More pillars are fast crumbling in President Donald Trump’s frantic and lie-strewn attempt to convince Americans the nation is back to normal before the election, with chaos already afflicting the return to school and a rite of fall — college football — on the brink.
Trump’s false insistence that children are “immune” from the coronavirus and can’t spread it is being undermined by new figures showing that nearly 100.000 kids tested pozitive for the virus in the last two weeks of July. And some of the first schools that are following his calls to fully reopen are being hit by new viral outbreaks almost as soon as classes begin.
The President, in demanding a return to class and for college football to kick off, is making education and collegiate sports the latest area of American life to be contaminated by his false narratives about the pandemic. Almost all of his assurances about the crisis — which have tended to minimize its impact and ignore science — have proven to be wrong.
First Trump said the pandemic would not take hold of the United States, but it did. Then he said it would simply disappear and it didn’t. Then the President said it was safe to open state economies before the pathogen was fully under control — steps which helped cause a viral eruption across southern and western states. He’s argued against all the principles of epidemiology that testing doesn’t matter — even though nations that have done better than the US have used that route to get the virus under control. Last week, Trump said that there might be a vaccine before Election Day in another self-serving political comment. Now firms developing the inoculation and experts say that’s likely impossible.
Instead of taking the worst public health crisis in 100 years seriously and working with fact-based and scientific approaches, Trump has devoted his energy and that of the White House to arguing that a response that is clearly disastrous is a glowing success. He’s spent weeks peddling non-cures and portraying the economy in the midst of a “boom” — even though millions of Americans remain unemployed.
But nearly six months into America’s battle with the pandemic, the country has a staggering one-quarter of all the world’s 20 million coronavirus cases. Thousands of Americans are dying every week and there are alarming new signs of further spread of the disease in the Midwest, California, Texas and some northeastern cities, even as there are some limited signs of encouragement, in lower infections in Florida for instance.
Yet Trump did what he always did Monday as he identified a preferred outcome — opening schools and playing college sports — without providing any evidence that it was safe in a virus-bedeviled nation or a plan got get back to normal.
Instead he painted a rosy, fantastical notion that the nightmare is all but over.
“At the end of a fairly short period of time, you are going to be in very, very good shape all over our country,” he said in a meandering briefing that cherry-picked statistics and was packed with misinformation and nonsensical arguments.
Problems with the return to school and meetings of college football chiefs that could lead to the season being canceled will further fracture the President’s attempts to convince voters that he has led the way out of the viral storm. They will also hamper his efforts to distract from his mishandling of the pandemic that has suppressed his approval ratings less than three months before he asks voters for a second term.
Many US school districts and colleges across the country have defied the President’s advice to reopen and are beginning semesters online, raising the prospect of many months more at home for schoolkids, amid growing concern among parents.
The President’s claims that it is safe for every kid to go back to class are being challenged by a new report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association that found that more than 97,000 children tested positive for the coronavirus in the last two weeks of July. The study showed a 40% increase in child coronavirus cases in states and cities during those two weeks. While children are far less likely to suffer complications from the virus, some have died. And the report will fuel fears that children could make teachers sick, will carry the virus home from school and infect their parents and other relatives and that schools could turn into super spreader locations.
Asked about the study, Trump again insisted that since most children didn’t get seriously ill it was fine to open schools and without evidence said children do not transmit the virus to other people.
“It’s a tiny fraction of death, a tiny fraction and they get better quickly,” Trump said in the White House Briefing Room.
“They may have it for a short period of time. For the most part they do very well. According to the people I have spoken to they don’t transport it or transfer it to other people very easily. I think schools have to open. It’s a very important thing for the economy to get schools going,” he claimed.
But Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst and an emergency room physician at George Washington University Hospital, said the study showed that it would be impossible to safely open schools in districts where the virus had not been properly suppressed.
“Imagine if these 97,000 children were all in school. Imagine how many outbreaks there could be,” Wen told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin. “The lesson to take away here is that you cannot keep a school safe from coronavirus if the community is a hotbed of infection. There is just no way.”
There are already signs, in the minority of schools and districts that have already started in-person learning, of trouble ahead.
At least nine of 12 county public school systems in Florida are planning to reopen this week in areas that have a coronavirus testing positivity rate of over 5%, according to Mark Richard, Florida Education Association Attorney. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said last month that officials in counties with a positivity rate higher than 5% might consider keeping schools closed. New York City, which is planning to reopen its schools in an in-person/blended system had by contrast a positivity rate of 1% on Monday.
In Georgia meanwhile, at least 826 students and 42 staff are under quarantine after multiple positive tests in the first week of school in an Atlanta suburb. And in Mississippi, 22 schools are reporting Covid-19 cases.
The cases do not necessarily make an iron clad case for keeping all schools closed for the months and even years that it might take to conquer the virus. Parents are desperate for kids to go back to school. The prolonged closures have had a devastating educational and psychological impact on America’s kids. Many low-income students rely on schools for their only nutritious meals. And Trump is right in the sense that the economy cannot fully recover if millions of parents lack child care with schools still out.
But the early problems with the return to classes show that arrangements are often chaotic and expose the lack of a national approach to schooling that Trump and his government could have overseen if they were serious about governing. The CDC did put out national guidelines for safe schooling — but they were heavily criticized as too draconian by the President.
There were hardening indications also on Monday that the 2020-21 college football season will not take place — at least according to its traditional fall calendar. Leaders from the top five conferences in college sports have discussed calling off the season and other fall sports, according to reports from multiple sports news outlets including ESPN, Sports Illustrated and CBS. No decision has so far been reached.
But the loss of big-time college football would deal another devastating blow to Trump’s claims that regular life is returning or that the pandemic is relenting.
College athletes are by definition students and are harder to quarantine than professional athletes paid high salaries for their troubles. Two major pro sports, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, have successfully relaunched their suspended seasons in bio-secure “bubbles” in Florida and Canada respectively. But Major League baseball has had to cancel multiple games after ballplayers — traveling from series to series in the traditional manner tested positive for Covid-19. A bubble for college football, with its huge squads and coaching entourages, is impractical and it is almost impossible to envisage how the season can go ahead in any recognizable even in empty stadiums.
Yet Trump appears desperate for the games to go ahead — even if he is characteristically ignoring the consequences of playing on and is not providing any scientifically based suggestions for how to keep players and coaches safe.
“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled. #WeWantToPlay,” Trump tweeted on Monday afternoon.
In fact, if the college season cannot go ahead, Trump’s failure as President to put in place an effective campaign against the pandemic — including saturation testing and tracing and his resistance to tough measures to stop the spread of the disease — will be a major reason why.