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White House sought to play down the risks of bringing students back to classrooms

Sept. 29, 2020
Officials pressured the CDC to fall in line with President Trump’s push to reopen schools as quickly as possible

Top White House officials pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this summer to play down the risk of sending children back to school, according to documents and interviews with current and former government officials.

The New York Times reports that White House officials also tried to circumvent the CDC in a search for alternate data showing that the pandemic was weakening and posed little danger to children.

The White House spent weeks trying to press public health professionals to fall in line with President Trump’s election-year agenda of pushing to reopen schools and the economy as quickly as possible. The president and his team have remained defiant in their demand for schools to get back to normal, even as the number of coronavirus cases have once again risen, in some cases linked to school and college reopenings.

Officials at the CDC, long considered the world’s premier public health agency, were alarmed at the degree of pressure from the White House.

One member of Vice President Mike Pence’s staff said she was repeatedly asked by Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, to get the CDC to produce more reports and charts showing a decline in coronavirus cases among young people.

The staff member, Olivia Troye, one of Pence’s top aides on the task force, said she regretted being complicit in the effort. She said she tried as much as possible to shield the CDC from the White House pressure.

After Troye went public this month, Short said she had a vendetta against the president.

Several former officials said that before one task force briefing in late June, White House officials, including Troye, spoke to top CDC officers asking for data that could show the low risk of infection and death for school-age children — “a snazzy, easy-to-read document,” one former senior public health official recalled.

Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, took a direct role in an effort to push the CDC to incorporate work from a little-known agency inside the Department of Health and Human Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The document worked on by the mental health agency struck a different tone from the cautious approach being proposed by the CDC. It warned that school closures would have a long-term effect on the mental health of children. It said that “very few reports of children being the primary source of Covid-19 transmission among family members have emerged” and asserted that children who were asymptomatic “are unlikely to spread the virus.”

Birx asked CDC Director Robert R. Redfield to incorporate the document “as background in the introduction section” of the CDC guidance.

CDC scientists pointed out numerous errors in the document and raised concerns that it appeared to minimize the risk of the coronavirus to school-age children.

The CDC was successful in beating back some of the proposed changes, and the line about asymptomatic children was not included in its final guidelines.

But the gist of the mental health agency’s position—stressing the potential risks of children not attending school—became the introductory text of the final CDC policy, leaving some officials there dismayed.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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