Trump, DeVos downplay risks of reopening schools, claim children don't spur transmission: FACT CHECK

DeVos has falsely claimed the children are "stoppers" of COVID-19.

July 24, 2020, 5:40 PM

As coronavirus cases surge across the country, President Donald Trump is ramping up his push for schools to open for in-person instruction in the fall following weeks of downplaying the risks of children spreading the virus.

"Every district should be actively making preparations to open," Trump said at Thursday's coronavirus-focused press conference. "This is about something very, very important. This is not about politics."

But Trump and Cabinet officials like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have made several misleading claims in their pitch to reopen schools, with DeVos even claiming that children are "stoppers" of the virus, despite health officials saying there’s no evidence of that. On the question of whether kids spread the virus less than adults, task force Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci have cautioned that the issue needs more study before drawing conclusions.

In this Dec. 18, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a roundtable discussion on the Federal Commission on School Safety report, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP, FILE

Notably absent from the podium at the last three briefings on coronavirus, health care experts have been sidelined to separate media interviews to qualify the president's misleading claims.

While severe illness from coronavirus is rare among children, and those under 10 don't seem to contract or spread the virus as often as adults, the question of transmission is widely unanswered since schools across the country closed in March.

"There's a wide range of studies on kids and the jury's still out on their role in spreading the virus," said Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, a Harvard Medical School professor and ABC News contributor. "But I don't think there's evidence to say that they don't play a role -- it's just the amount of transmission they are capable of compared to adults that's in question."

Here are the facts:

In short:

There is still a lot of research to be done on how the virus impacts children and how children spread it, but there is no evidence to suggest children are immune or can stop the disease.

"I don't think any experts are saying that kids are a dead-end or that kids can't continue chains of transmission and can't play a role in community spread," Brownstein said.

The consensus among the scientific community is that the more widely the virus is spreading in a community, the riskier it is to open schools.

Claim: Children don't 'easily' contract or transmit virus

ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl pressed the president Wednesday on schools reopening, noting the "real risk" is that children could bring the virus from schools back to their parents and grandparents at home.

"Well they do say that they don't transmit very easily, and a lot of people are saying they don't transmit, and we're studying, Jon, very hard, that particular subject, that they don't bring it home with them. Now, they don't catch it easily," Trump said.

But experts say there isn't enough comprehensive data yet to draw such a conclusion.

Even White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx -- whom Trump has called a "tremendous woman" -- has said the issue of how contagious kids are needs more study. Soon after Wednesday's briefing, at which Trump said she was "just outside," she appeared on Fox News and was presented with the president's claim.

"There's still open questions there, and that's why the president concluded with, 'we're studying this very hard,'" she said.

Birx noted a study out of South Korea and suggested that children under 10 transmit the virus less frequently, "but I think it needs to be confirmed here."

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, April 23, 2020, in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP Photo

That study also found that those between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as effectively as adults.

"Even if kids are half as likely to transmit the virus compared to adults, even in that setting, it's still important because kids do play a role in transmission," said Brownstein, referring to the same study. "And once you put kids into their natural school setting, that completely changes things. You have close proximity, poor hygiene, so that might offset their potentially lesser role and transmission."

Birx also expressed her concerns at a July 8 task force briefing at the Department of Education that the virus could spread from children to older parents and grandparents and acknowledged that "the lowest tested portion [of the population] is the under 10-year-olds."

Roughly 3.3 million adults ages 65 and older live in a household with school-age children, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis from July.

In an interview with the Washington Post on Friday, Fauci teased a National Institutes of Health study started in May and expected to wrap up by December that is tracking 6,000 people from 2,000 families to provide more insight on child-to-adult transmission.

"Because even though we have some information about that, we still need more information," he said.

Notably, the state of Arkansas reported Wednesday that children now make up nearly 18% of the cases in one county -- well above the national average -- with the state's interim Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero, saying, "This represents, most likely, spread within tight-knit family units."

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House, Thursday, July 23, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House, July 23, 2020.
Evan Vucci/AP

Claim: If the virus is contracted, children 'get better fast'

In the same response to Jonathan Karl, Trump presented another misleading and unchecked claim on the impact the virus has on children.

"They don't bring it home easily, and if they do catch it, they get better fast," Trump replied.

And at Thursday's coronavirus press conference the president said, "Children are a tiny percentage, less than 1% and even a small percentage of 1%."

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 241,904 child coronavirus cases were reported as of July 16, with children representing 8% of all cases in 49 states, along with New York City, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam, all reporting by age.

Although mortality remains much lower, with fewer than 100 child deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S., children are not completely immune to the disease.

Fauci, at a May 12 Senate hearing, said that he's "very reserved in making broad predictions" when it comes to sending children back to school.

"The more and more we learn, we're seeing things about what this virus can do that we didn't see from the studies in China or in Europe," Fauci said. "I think we better be careful that we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects."

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a House Oversight Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., March 11, 2020.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Claim: Trump says administration has a 'national strategy' for schools reopening

While the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have provided different layers of "guidance" to schools, the federal government has not yet released a federal standard for reopening.

Instead, the administration has largely punted to state and local officials -- as it has since the earliest days on the pandemic on issues like procuring medical equipment and personnel.

"We do have a national strategy, but as you know, ultimately, it's up to the governors of the states," Trump said Wednesday.

The CDC did release its highly anticipated guidelines for reopening schools late Thursday.

They do not currently recommend schools conduct universal symptom screenings for K-12 students but encourage parents or caregivers to monitor their children for signs of infectious illness every day.

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House, July 23, 2020.
Evan Vucci/AP

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, in an interview last week on "Fox & Friends," also said, "We leave it to localities as to exactly what guidelines work, because guidelines in a state like North Dakota need to look different than a locality like Miami."

Notably, when the White House released it's guidelines on safely reopening in May, an overwhelming majority of states moved through the phased approach without having met the initial gating criteria -- even though experts warned doing so would result in the kinds of outbreaks the U.S. is currently seeing.

"Schools have to be dependent on measures they can take to ensure safety of kids," said Brownstein. "But most certainly it has to be in concert with mitigation efforts in the community," he said.

"You can reopen schools safely if there's minimal community transmission, but it's much more challenging to do that in states like California, Texas and Florida, where you have a lot of community spread, and kids could serve to amplify transmission," he added.

ABC News' Anne Flaherty and Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.

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