By Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to issue new guidelines for reopening schools, Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday, after President Donald Trump criticized the agency's recommendations as too expensive and impractical.
Trump, a Republican who is seeking re-election in November, accused Democrats of wanting to keep schools shut for political reasons and threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that do not reopen, despite a surge in coronavirus cases.
"I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!" Trump said on Twitter.
Flanked by top administration health and education officials, Pence said the CDC next week will issue a "new set of tools ... to give more clarity on the guidance going forward.
"The president said today we just don't want the guidance to be too tough," Pence said at a White House coronavirus task force briefing at the Department of Education.
CDC Director Robert Redfield stressed that agency guidelines were not requirements.
"It would be personally very disappointing to me, and I know my agency, if we saw that individuals were using these guidelines as a rationale for not reopening our schools," Redfield said.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told reporters the White House did not pressure the CDC to revise its recommendations.
The CDC has made a number of recommendations for schools, including testing for COVID-19, dividing students into small groups, serving packaged lunches in classrooms instead of cafeterias, and minimizing sharing of school supplies.
It has advised that seats be spaced at least six feet apart and that sneeze guards and partitions be put in place when social distancing is not possible.
Administration officials said local leaders would tailor their decisions on how schools reopen.
"Ultimately it's not a matter of if schools should reopen, it's simply a matter of how. They must fully open," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said.
States are responsible for primary and secondary education under the U.S. Constitution, but some have been holding off on deciding when and how to open schools, concerned about the resurgence of coronavirus across the country.
The U.S. outbreak has crossed the 3 million mark in confirmed cases, with a death toll of 131,336, according to a Reuters tally.
"The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!" Trump said on Twitter.
Acknowledging that the lion's share of school funding comes from states, Pence said that the administration would work with Congress to look for ways "to give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back to school."
"It's time for us to get our kids back to school," he said.
The federal government provides some supplementary funding for schools, including through congressional appropriations. With Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, any effort to curtail funding is sure to face roadblocks.
McEnany said Trump is "looking at potential redirecting (of funding) to make sure it goes to the student and it is most likely tied to the student and not to a district where schools are closed."
Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said school reopenings were necessary for the U.S. economic recovery. Business and conservative groups have said parents need to get back to work.
On Tuesday, Trump said he would pressure state governors to open schools in the fall.
However, the surge in U.S. cases has raised concerns about the increased risk of children spreading the virus to vulnerable adults at home as well as to older teachers and school staff.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the federal government has no authority on schools and his state will announce its reopening plans in the first week of August.
In neighboring New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy said he planned to reopen state schools in the fall, but reserved the right to "tweak that if it means saving lives."
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)