White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany lashed out at the media on Thursday after she garnered criticism for her remarks about science and decisions on school reopenings.
Speaking during the afternoon's press briefing, McEnany stumbled into a gaffe when she urged schools across the country reopen despite the ongoing pandemic and said: "The science should not stand in the way of this."
This sounded as though she thought schools should reopen regardless of what the science says. The slip-up clearly played into one of the consistent criticisms of the Trump administration — and the GOP more broadly — that it refuses to accept scientific conclusions it finds ideologically inconvenient.
She seemed to be aware in the moment, though, that she might have put herself in an indefensible position. So she added shortly after: "The science is very clear on this. For instance, you look at the JAMA Pediatrics study of 46 pediatric hospitals in North America that said the risk of critical illness from COVID is far less for children than that of seasonal flu. The science is on our side here."
So McEnany bristled when news outlets focused on her first poorly phrased reference to science:
Of course, this happens in politics and the news all the time. The most incendiary and attention-grabbing gaffes are focused on while clarifying remarks are ignored.
The more substantive problem with McEnany's remarks, however, is that while the coronavirus may indeed pose a relatively low risk to children, one of the big worries about the disease is that schools could become a major vector for the pandemic to spread. And while it's true, as McEnany noted, that peer nations are returning to school, the United States has a much more severe and enduring outbreak of COVID-19 than almost anywhere else in the world. And the international picture on schooling isn't all rosy: Israel, in particular, is struggling after seeing the virus spread in schools.
Almost everyone would ideally like to see kids return to school in the fall, but the worry is that since the United States and the Trump administration has failed to get the virus under control, any effort to get back to normalcy will just give the outbreak more opportunities to proliferate. And that could be much worse in the long run than keeping schools closed or in modified operation in certain regions until the virus is better suppressed.
As for the science, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to advise that the Trump administration's priority of a complete return to classes as normal is the "highest risk" approach to education. But Trump has overtly quarreled with the CDC when he found its scientific judgments politically inconvenient. That's why McEnany's initial claim about not letting science stand in the way of the administration's priorities attracted attention and immediate criticism — it sounded as if the press secretary was perhaps being accidentally honest about the administration's views.