Are President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci talking past each other when it comes to reopening the nation's schools?
As the president remains impatient to get schools that were closed due to the coronavirus open again as part of bringing the rest of the county back online, the nation's top epidemiologist continues to sound the alarm about making sure all reopenings are done without risking a reignition of the pandemic.
That tension took center stage this week as news coverage of Fauci's testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee seemed to suggest head-on conflict between the two over the issue of when schools can reopen. A closer look at their statements shows it's a lot more complicated than that.
Here's what you need to know.
Trump's remarks came in several media appearances Wednesday.
"I was surprised by his answer actually because it's just to me it's not an acceptable answer, especially when it comes to schools," Trump told White House reporters Wednesday in response to a question about Fauci's Tuesday testimony, in which Fauci laid out factors that need to be considered as states prepare to reopen schools for the next academic year.
Earlier Wednesday, Fox Business reporter Maria Bartiromo had asked Trump about Fauci's caution that "little spikes" of climbing disease rates "might turn into outbreaks" if states don't meet federal criteria before opening businesses, schools, and public spaces.
"So Anthony is a good person, a very good person— I've disagreed with him," Trump said in response. "We have to get the schools open, we have to get our country open, we have to open our country. Now we want to do it safely, but we also want to do it as quickly as possible, we can't keep going on like this ... You're having bedlam already in the streets, you can't do this. We have to get it open. I totally disagree with him on schools."
Some headlines about Trump's comments gave the impression that Fauci had said definitively that all schools should remain closed in the fall.
In reality, Fauci said the ability to open schools depended on the dynamics of the pandemic in a given region. He cited the White House's own guidance on "opening up America again," which Trump announced April 16. Fauci said leaders should meet proper criteria before easing restrictions, but he did not rule out schools reopening buildings for the fall semester.
Fauci's Comment on Vaccines and Schools Got a Lot of Attention
One of Fauci's comments in particular stirred up a lot of response.
Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, asked Fauci how he would advise a public school principal of a university chancellor on how to reassure families that it's safe to return in August.
"I would tell [the chancellor] that, in this case, that the idea of having treatments available, or a vaccine, to facilitate the re-entry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far," Fauci said.
But, even without a vaccine, leaders can reopen schools once they are confident their states and communities have the capability to test the population frequently, to trace the spread of the illness, and to quickly quarantine people who may have been exposed, Fauci said.
Some on Twitter left out the second part of Fauci's comments, seeming to suggest he was saying schools shouldn't open at all until there is a vaccine. At the end of the meeting, Alexander circled back to the comments and asked him to clarify.
"Absolutely not," Fauci said, when asked if a lack of a vaccine meant students couldn't return to school.
Fauci's comments on "little spikes" of increased virus cases turning into outbreaks referred to easing virus restrictions more generally, not just in schools.
He cited criteria in White House guidance, which calls for states to ease restrictions in a phased approach only after they ensure they have adequate testing, tracing, and hospital surge capacity and only after they've seen declining rates of the virus for 14 consecutive days. Schools would reopen in the second phase, after 28 days of declines.
Some governors have eased restrictions on businesses and public spaces without meeting those benchmarks, Fauci said.
"What I've expressed then, and again, is my concern that if some areas ... jump over those various checkpoints and prematurely open up without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks," Fauci said. "Therefore I have been being very clear in my message to try to the best extent possible to go by the guidelines, which have been very well thought out and very well delineated."
Another exchange that got attention: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., asked Fauci why schools should be closed when mortality rates for children who test positive for COVID-19 are relatively low compared to older populations. Some reporters have looped Fauci's cautious response into the discussion about Trump and reopenings.
"I think the one-size-fits-all, that we're going to have a national strategy and nobody's going to go to school is kind of ridiculous," Paul said. "We really ought to be doing it school district by school district, and the power needs to be dispersed, because people make wrong predictions."
When it comes to effects of the coronavirus on children, "we should be humble about what we don't know," Fauci said. He cited reports of rising rates of a related inflammatory illness among children in the United States, but he did not say anything about schools in that response.
Researchers are still studying children's immunity to the virus, their ability to contract it asymptomatically and transmit it to others, and their vulnerability to related conditions. State and district leaders are also concerned about protecting the health of older and medically vulnerable staff when buildings open.
States around the country already have started preparing for the 2020-21 school year. Some have said they would prepare a menu of reopening options, including a combination of distance and in-person learning so that buildings don't become too crowded. Some states, like California, have said such decisions will be in the hands of districts. And some have said schools will reopen, but must be prepared to close again if virus rates spike in their areas.
It's not clear if Trump was pushing for schools to open now or emphasizing that he doesn't want them to remain closed in the fall. Some states have ended or will soon end their school years. And, by Education Week's count, 48 states, four U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the current academic year.
Trump previously has urged schools to reopen. On Wednesday, he echoed an earlier urging that some older teachers, who are more vulnerable to severe cases of the virus, should stay home.
Trump and Fauci also have been repeatedly questioned about their working relationship, especially as the president faces political pressure about his handling of the crisis. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said Wednesday that Trump would be to blame if schools struggle to resume normal operations in the fall.
Photo: Senators listen as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks remotely during a virtual Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing Tuesday. Seated at table on left are Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., center, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. --Win McNamee/Pool via AP
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