WASHINGTON - U.S. education chief Betsy DeVos on Sunday pressed local communities throughout the country to reopen schools with five-day-a-week, in-person instruction in the coming weeks, saying it was entirely safe even as the number of coronavirus cases surges to new highs.
DeVos, in appearances on talk shows on Fox News and CNN, disputed advice from health experts and state and local government officials against full resumption of in-school classes that have mostly been shut down since March as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country. The U.S. is now recording 60,000 or more cases a day, often new daily highs over the last week.
"Getting back to learning is really imperative," DeVos told the "Fox News Sunday" show. "Nothing in the data suggests that's it's in any way dangerous," noting that scientists do not believe children transmit the virus anywhere near as often as adults do.
"Kids don't get this virus the same way," she said.
DeVos told CNN, "The go-to needs to be kids in schools. Schools need to get open." She allowed, however, that in communities where there are virus flareups, virtual online learning could be employed "for a few days." She told Fox News, "Where there are hot spots, we'll have to deal with that."
The Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care research group, is warning, however, that reopening classroom instruction could be dangerous for teachers. It said that about 1.5 million teachers, about a quarter of all teachers in the U.S., are "at greater risk of serious illness if infected with coronavirus" because of their age or personal health conditions.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted recommended guidelines for reopening schools that call for students to wear face masks and socially distance themselves from others by at least two meters, a virtual impossibility in most U.S. school classrooms.
President Donald Trump, in calling for five-day-a-week instruction rather than virtual learning, last week said the CDC suggestions too tough, too expensive and impractical.
The CDC says this week that it will provide further explanation this week on how schools could possibly reopen, but its director, Dr. Robert Redfield, said the agency would not back off the basic guidelines.
White House coronavirus testing czar Admiral Brett Giroir told ABC News's "This Week" show, "I think the CDC guidelines are really right on target. It's really important to get kids physically back in schools but you do have to do that safely."
"And the first thing we need to do is get the virus under control," Giroir said. "When we get the virus more under control, then we can really think about how we put children back in the classroom, but it's got to be done carefully."
Most schooling decisions in the U.S. are set by local officials, not the federal government. Numerous school officials across the country are already balking at Trump's and DeVos's call for five-day-a-week, in-school instruction.
Many, like the biggest school system in the country in New York City, have unveiled plans for a mix of in-school and virtual learning, not the full in-school instruction Trump and DeVos want.
"It's all going to be guided by science," whether to fully reopen schools, said Mayor Carlos Gimenez in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in the southeastern part of the country, where the number of coronavirus cases is soaring. "It all depends on the state of the virus" when the school year is scheduled to start in six weeks.
School superintendent Scott Brabrand in Fairfax County, Virginia, a large suburban jurisdiction outside Washington, has offered parents a choice: five days a week of virtual classroom instruction for their children or three days online and two inside schools.
He told CNN that the size of Fairfax schools simply is not big enough to hold in-class instruction and have students socially distance themselves. He said that for Fairfax to do that would require construction of the equivalent of five more Pentagons, the massive U.S. Defense Department just outside Washington.