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Trump threatens to withhold federal funding if schools don’t fully reopen

A worker passes public school buses parked at a depot in Manchester, N.H. School districts across America are in the midst of wrenching decisions about how to resume classes in settings radically altered by the coronavirus pandemic, with socially distanced school buses, virtual learning, outdoor classrooms and quarantine protocols for infected children as the new norm. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

President Donald Trump on Wednesday threatened to withhold federal funding if America’s schools don’t reopen in the fall despite the coronavirus, and he lashed out at federal health officials over reopening guidelines that he complained are impractical and expensive.

As Trump increased his pressure on state and local officials, New York City announced that most of its students would return to classrooms only two or three days a week and would learn online in between. “Most schools will not be able to have all their kids in school at the same time,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Taking to Twitter before the New York announcement, Trump argued that countries including Germany, Denmark and Norway have reopened schools "with no problems."

Trump issued his threat to withhold funds from schools that do not reopen while repeating a political claim that Democrats want to keep schools closed for election-year reasons and not because of any risks associated with the coronavirus.

"The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election," Trump said, "but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!"

He did not say what funding he would pull, but Vice President Mike Pence later suggested that future COVID-19 relief bills could be tied to reopening schools.

"As we work with Congress on the next round of state support, we're going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back in school," Pence said at a coronavirus task force briefing.

Trump's warning drew backlash from some governors who said he has no authority over schools' fall plans. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said officials will reopen when it's safe to do so.

"School reopenings are a state decision, period," he said at a news conference. "That is the law, and that is the way we are going to proceed. It's not up to the president of the United States."

Trump made his threat a day after launching an all-out effort pressing state and local officials to reopen the nation's schools and colleges this fall. At a White House event Tuesday, health and education officials argued that keeping students out for the fall semester would pose greater health risks than any tied to the coronavirus.

Among those pushing for a fall reopening was the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Trump on Wednesday complained the agency's school opening guidelines were "very tough & expensive."

"While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!" Trump wrote.

The CDC's director, Dr. Robert Redfield, has emphasized that his agency's guidelines are only recommendations

"I want to make it very clear that what is not the intent of CDC's guidelines is to be used as a rationale to keep schools closed," he said at Wednesday's coronavirus task force briefing, which was held at the Education Department.

The CDC's guidance recommends that students and teachers wear masks whenever feasible, spread out desks, stagger schedules, eat meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria and add physical barriers between bathroom sinks.

Trump did not clarify which of the guidelines he opposed. Pence said revised guidelines would be coming out shortly but both he and Redfield sidestepped questions about whether they were being revised to address Trump's concerns.

At the briefing, and a day earlier in a call with the nation's governors, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said anything less than a full reopening would be a failure for students and taxpayers. But some of the nation's largest districts plan to bring back limited numbers of students for only a few days a week, saying it would be unsafe for all to return at once.

She singled out Virginia's Fairfax County Public Schools, which are asking families to decide between fully remote instruction or two days a week at school

"A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all," DeVos said, according to audio of the call with governors obtained by The Associated Press.

In announcing New York City's plan for in-person instruction two or three days a week, de Blasio said schools can't accommodate all their students at any one time while maintaining social distancing. The city's public school system, with 1.1 million students, is by far the nation's largest.

Trump said at the White House event on Tuesday, "We're very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools." He said that parents and children want schools to reopen and "it's time to do it."

But the president of the nation's largest education union said Trump was more interested in scoring points for the November election than in keeping students safe.

"Trump has proven to be incapable of grasping that people are dying — that more than 130,000 Americans have already died," said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association. "Educators want nothing more than to be back in classrooms and on college campuses with our students, but we must do it in a way that keeps students, educators and communities safe."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued guidelines suggesting that schools aim to start the academic 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.

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Associated Press writers Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, Carla Johnson in Washington state, and Marina Villenueve in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.

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