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Schools reopening: Internal CDC documents warn full reopening of schools is 'highest risk,' New York Times reports

CNN logo CNN 7/11/2020 By Veronica Stracqualursi, CNN
Robert R. Redfield, Donald Trump are posing for a picture © Getty Images

Internal documents from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that fully reopening K-12 schools and universities would be the "highest risk" for the spread of coronavirus, according to a New York Times report, as President Donald Trump and his administration push for students and teachers to return in-person to classrooms.

The 69-page document obtained by the Times marked "For Internal Use Only" was among materials for federal public health response teams deployed to coronavirus hotspots to help local public health officials handle the outbreak, the newspaper reported.

The document was circulated this week, the Times reported, as Trump slammed the CDC guidelines around reopening schools and he, Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos increased their pressure on schools to fully reopen by the fall.

It is unclear whether the President viewed the CDC document, according to the Times.

CNN has reached out to the CDC and the White House and has not yet received a response.

The revelation of the documents comes as states debate whether to reopen schools amid a resurgence in coronavirus cases. Many school districts in the South, where coronavirus cases are rising, begin the school year in just a few weeks.

The document, mostly comprised of CDC documents already publicly available, mentions reopening plans from states, districts, and individual schools and universities, identifying some proposals as consistent with CDC guidance and criticizing the "noticeable gaps" in other plans, the Times reported.

Trump on Wednesday criticized the CDC's guidelines for safely reopening schools as "very tough" and "expensive." He wrote on Twitter Friday that "schools must be open in the Fall," arguing that virtual learning is "TERRIBLE" compared to in-school or on-campus learning.

Trump has also threatened to cut federal funding to schools and universities that do not reopen, though he does not have the authority to unilaterally do so. The bulk of public school funding — about 90% — comes from state and local governments while federal funding goes toward the nation's disadvantaged, low-income, and special education students.

During a White House task force briefing Wednesday, Pence announced that the CDC would issue new guidance on reopening schools next week because "we just don't want the guidance to be too tough."

Both he and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, a task force member, said the agency's recommendations should not be viewed as a barrier to returning children to classrooms.

Redfield later insisted in media interviews and on CNN's coronavirus town hall Thursday that the CDC would not be releasing new guidance nor changing the guidance.

"I can tell you that those guidance that we put out are out, and they stand," Redfield told CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Redfield said that CDC is planning to expand on the guidelines by releasing additional documents and tools related to reopening schools, which he said Pence was referring to in his comments.

"But at the end of the day, these guidances are just that — they're guidances, which the local schools and districts need to then incorporate into a practical, real plan that they can operationalize to begin to get these young people back to school safely," Redfield said.

The CDC's guidelines for K-12 schools encourage hygiene, the use of cloth face coverings, and staying home when appropriate. It also suggests staggered scheduling, a back-up staffing plan, modified seating layouts to allow social distancing, physical barriers and closing communal spaces.

The current guidelines, last updated in May, say the "lowest risk" setting for Covid-19 spread is virtual-only learning options, while listing full-sized, in-person classes that lack social distancing as the "highest risk" setting.

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