WASHINGTON - White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Thursday that “the science should not stand in the way” of schools reopening in the fall, asserting that scientific evidence is on the side of resuming in-person instruction, despite concerns from health experts regarding opening educational institutions amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"You know, the president has said unmistakably that he wants schools to open. And I was just in the Oval talking to him about that," McEnany said at a White House press briefing. "And when he says open, he means open in full -- kids being able to attend each and every day at their school."
"The science should not stand in the way of this. And as Dr. Scott Atlas said -- I thought this was a good quote -- 'Of course, we can [do it]. Everyone else in the… Western world, our peer nations are doing it. We are the outlier here,'” McEnany said.
"The science is very clear on this, that -- you know, 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," she continued.
"The science is on our side here, and we encourage for localities and states to just simply follow the science, open our schools," McEnany said. "It's very damaging to our children: There is a lack of reporting of abuse; there's mental depressions that are not addressed; suicidal ideations that are not addressed when students are not in school. Our schools are extremely important, they're essential, and they must reopen."
McEnany appeared to be referencing a May 11 study published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics. The study looked at "children positive for COVID-19 admitted to 46 North American PICUs between March 14 and April 3, 2020," according to the authors.
WATCH: Full White House press briefing from July 16. 2020
"The COVID-19 pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on global health," the authors of the study wrote, acknowledging the early and preliminary nature of their research. "To our knowledge, this early multicenter cross-sectional study is the first of its kind from the US and adds to the emerging data of infants and children infected with COVID-19. We found the severity of illness in infants and children with COVID-19 to be far less than that documented in adults, with most PICUs across North America reporting no children admitted with this disease during the study period."
"Of the critically ill children with COVID-19, more than 80% had significant long-term underlying medical conditions. Overall survival and outcomes from critical illness in infants and children with COVID-19 in this series was far better than reported for adult patients. At the present time, our data indicate that children are at far greater risk of critical illness from influenza than from COVID-19. Our observations provide an important platform for further detailed studies of COVID-19 in children, with larger cohorts and longer periods of follow-up," the study's conclusion read.
Many colleges and universities across the country have reverted to online classes for the fall 2020 semester, but the larger concern remains over K-12 students and whether they’ll be safe, as well as their teachers and families, if they resume their education in-person in the fall.
But no consensus on the overall safety of reopening shools has been reached.
McEnany claimed earlier this week Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that children were not spreading COVID-19. But according to an Associated Press fact check analysis, Redfield did not say that. He said that officials don’t have evidence that children are driving infections, but aren’t ruling out the possibility that children can spread the virus to adults.
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, noted last week as well that the government doesn’t have enough data regarding if and how much kids can spread the virus to one another, according to the Associated Press.
The bulk of data has been collected from adults and particularly from those who were sick, leaving questions about children still unanswered, Birx said. She said children under 10 are the least-tested age group.
The officials did not reach a conclusion that “children are not spreading this.” Nor does the evidence prove that they are.
The government has counted tens of thousands of children who have been infected with the virus and in some cases hospitalized. Overall, public health officials still believe the virus is less dangerous to children than adults.
Edication Secretary Betsy DeVos has also urged the reopening of schools. “There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous,” DeVos said Sunday on “Fox News Sunday." DeVos urged schools to provide full-time, in-person learning in the fall even with community transmission of COVID-19 rising in many parts of the U.S.
But it’s premature to claim that there are no risks “in any way" seen in data. How significant the risk is has not been established.
U.S. pediatricians on Monday walked back earlier support regarding the reopening of schools, saying science should guide decision-making and that federal funding would be critical. The clarification came after the White House cited the group in its push for in-person instruction.
“Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff,” the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a joint statement with national education unions and a school superintendents group.
“Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics,” the statement said.The World Health Organization also echoed the sentiment on Monday, urging against politicizing the issue of reopening schools.
The CDC in April studied the pandemic’s effect on different age groups in the U.S. and reviewed preliminary research in China, where the novel coronavirus started. It said social distancing is important for children, too, for their own safety and that of others.
“Whereas most COVID-19 cases in children are not severe, serious COVID-19 illness resulting in hospitalization still occurs in this age group,” the CDC study says.
In May, the CDC also warned doctors to be on the lookout for a rare but life-threatening inflammatory reaction in some children who have had the coronavirus. The condition had at that time been reported in more than 100 children in New York and in some kids in several other states and in Europe, with some deaths.
The agency’s current guidance for communities on the reopening of K-12 schools says the goal is to “help protect students, teachers, administrators, and staff and slow the spread of COVID-19.” The guidance says “full sized, in person classes” present the “highest risk” of spreading the virus and advises face masks, spreading out of desks, staggered schedules, eating meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria and “staying home when appropriate” to help avert spikes in virus cases.
Last week, Trump challenged the school reopening guidelines provided by the CDC, accusing the Atlanta-based federal agency of “asking schools to do very impractical things" in order to reopen.
The recommended measures include spacing students' desks 6 feet apart, staggering start and arrival times, and teaching kids effective hygiene measures to prevent infections.
There are also concerns among school districts regarding the financial costs of ensuring schools are safe for children to attend in person.
Keeping public schools for 50 million students and more than 7 million staff safe from the coronavirus could require more teachers and substitutes, nurses and custodians. School districts will need to find more buses to allow for more space between children and buy more computers for distance learning. They’ll need to buy sanitizer, masks and other protective equipment. Some are putting up plastic dividers in offices and classrooms.
Parents, too, are divided on how to best address children returning to schools, with some objecting to masks and social distancing policies and others advocating for part-time school and mandated face coverings, according to the Associated Press.
And many teachers are concerned about their own health.
In Arizona, three summer school teachers who were sharing a classroom tested positive in late June for the novel coronavirus, with one passing away due to COVID-19.
Kimberly Chavez Lopez Byrd, who taught in the Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District for 38 years, passed away from COVID-19 on June 26.
Byrd started feeling sick and developed symptoms while teaching virtual K-2 summer school classes from the same classroom with two other teachers, Angela Skillings and Jena Martinez-Inzunza.
“We were following and doing everything we were supposed to be doing, and we were apart from one another. Didn’t even share pencils, pens, things, nothing,” said Martinez-Inzunza, one of the teachers who tested positive.
“We would like our message to government and school officials to say is that now is not the time to try and send kids back to a traditional classroom,” said Jesse Byrd, Kimberly's husband. “We feel the risks and dangers heavily outweigh the benefits at this time.”
Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC director, said during an online briefing on July 8, “The single most important thing we can do to keep our schools safe has nothing to do with what happens in school. It’s how well we control COVID-19 in the community.”
“Right now there are places around the country where the virus is spreading explosively,” Frieden said, “and it would be difficult if not impossible to operate schools safely until the virus is under better control.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.