By Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The federal health guidelines on how U.S. schools can safely reopen amid the coronavirus outbreak - criticized by President Donald Trump as too tough - should be mandatory, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Sunday.
The Democratic House of Representatives leader sharply criticized the Trump administration for advocating a return to school in the fall as coronavirus infections surge across the country, particularly in states that reopened their economies earliest during the pandemic.
"Going back to school presents the biggest risk for the spread of the coronavirus," Pelosi said on CNN's "State of the Union" program. "If there are (Centers for Disease and Control Prevention) guidelines, they should be requirements."
The federal government can make the health safety measures requirements, as state governors are doing, she said. Critics of the Trump administration's pandemic response have long called for a national strategy on mitigation efforts.
"They should be mandates," Pelosi said.
Trump last week attacked the federal government's health protection agency, the CDC, for school reopening guidelines that he said were too tough, expensive and impractical.
On Sunday, the Republican president's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, refused to encourage states and school districts to follow the CDC guidelines.
DeVos also failed to put forth any other blueprint for a safe schools reopening, saying there was no one-size-fits-all solution.
"We know that children get the virus at a far lower rate than any other part of the population. There is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them," she told CNN.
DeVos also downplayed the risk of children bringing the virus home to teachers, parents, grandparents or caregivers.
Her comments drew an immediate rebuke from Pelosi, who said the Trump administration's approach to school reopenings was dangerous.
"What we heard from the secretary was malfeasance and dereliction of duty," Pelosi said on CNN.
Facing a battered economy as he seeks re-election in November, Trump has pressured states to reopen shuttered businesses and schools. On Friday, he said the Treasury Department would re-examine schools' tax-exempt status and their federal funding if they did not resume in-person classes.
But since many states relaxed coronavirus restrictions, the virus has found a new toehold. So far in July, 24 states have reported record increases in cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally.
"The president and his administration is messing with the health of our children," Pelosi said. "We all want our children to go back to school, parents do and children do. But they must go back safely."
CDC recommendations for schools include 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.
DeVos called the guidelines "common sense" measures designed to be helpful to schools as they consider how, not if, to reopen.
"We know that schools across the country look very different and that there's not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to everything," she told "Fox News Sunday."
A number of Republican governors have made clear they will go their own way on coronavirus measures, including whether to reopen schools.
"We are not going to be rushed into this," Maryland's Republican governor, Larry Hogan, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Lindsey Dunsmuir; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Aurora Ellis)