Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was met with heavy criticism after she doubled down on her call to reopen schools even as coronavirus infections continue to skyrocket across the country.
CNN host Dana Bash repeatedly pressed DeVos on Sunday on the school reopening guidelines issued by the Centers of Disease Control, which have warned that a full school reopening would be the "highest risk."
"The CDC guidelines are just that — meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation," DeVos said.
"Yes or no: Can you assure students, teachers and parents that they will not get coronavirus because they're going back to school?" Bash pressed.
"The key is that kids have to get back to school," DeVos replied as she dodged the question. "And we know there are going to be hot spots, and those need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall. They have been missing months of learning."
"Here's what the CDC guidelines say: 'If children meet in groups, it can put everyone at risk. Children can pass this virus onto others who have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.'" Bash said. "That's your own federal government's guidelines."
"There's going to be the exception to the rule, but the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall. And where there are little flare-ups or hot spots that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis," DeVos repeated.
"So I want to be clear from you: As the secretary of education, should schools in the United States follow the CDC recommendations or not?" Bash asked.
DeVos again insisted that the guidance only included "recommendations" and claimed that the federal government was "very much on the same page."
"Kids need to get back to school. They need to get back in the classroom," DeVos said. "Families need for kids to get back in the classroom, and it can be done safely."
DeVos claimed in another interview with Fox News that "there's nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous."
"We know that children contract and have the virus at far lower incidence than any other part of the population," she said.
Some countries, such as Israel, have already been forced to shut down schools after early reopenings led to hundreds of new infections among children.
DeVos also defended President Donald Trump's threat to cut off funding for school systems which do not fully reopen in the fall.
"Isn't cutting off funding exactly the wrong answer? Don't you want to spend more money to make schools safer — whether it's with plastic shields or health checks, various other systems?" host Chris Wallace asked. "Doesn't it make more sense to increase funding for schools where it's unsafe rather than cut off funding?"
"If schools aren't going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn't get the funds," DeVos replied. "Then give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise."
"Well, you can't do that," the Fox News host said. "You can't do that unilaterally. You have to do that through Congress."
"Well, we're looking at all the options, because it's a promise to the American people and their families," DeVos said. "And we want to make sure that promise is followed through on."
Health experts have pushed back on DeVos' arguments.
"While the balance of the data shows that kids are less susceptible to infection and less likely to transmit it, less susceptible doesn't mean they're not susceptible," Scott Gottlieb, Trump's former FDA chief, told CBS News on Sunday. "No other country, with the exception maybe of Sweden, reopened their schools or kept their schools open against the backdrop of so much spread that we're attempting to do in this country."
Sweden "literally gained nothing" from staying open during the pandemic, including "no economic gains," The New York Times reported last week, while recording on of the highest death rates in the world.
Scott Brabrand, the superintendent of Fairfax County schools, whose Virginia district was cited Sunday by DeVos, rejected her argument.
"You can't put every kid back in a school," he told CNN. "COVID hits all of us, and the guidelines for six-feet social distancing simply mean that you can't put every kid back in a school with the existing square footage footprint. It's just that simple."
"You would need another five Pentagons of space to be able to safely accommodate all of the students in Fairfax County Public Schools," he added.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a joint statement with the largest teachers unions in the country last week warning that "evidence — not politics" should guide decisions to reopen schools.
"Schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions," the statement said. "Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person fulltime would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers."
Democrats slammed DeVos after the interviews.
"You have no plan," Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., wrote in a tweet directed to DeVos. "Teachers, kids and parents are fearing for their lives. You point to a private sector that has put profits over people and claimed the lives of thousands of essential workers. I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child."
"What we heard from the secretary was malfeasance and dereliction of duty," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told CNN following DeVos' interview. "This is appalling."
Pelosi argued that the Trump administration was "messing with the health of our children."
"Going back to school presents the biggest risk for the spread of the coronavirus," she said. "They ignore science and they ignore governance in order to make this happen."