Trump apparently can’t help but make reopening schools into his new partisan cause

It’s an obvious political win that’s been obvious for some time, but also one made more complicated by the recent resurgence of new coronavirus cases in the United States. It’s the sort of thing that demands nuance, particularly in this moment, a balancing of best-case outcomes and realistic assessments of risk. The sort of thing for which lengthy, careful planning is probably the best way to ensure the most positive outcome.

It is, in other words, a particularly fraught issue for Trump, whose appreciation for nuance always trails his interest in political victories by a wide margin.

The president who lurched from park to fourth gear on reopening state economies in May — helping precipitate the new surge in cases — has decided to take a similar approach to school reopenings. While his administration has guidelines and benchmarks (as it did for businesses), Trump’s deploying a damn-the-torpedoes marketing campaign. It’s not “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!,” but it’s not hard to see that emerging as a next step.

Trump’s effort included an attempt to demonstrate the low risk of reopening schools by comparing the United States to European countries.

There are three important points to make about that tweet.

The first is that Denmark, Germany and Norway reopened schools after they had largely contained the virus. German schools, for example, began to open widely in late April and May, after the country had seen a peak in cases. It is true that reopening the schools didn’t spur a new spike in cases, as Trump is arguing, but it’s also true that the spread of the virus was much more contained when the reopening occurred.

There are a lot of questions about the transmissibility of the virus among children, and it’s known that they face a lower risk from an infection than adults. But there are no schools without adults present: teachers, support staff, administrators, et cetera. If the novel coronavirus is still spreading broadly, there’s a much greater risk that those adults will infect one another — and then the community.

A group of school principals in Santa Clara County, Calif., held an in-person meeting to discuss reopening schools. Forty ended up in quarantine after they learned that an attendee was infected with the virus.

The second point that should be made about Trump’s tweet is that Sweden is actually a bad example. Sweden never closed its schools and, in fact, Trump used to use Sweden as a cautionary tale about not trying to contain the virus. Justifiably, it turns out, given how the country’s failure to attempt to contain the virus has proved disastrous.

Sweden is an obvious outlier on the chart above and, while it’s not clear the extent to which its per capita rate of infections is driven by schools being open, it’s also not the case that they’ve pushed down the rate of infections while students are in classrooms.

The third important point is that cutting school funding, as Trump threatened in his tweet, does not seem like a good way to ensure that schools open.

Again, this is all a very Trump-like approach to the situation: become fixated on something that seems like a political winner and throw everything at it that you’ve got. As with past such efforts, though, Trump’s running into a point of tension from within his administration.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a government organization the name of which is appropriately specific — has developed guidelines about how localities should approach reopening schools. Again, this is guidance from the government’s centers for disease control and prevention, developed by scientists and epidemiologists.

Not what Trump wants to hear.

The CDC’s umbrella department, Health and Human Services, clearly recognized storm clouds on the horizon as Trump’s attention turned to reopening schools. So on Tuesday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar pointedly noted that “our CDC guidance is guidance” — that is, not a mandate.

“When it comes to reopening our schools,” he added, “nobody should hide behind CDC’s guidance as a way to not reopen schools.”

It’s worth highlighting the political undercurrent. Trump and his reelection campaign have argued, at times explicitly, that Democrats want to keep schools closed to punish the president politically. (This was the same argument made about keeping businesses closed, it’s worth noting.) Azar touches on that, perhaps unintentionally, implying that some places want to use the CDC as an excuse for not reopening.

Azar’s attempt to defuse Trump clearly didn’t work. So, at a coronavirus task force meeting Wednesday, Vice President Pence was (once again) forced to navigate a path between Trump’s tweet and government policy. Trump’s CDC tweet, he said, was simply saying that the federal government would work with local districts.

That is not what Trump was saying.

There hasn’t been public polling yet on the extent to which people would prioritize reopening schools versus containing the virus. It seems likely, though, that Republicans would be more likely to support reopening (since Republicans have consistently been less supportive of efforts to contain the virus) and that views of doing so would be more positively received than broadly opening businesses.

What the White House could have done, then, is release guidelines aimed at reopening schools safely (and therefore preventing new outbreaks that might force them to close again) and couple those with a message about the importance of reopening and the commitment of the administration to doing so in a careful, specific way. In fact, that’s what the White House has been trying to do, save one person.

If the CDC guidelines and official messaging on school reopenings is a china shop, Trump is the bull.

Again, we’ve seen this before. The CDC developed guidelines for reopening businesses. Trump didn’t like them, thinking that they were overly cautious at a moment when he saw a political opportunity. So the CDC scaled them back. Businesses reopened. Coronavirus cases spiked.

Maybe reopening schools won’t have the same effect. It’s very possible it won’t. But the pattern is nonetheless the same. As reinforced by a bit of news reported by NBC on Wednesday afternoon: The White House will now release its own guidelines for reopening schools.