Why is the CDC producing new guidelines on re-opening schools?

The only answer that seems clear is that the administration doesn't appear to have any idea what it's doing on one of the president's top new priorities.
Image: CDC exterior
Exterior of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta on Oct. 13, 2014.Jessica McGowan / Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that he wants schools to re-open for their fall semesters, despite the public-health crisis. The president doesn't appear to have any interest in addressing the issues that led to school closures, and he has no meaningful plan to help schools re-open safely, but he knows what he wants and expects others to figure out a way to make it happen.

The good news is, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have already prepared official recommendations for schools. The bad news is, Trump has decided he doesn't like those recommendations.

After the president publicly rejected the CDC's guidance to educators yesterday, things got ... messy.

In the late morning, the White House signaled its intention to prepare a new set of guidelines, which raised the prospect of two competing sets of recommendations from the administration: one from the CDC and one from the West Wing.

Soon after, Team Trump seemed to switch gears, announcing that the CDC would release new recommendations, which would presumably be more in line with the amateur president's preferences.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will release additional guidance next week on how to reopen schools safely, Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday during a White House coronavirus task force briefing at the Department of Education.

It was around this same time that CDC Director Robert Redfield told a group of reporters that his agency and the West Wing are totally "aligned" on how school re-openings should proceed. Asked to reconcile this alignment with the president lashing out at the CDC via Twitter, Redfield had no answer.

Nevertheless, if the CDC is producing another set of recommendations -- presumably including guidance that's different from what the agency released to the public in May -- it raised the prospect of the White House interfering with the work of government scientists, just as we saw with "Sharpiegate" (a controversy that's still ongoing) and political pressure on the FDA over hydroxychloroquine.

Indeed, Pence's announcement made it seem as if Team Trump made a political calculation about the CDC's original recommendations, forcing the agency to produce a different document simply to satisfy the president's whims.

But the closer one looks, the more ambiguities emerge. While Pence generated headlines yesterday by saying CDC officials will produce new recommendations on re-opening schools, the vice president used nearly identical language a day earlier -- before Trump's online tantrum.

I've tried to keep up with this story, but at this point, I have far more questions than answers. Is the CDC coming up with new guidelines? If so, is the agency simply trying to placate an intemperate president? Was there something actually wrong with the guidelines released in May? Are they being replaced or added to?

Who told the CDC to craft these new recommendations? When? For what reason?

The only answer that seems clear is that the administration doesn't appear to have any idea what it's doing on one of the president's top new priorities, which has dramatic possible consequences for families, public health, and the economy.

Update: The CDC's Redfield reportedly claimed this morning that his agency isn't going to revise its guidelines, but it will instead release "additional information" and "additional reference documents." I'm not sure how much clarity that brings to the matter, but that's what he said.