Indian Country Today

The Trump administration's message about COVID-19 keeps changing: New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it's time to reopen schools despite rising infection rates in much of the country. 

The new guidelines say: "Aside from a child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school" because those schools provide education, help build social skills, and facilitates physical activity.

And, the centers said, "the best available evidence indicates if children become infected, they are far less likely to suffer severe symptoms."

CDC Director Robert Redfield tweeted about the new policy, telling parents that "school closures have disrupted normal ways of life for you and your children and they have had negative health consequences on our youth." 

While the CDC makes the case that children are less likely to get the disease there are conflicting studies about their ability to transmit the disease. (And another CDC official tweet urged people to remain 6 feet apart -- an impossible standard in a public school setting.

The CDC guidelines did open up an alternative path, saying schools should examine community transmission rates before making the call to reopen. It cited one study in Europe that found opening schools "may further increase transmission risk in communities where transmission is already high."

The federal government directly operates two schools systems. the Bureau of Indian Education with some 55 schools in Indian Country and the Department of Defense schools. The Bureau of Indian Education has not yet released its plan for the fall, however, Haskell Indian Nations University already has said it will provide online classes.

At the Defense Department schools,  administrator Thomas Brady posted on the agency web site: "We have a path forward. We have in place all the right things, according to all the latest experts -- social distancing, wearing masks, taking precautions, and looking at the local environment. The decisions are based on the facts – current community cases, testing availability, protocols in the event a child or adult gets sick in school, the ability to clean our building to the CDC standard daily, and other measures to provide a safe environment? That's what we're looking into and I think we're on the right track."

Indeed those are the execution questions across the country. How will schools clean their facility every day? How will schools implement, and pay for, additional COVID-19 responses. Virtual instruction. Mandated masks. Physical distancing. The start of school will look very different this year because of the coronavirus — and that's OK with the vast majority of Americans.

Only about 1 in 10 Americans think daycare centers, preschools or K-12 schools should open this fall without restrictions, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs. Most think mask requirements and other safety measures are necessary to restart in-person instruction, and roughly 3 in 10 say that teaching kids in classrooms shouldn't happen at all.

The findings are a sharp contrast to the picture that President Donald Trump paints as he pressures schools to reopen. Trump said Wednesday that he would be "comfortable" with his son Barron and grandchildren attending school in person this fall. 

"I would like to see the schools open," he told reporters.

Few schools, however, plan to return to business as usual. Many of the nation's largest school districts have announced that they'll be entirely virtual in the fall or use a hybrid model that has children in classrooms only a couple of days a week.

The poll finds only 8 percent of Americans say K-12 schools should open for normal in-person instruction. Just 14 percent think they can reopen with minor adjustments, while 46% think major adjustments are needed. Another 31 percent think instruction should not be in person this fall. It's little different among the parents of school-age children.

Patty Kasbek, of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, said she desperately wants her two children, ages 5 and 10, to return to school. After months at home, the family is stressed and anxious. But with the virus surging, she doesn't see a safe way to reopen.

"School shouldn't even be considered right now," said Kasbek, 40. "We need to get this under control before we play with the virus. It's just too dangerous to put our kids out there like guinea pigs."

Her local school district is planning to reopen with new safety measures, she said, but she's opting to enroll her children in a virtual school. She isn't as worried about her own health but fears that reopening schools could spread the virus to others.

"I just see it going very badly, and I'm very, very worried for the teachers," said Kasbek, who considers herself a Democrat.

The poll finds a majority of Americans, 56 percent, say they are very or extremely concerned that reopening schools will lead to additional infections in their communities; another 24 percent are somewhat concerned.

Some, however, see little risk. James Rivers, of Ramsey, Minnesota, said schools should reopen without protective measures against the virus. Rivers, a Republican, says Trump is doing a "fine job" and will have his vote in November.

"I think it should be just business as usual," said Rivers, 54. "Yes, there is a COVID virus, but is it any more deadly than the common flu? I don't think so."

Rivers, who does not have school-age children, said parents who fear the virus can home school. "As for everybody else who isn't afraid of a virus that has a less than 2 percent chance of being fatal, send your kid back to school. Let's get it done," he said.

Majorities say it is essential that buildings be disinfected daily, temperature checks and face masks be mandatory and desks be spread apart if schools are to reopen.

And 6 in 10 think a mix of in-person and virtual instruction is necessary, to limit the number of students inside at one time. Some of the nation's largest districts, including New York City's schools, plan to use that model. But Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says that fails students and taxpayers, arguing that students should be in the classroom every day.

In his campaign to reopen schools, Trump argues that Democrats oppose it for political reasons. He has threatened to cut federal funding for schools that fail to reopen fully. The White House has said he wants to work with Congress to tie future relief funding to reopening. He argues that other countries have reopened schools safely, although some he cites have used the hybrid model that DeVos decried.

The Trump administration also has argued that it's not just about academics. Students need access to meal programs and mental health services, it says. 

-- Indian Country Today staff and reports from The Associated Press.