WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump ramped up his pressure campaign to get public schools to fully reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, tweeting Wednesday that he may withhold federal funding from schools that do not resume in-person classes this fall.
The tweet was the latest step in an administration-wide effort to convince schools nationwide that the risks of not reopening for in-person classes outweigh those posed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has reached record levels across the country in recent weeks.
The lion’s share of school funding in America comes from states and municipalities, and not from the federal government. Nonetheless, the White House is exploring ways to use the next coronavirus relief bill to tie the slice of school funding that does come from Washington to the pace of different schools’ reopenings.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that the Trump administration is looking to the upcoming Phase 4 coronavirus relief bill as a potential way to exert leverage over schools. “As we work with Congress on the next round of state support, we’re going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back in school,” said Pence.
Shortly after Trump’s first tweet about defunding schools, the president pivoted to attacking his own administration’s health guidelines for reopening schools, calling them tough, expensive and impractical.
But instead of laying out a plan to enable schools to meet the existing CDC guidelines, Pence said that next week the CDC will “be issuing five new documents.” These documents will include new guidelines on preparing communities for school reopenings, as well as “decision making tools for parents and caregivers,” and “symptom screening considerations” for students and teachers.
“As the president said today, we just don’t want the guidance to be too tough,” Pence told reporters. “That’s why the CDC will be issuing more guidance going forward, because we know each school system has unique capabilities and different facilities.”
Reopening schools is also a key component of helping the U.S. economy get back on solid footing after record breaking job losses this spring. More than 50 million children attend school in the United States, and the near blanket closures of schools and daycare centers in March and April forced millions of parents to become teachers overnight, often on top of holding down their own full-time jobs.
But with the traditional start of the school year just weeks away, there are still few concrete plans in place on either the state or the federal level to help schools determine how best to reopen safely.
And now, with daily rates of new coronavirus cases soaring, parents and educators are growing increasingly anxious about whether there is any way to make in-person school safe enough to convince both students and teachers to return to the classroom.