The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently issued guidance saying that school districts should try to get students back to campuses this fall for their health – and the Trump administration has used it to bolster its new push to force public schools to open fully for the 2020-21 academic year.

But the initial statement never was an endorsement of the call by President Donald Trump for all schools to fully reopen – and the organization has now attempted to directly distance itself from the administration’s belligerent stance on reopening.

In late June, the AAP issued what it called “Covid-19 Planning Considerations: Guidance for School Re-entry,” in which it said in part:

Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits. Beyond supporting the educational development of children and adolescents, schools play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity. …

With the above principles in mind, the AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school. The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.

The administration saw the detailed guidance as support and various members began citing it in remarks about the opening of schools.

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On June 7, for example, the AAP guidance came up at the White House during a school-opening conversation led by Trump. One of the speakers was AAP President Sally Goza.

At the event, Vice President Mike Pence said: “But as the American Academy of Pediatrics, so well represented here today, recently reflected, there are – there are social costs, emotional costs, and even physical costs to our children across this country that we spoke with the governors today.”

Goza herself spoke, talking about the benefits students get when they are in school. She did note, however, that “returning to school must be done safely,” and she added: “Reopening schools in a way that maximizes safety, learning, and the well-being of children will clearly require new investments in our schools. We urge you to ensure that schools receive the resources necessary so that funding does not stand in the way of keeping our children safe or present at school.”

Instead of promising more support, Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have threatened to cut funding from school districts that don’t reopen fully.

On Wednesday, Pence appeared at the Education Department, where he again raised the AAP guidance. So did DeVos, who said:

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The American Academy of Pediatrics noted: Keeping schools closed ‘places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality.’ The pediatrics guidance concluded that everyone ‘should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.’

‘Fully open’ and ‘fully operational’ means that students need a full school year or more, and it’s expected it will look different depending on where you are.

By Friday, the AAP apparently had had enough.

It joined with three other groups – the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country; the National Education Association, the largest union in the country; and AASA, the School Superintendents Association – in issuing a statement about the reopening of schools that was clearly aimed at Trump and DeVos.

The statement said that only health concerns should dictate when schools reopen – not political leaders – and that threatening to withhold funding from districts that don’t fully reopen is “misguided.” It said in part:

Reopening schools in a way that maximizes safety, learning, and the well-being of children, teachers, and staff will clearly require substantial new investments in our schools and campuses. We call on Congress and the administration to provide the federal resources needed to ensure that inadequate funding does not stand in the way of safely educating and caring for children in our schools. Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person fulltime would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers.

Here’s the full statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

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Educators and pediatricians share the goal of children returning safely to school this fall. Our organizations are committed to doing everything we can so that all students have the opportunity to safely resume in-person learning.

We recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online. Schools also play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity. Our nation’s response to COVID-19 has laid bare inequities and consequences for children that must be addressed. This pandemic is especially hard on families who rely on school lunches, have children with disabilities, or lack access to Internet or health care.

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. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.

Local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible. For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.

Reopening schools in a way that maximizes safety, learning, and the well-being of children, teachers, and staff will clearly require substantial new investments in our schools and campuses. We call on Congress and the administration to provide the federal resources needed to ensure that inadequate funding does not stand in the way of safely educating and caring for children in our schools. Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person fulltime would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers.

The pandemic has reminded so many what we have long understood: that educators are invaluable in children’s lives and that attending school in person offers children a wide array of health and educational benefits. For our country to truly value children, elected leaders must come together to appropriately support schools in safely returning students to the classroom and reopening schools.

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