President Trump on Tuesday launched an all-out effort to push states to reopen schools this fall, arguing that some may keep schools closed not because of the coronavirus pandemic but for political reasons against the will of families.
"We want to reopen the schools. Everybody wants it. The moms want it, the dads want it, the kids want it. It's time to do it," Mr. Trump said at a White House event. "We're very much gong to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools."
Mr. Trump did not immediately explain how he would pressure governors, but he repeated an earlier claim that Democrats want to keep schools closed for political reasons and not health reasons. He made the same claim Monday on Twitter, saying, "They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it!"
At a White House roundtable hosted by Mr. Trump, speaker after speaker addressed the need to get students back in the classroom, both for academic and mental health reasons. They minimized the risk of the spread of COVID-19 among children but acknowledged that it was important to protect the vulnerable.
In making its case, the Trump administration has argued that keeping students at home carries greater risks than any tied to the coronavirus. Many health experts agree it's important for students to get back to school this fall to continue their educational development and to ensure access to meal programs and services for mental and behavioral health.
"Children's mental health and social development must be as much of a priority as physical health," first lady Melania Trump said at the roundtable. "The same is true for parents. Many will be forced to make stressful choices between caring for their children and going back to work."
Mr. Trump made his remarks hours after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos assailed plans by some local districts to offer in-person instruction only a few days a week and said schools must be "fully operational." Anything less, she said, would fail students and taxpayers.
DeVos made the comments during a call with governors. Audio of the call was obtained by The Associated Press.
"Ultimately, it's not a matter of if schools need to open, it's a matter of how. School must reopen, they must be fully operational. And how that happens is best left to education and community leaders," DeVos told the governors.
That followed earlier comments from President Trump insisting that schools return to in-person instruction as soon as possible. Final decisions will be up to state and local officials.
But some are calling for greater caution as schools plan for the fall. Arne Duncan, who served as Education Secretary under former President Barack Obama, has said the focus should be on making sure students can return safely.
"We all want children to go back to school," Duncan said on Twitter. "The question is whether we care enough about our children to ALLOW them to go to school safely. Our behavior, our commitment to shared sacrifice — or our selfishness — will determine what happens this fall for kids."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out guidance for schools last month, including staggering schedules, spreading out desks for social distancing, having meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria, adding physical barriers between bathroom sinks, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.
In the call with governors, DeVos slammed districts that plan to offer in-person instruction only a few days a week. She called out Fairfax County Public Schools, in Virginia, which is asking families to decide between fully remote instruction or two days a week in the classroom.
"A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all," DeVos said, contending that the district's distance learning last spring was a "disaster."
Her criticism of schools' distance learning efforts extended across the country. DeVos said she was disappointed in schools that "didn't figure out how to serve students or who just gave up and didn't try." She said more than one state education chief told her that they also were disappointed in districts that did "next to nothing to serve their students."
The same thing can't happen again this fall, she said, urging governors to play a role in getting schools to reopen.
"Students across the country have already fallen behind. We need to make sure that they catch up," DeVos said. "It's expected that it will look different depending on where you are, but what's clear is that students and their families need more options."
At a later panel discussion Tuesday, DeVos acknowledged that outbreaks may temporarily disrupt in-person instruction, but she said schools should be expected to provide five days of classroom instruction a week.
Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the CDC, said schools can operate safely by taking basic safety precautions. He noted that COVID-19 cases tend to be milder in young people, adding that the greatest risk is transmission from children to more vulnerable populations.
"It's clear that the greater risk to our society is to have these schools close," Redfield said. "The CDC encourages all schools to do what they need to reopen, and to have plans that anticipate that COVID-19 cases will in fact occur."
The Trump administration has drawn on recent recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which said schools should aim to start the school year with students "physically present in school." Keeping students at home can lead to social isolation, the organization said, and prevent schools from identifying learning deficits, abuse, depression and other issues.