking that getting kids back to school would be up to state and local governments.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that's right. I mean, state and local officials have the jurisdiction here. But President Trump wants to use his bullhorn. He's been talking about this for a while. At first, he did say that he was going to very much leave this up to the governors, saying they were capable of making their own decisions. But by the beginning of May, he started talking about how schools need to reopen as part of his pitch to reopen the economy. He said he wouldn't even consider the country as being reopened if schools were still closed. And it's critical for the economy. For many people to be able to return to work, they need their kids to go to school in the fall.

KELLY: Yes, I can confirm that firsthand.

ORDOÑEZ: (Laughter).

KELLY: Cory, the urgency we're hearing here from the president and other members of the administration - how does that line up with guidance from scientists, from the CDC and others that school leaders are using?

TURNER: Well, Mary Louise, in many ways, it doesn't line up at all. CDC guidance is pretty clear. To reopen safely, it recommends schools do a whole host of things. Just a few examples - they say kids should be taught in small groups or cohorts; desks should be spaced at least 6 feet apart. But even if you just look at those recommendations, there are lots of districts, particularly large, densely populated districts for whom that would be a deal-breaker when it comes to reopening, you know, full time with all kids. So at one of today's panels, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar actually seemed to undercut his own agency's recommendations.

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ALEX AZAR: Our CDC guidance is guidance. When it comes to reopening our schools, nobody should hide behind CDC's guidance as a way to not reopen schools. Our guidance is to enable and empower the reopening of schools and physical attendance by our kids.

TURNER: Mary Louise, it's also important to note here that the administration has one key ally on its side. The American Academy of Pediatrics released its own guidance last week that basically said the social, emotional and academic toll of keeping kids out of school is likely worse than the risks of bringing them back because schools obviously provide lots of important support services, especially for our most vulnerable kids. So you know, what you heard today from one Trump official after another was a reminder - hey, the AAP agrees with us; schools should reopen even if they can't follow all of CDC's guidelines.

KELLY: We mentioned the backdrop of the election. And Franco, I'll steer this next question to you. Is President Trump's message on getting back to school shifting as we close in on November?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, it's getting a lot louder and more political. The president is making the argument that he wants to open schools, but his Democratic opponents do not. Today he even accused governors who don't open schools of acting for political reasons.

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TRUMP: They think it's going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed. No way. So we're very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, there's no evidence that governors who are Democrats even want to keep schools closed for a political reason. But Trump continues to argue school children don't really get sick from the virus, an idea that his own health experts have pushed back against. But President Trump does know that voters won't see things as being back to normal if kids are still out of school in August, September, October - those months leading up to the crucial November 3 election.

KELLY: There's pressure coming from all directions on school leaders. Cory, last word to you - what are school leaders thinking? Who are they listening to as they try to make these really tough decisions?

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, you do see some pressure coming at the state level in places like Texas and Florida saying, look; we're going to reopen all our schools no matter what. But you know, I've talked to a lot of school leaders in a lot of different places, and it's clear that for the most part, they are being patient and thoughtful. They are surveying parents, asking you know, what are you comfortable with? And they're considering lots of options from opening full time to being remote to a hybrid. And I'll tell you - one thing I hear from a lot of school leaders is maybe the most important thing the federal government could do, if it really wants schools to reopen, is help them pay for it.

KELLY: All right. That is NPR education correspondent Cory Turner and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Thanks to both of you.

TURNER: Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.