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As Trump Demanded Schools Reopen, His Experts Warned of ‘Highest Risk’

A briefing packet for federal emergency response teams details the steps schools should take to reopen safely.

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Marietta High School in Georgia. The task force’s suggestions for mitigating the risk of school openings would be expensive and difficult.Credit..., Audra Melton for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Federal materials for reopening schools, shared the week President Trump demanded weaker guidelines to do so, said fully reopening schools and universities remained the “highest risk” for the spread of the coronavirus.

The 69-page document, obtained by The New York Times and marked “For Internal Use Only,” was intended for federal public health response teams to have as they are deployed to hot spots around the country. But it appears to have circulated the same week that Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would release new guidelines, saying that the administration did not want them to be “too tough.” It is unclear whether Mr. Trump saw the document, nor is it clear how much of it will survive once new guidance is completed.

(The cover page of the document is dated July 8, 2019, an obvious typographical error since the novel coronavirus did not exist then.)

What is clear is that federal health experts are using a road map that is vastly different from what Mr. Trump wanted.

While it is mostly a compilation of C.D.C. documents already posted online, it includes reopening plans drafted by states, districts and individual schools and universities. And the package, from the Community Interventions and Critical Populations Task Force, is pointed.

In a “talking points” section, the material is critical of “noticeable gaps” in all of the K-12 reopening plans it reviewed, though it identified Florida, Oregon, Oklahoma and Minnesota as having the most detailed.

“While many jurisdictions and districts mention symptom screening, very few include information as to the response or course of action they would take if student/faculty/staff are found to have symptoms, nor have they clearly identified which symptoms they will include in their screening,” the talking points say. “In addition, few plans include information regarding school closure in the event of positive tests in the school community.”

And its suggestions for mitigating the risk of school reopenings would be expensive and difficult for many districts, like broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher.

The debate about school reopenings comes as the virus is spreading at its fastest pace yet across the country, a trend some attribute to states reopening prematurely this spring on a timeline encouraged by Mr. Trump. Now some states are pausing their reopening plans and in some cases reimposing restrictions to contain the spread. Schools in California have had to cancel their plans for in-person classes as the virus surges.

Groups representing education leaders praised the document, saying after months of mixed messages from the federal government, the inclusion of specific plans could serve as a blue print for schools and families to help navigate the uncertainty that the fall will bring.

“What it tells us is left to its own devices, the C.D.C. can do a pretty good job in compiling a comprehensive document that shows the complexity of what institutions are facing,” said Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 college and university presidents and higher education executives.

“The good news is, this is very thoughtful and complete,” he added. “The bad news is, it’s never been released.”

A breakdown of state plans included in the briefing also identified state and university proposals that the task force appeared to see as models. The document identified as “examples of consistency with C.D.C. guidance” institutions like Arizona Western University, which will offer virtual services to students and staff members throughout the fall, and Hampton University, where in-person class sizes and gatherings will be reduced to 50 percent. It also highlights a number of states, like Georgia, where families are offered an option of in-person and virtual classes.

And as Mr. Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were trying to pressure local schools to comply with their reopening vision, the document was expressly saying the federal government should not override local judgment.

“These C.D.C. considerations are meant to supplement — not replace — any federal, state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations” with which schools must comply, the packet states in bold lettering. “Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, and acceptable and be tailored to the needs of each community.”

The document was among material for federal response teams that are being dispatched to hot spots around the country for short periods of time. The teams are charged with helping local public health officials address the outbreak, including identifying the source, if possible, and what additional support from the federal government might help. In doing this, the team could field questions about school safety plans.

“This is the document we needed six weeks ago,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, calling it “concise, accessible and actionable.”

“While it is a great resource for superintendents as they navigate the myriad issues they need to address as they work to reopen schools,” he said, “it is also a great communication tool, a resource that can be shared with the community to help account for decisions being made and to share reliable, science-based information.”

Since May, the C.D.C. website has cautioned that full reopening would be “highest risk,” and that in both K-12 and higher education settings, the more people interact, “and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of Covid-19 spread.” The “lowest risk,” the guidelines say, would be for students and teachers to attend virtual-only classes — an option the administration this week began a full-court press against.

All week, the Trump administration has been raising the pressure on schools and universities to reopen with in-person education. On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that international students whose colleges went fully online would have to transfer to a school offering in-person classes or leave the country.

By Wednesday, Ms. DeVos had publicly chastised a public school district in Fairfax County, Va., for offering parents a choice of in-person classes two days a week or fully online instruction. The department and the president said they were exploring options for using federal funding as leverage to force full reopening.

That Wednesday, Mr. Trump rejected the C.D.C. guidelines, calling them “very tough & expensive” on Twitter. Then Mr. Pence announced that the C.D.C. would issue new recommendations next week. “We just don’t want the guidance to be too tough,” he said.

On Friday, after repeating threats of cutting off federal funding from schools that do not fully reopen — which he does not have the authority to do — Mr. Trump lashed out again.

“Now that we have witnessed it on a large scale basis, and firsthand, virtual learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning,” he wrote on Twitter. “Not even close! Schools must be open in the Fall.”


Eileen Sullivan is the Washington morning breaking news correspondent, where she covers news from the White House and Capitol Hill.

She is a veteran wire service reporter and worked for a decade at The Associated Press, where she covered homeland security, counterterrorism and law enforcement. She and three A.P. colleagues won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2012 for their work revealing the New York Police Department’s Muslim spying programs. A graduate of Villanova University, she lives in Washington with her family.

Erica Green is a correspondent in Washington who covers the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos, focusing on higher education policy, educational equity and civil rights enforcement in the nation’s K-12 schools.

Ms. Green's education coverage at The New York Times won first place in the beat reporting category at the Education Writers Association's 2018 National Awards for Education Reporting. She had previously won first place in the association's investigative reporting category in 2015.

She co-authored a Times investigation exposing leaders of a celebrated school in Louisiana who abused students and falsified their college applications to get them to Ivy League schools. The story was the subject of the debut episode of The Times' television show, “The Weekly.”

Before joining The Times in 2017, Ms. Green covered education for The Baltimore Sun, where she produced award-winning coverage on a range of topics including school funding, special education, school violence, school segregation, and children in Maryland's foster care and juvenile justice systems. In addition to winning more than one dozen local and national awards for her education coverage at The Sun, Ms. Green was named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists.

Ms. Green was also part of the Sun team named a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for breaking news coverage of the death of Freddie Gray. She co-authored a book, “Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City” about the riots in Baltimore that followed Mr. Gray’s death.