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Closed Schools Would Stay Shut in First Phase of Trump Reopening Guidelines

By Evie Blad & Andrew Ujifusa — April 16, 2020 4 min read
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After President Donald Trump hosted days of briefings filled with bluster about his ability to override state decisions, the White House is leaving the decision about when to open schools and businesses largely to states Thursday, releasing guidelines that call for a tiered approach to “reopening the country” as it confronts the coronavirus pandemic.

However, schools that are currently closed would not reopen in the first of three phases of the medically driven criteria proposed by these guidelines.

The guidelines, first published by the Washington Post Thursday and outlined in greater detail in a lengthy White House press briefing that night, call for several phases that depend on the severity of continued transmission in a state or region. And they depict a reopening process that will be heavily dependent on testing for the illness, isolating individuals who have it, and ensuring proper capacity in hospitals should it re-emerge.

The plan, which Trump released after a conference call with governors Thursday, includes “gating criteria” that states would need to pass before moving through to the next phase of reopening. Those criteria lay out specific calls for a downward trajectory of symptomatic people and documented cases of the virus, and a “robust testing program” for at-risk health-care workers. Those gating criteria are below:

States and regions that satisfy the “gating criteria” and are prepared to test and track cases of the virus would be considered in Phase One under the plan. In Phase One, schools and organized youth activities that are currently closed should remain closed. (According to Education Week’s tracker, 27 states and three U.S. territories have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the academic year.)

Here are the second and third phases of the plan:

  • To qualify for Phase Two of the plan, a state or region would need to show no evidence that the virus rebounded under the first phase and prove that it can meet the “gating criteria” a second time. Under Phase Two, schools and youth activities could reopen, the plan says, but there should also be continue social distancing, and gatherings of more than 50 people where such distancing isn’t practical are discouraged. The guidelines say vulnerable people, including those with asthma, should continue to shelter in place, and other members of their household should “be aware that by returning to work or other environments where distancing is not practical, they could carry the virus back home,” the plan says. Employers in those regions should close common areas where people may congregate, it says.
  • Under Phase Three in the plan, states and regions would show no evidence of another uptick of the virus after mitigation efforts were eased, and they would have to meet the “gating criteria” a third time. In those areas, schools could be open and employers could return to unrestricted staffing, but places like bars and large venues may have to modify operations to allow for social distancing.

Those criteria for reopening largely match what state leaders have already suggested. Also, as we reported Wednesday, many governors have suggested their states don’t have the testing capacity to effectively monitor the illness at levels necessary for reopening schools and businesses.

And some state education officials are preparing for the possibility of continued closures or the need to modify school operations to allow for social distancing in the fall.

The White House plan does not include a timeline or projected dates for reopening. And, while Trump has touted an ambitious May 1 date, most state leaders have set their sights much further into the future. Things won’t return to normal until there is a vaccine for the coronavirus, they’ve cautioned.

“Some states will be able to open up sooner than others,” Trump said at a Thursday press briefing. “Every state is very different.”

The federal guidelines come as state leaders face pressure from both sides. At demonstrations in states like Michigan this week, protesters called on governors to reopen businesses and end stay-home orders, but many of those businesses would not be able to operate at fully capacity if employees have to stay home with out-of-school children. On the other hand, Florida’s teacher’s union also protested Wednesday, encouraging Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, to keep schools closed beyond May 1, the state’s current recommended date to remain closed.

In all phases of reopening, the plan suggests individuals should consider wearing masks while in public, continue frequent handwashing, and stay home from school and work if they are feeling sick.

See the full “Opening Up American Again” guidelines below:

Photo: President Donald J. Trump speaks during the coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 15, 2020. (Shawn Thew/CNP via ZUMA Wire)