As Schools Plead for COVID-19 Safety Information, White House Politicizes CDC Guidance

July 10, 2020 | 4:41 pm
Photo: Alexandra Koch/Pixabay
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

I’m a full-time parent and a full-time employee during a pandemic and it’s tough. It’s made a lot tougher by an administration that tell us what they want us to hear rather than letting the public health experts guide us in making reasonable decisions. That’s why I was so angry when I learned that the CDC was potentially backing down on its own recommendations for safely reopening schools because the president didn’t like them.

It’s just the latest example in the long list of ways the Trump administration has monumentally botched the response to a public health emergency. By restricting what CDC scientists can recommend on how to open schools safely, they are heightening the risk to children, their families, and their teachers of contracting a potentially deadly disease.

This administration has shown us that it would rather forego science-based precautions to keep kids and families safe because of political considerations. But shelving guidance or issuing guidance that falls out of line with the best available science in order to reopen schools faster will inevitably put children and their families at an increased risk of death and illness.

While infection rates of COVID-19 in children appear to be far lower than in adults and they appear less likely to spread the disease, there is still uncertainty and emerging knowledge suggests that children are at an increased risk of developing a rare but serious syndrome called Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). Prevention of illness must be a priority as reopening decisions are made.

The Trump administration sidelines the CDC once again

After tweets were sent by the president on Wednesday morning calling the CDC guidance too“ tough” and “expensive” to meet his goal of fully reopening schools this fall, he even threatened to cut funding from schools that were planning virtual instruction, an action condemned by the American Academy of Pediatrics, teacher unions, and school superintendents. In a press conference that same day, Vice President Pence echoed the president’s sentiments, saying “We don’t want the guidance from CDC to be a reason why schools don’t open.”

CDC head Dr. Robert Redfield first seemed to back down and suggest that the guidance was indeed “guidance, not requirements” and that it shouldn’t be used to justify keeping schools closed. Vice President Pence and Redfield both later alluded to the fact that the guidance would remain but that the CDC will be releasing new tools or reference documents next week to provide clarification to K-12 schools.

As parents, students, teachers, and administrators think about how to get back to school this fall, mixed messages coming from the administration about the quality of the CDC’s guidance is only going to make decisions harder and threatens to reduce trust in the CDC’s ability to provide evidence-based recommendations that will help us keep our families safe. We need clear, accurate information coming to us from the experts, not political interference that confuses the public or makes school superintendents’ jobs harder.

The president doesn’t just get to decide that a guidance is inconvenient and force scientists to go back to the drawing board because it may result in “tough” or “expensive” decisions. The president can’t draw a different hurricane path in sharpie on a map and expect scientists at federal agencies to rewrite models and issue press statements to make it so. This is not how science-based policymaking works. This is not how governing works, especially not during a national crisis when lives are on the line.

Providing guidance from the sidelines

Public health experts are still working to understand everything about how this virus acts and spreads, but there are known strategies that can be employed to slow the spread of respiratory viruses. That’s why CDC scientists worked on evidence-based guidance on how best to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in different scenarios to help people weigh risks and make informed decisions about living their lives.

And at every turn the CDC has been met with resistance from the Trump administration, which among other things has sidelined CDC scientists from carrying out press briefingsstalled the release of and edited out science-based recommendations within guidance documents, and is now bringing new pressures with its claim that the CDC’s school guidance is too tough.

A Washington Post story published last night discussed the Trump administration’s pattern of sidelining CDC officials and featured a quote from one federal health official who remarked that its actions were “designed to position CDC to the margins.” Another CDC adviser suggested that White House and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials are in talks about what the CDC’s “core mission needs to be.” At a time when we desperately need the CDC’s leadership, political officials are continually undermining and sidelining it.

Getting kids back to school requires national leadership and support

The number of people dying from COVID-19 in the United States is on the rise again. People of color, especially Black individuals, are more likely to die or test positive for COVID-19, worsening longstanding health inequities in our country.

There is far too much at stake here for the CDC to cave in to political pressure. The flagrant missteps that the Trump administration has taken since finding out about COVID-19 have led us to an imperfect situation in which cases are still surging, tests are still not adequately abundant or accessible, disinformation is rampant, and yet we still have to try to figure out a way to get our kids back to school safely so that education, socialization, and all of the other tremendous societal benefits of school may continue and parents can return to work.

There are lots of great minds who think it’s possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at schools with hard work, increased funding, and continued efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 .  Parents, teachers, and school staff can move mountains and handle what’s “tough” when it comes to the safety of our children, we just need the resources to do so.

The success of US school reopenings this fall and the safety of kids, teachers, school staff, and parents relies first on clear leadership from the CDC and an accurate information stream that the Trump administration must stop meddling with.