Washington — Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Sunday that as school districts weigh whether to reopen fully for in-person learning amid the coronavirus crisis, which continues to worsen in many states, the "presumption should be" that students return to school for the fall semester.
"Each community is going to have to make the determination about the circumstances for reopening and what steps they take for reopening," Azar said on "Face the Nation." "But the presumption should be we get our kids back to school."
With the academic year set to begin in the coming weeks, school districts are facing decisions on whether to allow students to return for classroom learning five days per week, switch to online learning or adopt a hybrid model that combines both approaches.
President Trump pressured schools earlier this month to be fully operational for the fall, and even threatened to withhold federal funds from those that are not. But he acknowledged last week that school districts in communities with high rates of infection may have to postpone their reopenings by several weeks.
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released long-awaited guidance for schools, which called for K-12 institutions to follow social distancing, break students into set groups to minimize contacts with other children and recommend students and staff wear face coverings, among other guidelines. But the health agency, which advocated strongly for schools to open their doors, did not provide a benchmark for when schools should consider closing should infections in their communities rise.
When pressed on why such a benchmark was not included in the CDC's guidance, Azar said the Trump administration does not "believe that there are uniform thresholds for school reopenings."
"The steps that we can use that are data driven, informed by doctors, they're smart, sensible approaches that can get our kids back safely and our staff back safely to school," he said.
More than 30 states and the District of Columbia are experiencing a spike in coronavirus infections, and Azar said the nation is "facing a very serious situation with these outbreaks."
"It is serious but the good news is, thanks to the president's leadership, we have the tools to deal with it," he said. "We have health system capacity, we have personal protective equipment."
To mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, which has already claimed the lives of more than 146,000 people in the U.S., Azar advocated for Americans to wear face coverings and practice social distancing and good hygiene.
For areas of the country that are considered "hot zones," he said bars should be closed and indoor dining and home gatherings restricted.
"We know this works," he said. "The modeling shows those simple steps will lead to outcomes in terms of disease spread that are comparable to shutting down without all of the pain of shutting down. And if we comply as individuals if we don't wear our masks, we can avoid further shutdowns. But if we don't, that will be the consequence."
Still, testing delays have persisted, and Senate Democrats say that half of the $25 billion approved by Congress for testing and contact tracing has not yet been obligated.
But Azar said the Department of Health and Human Services has sent $11 billion to the states that they haven't yet used and called on public health labs to increase their capacity.
"We're certainly talking to the governors and telling them they've got to use this money to get up and running and get that happening," he said. "We're meeting every need they've got for supplies, for testing. But at the end of the day, our governors have to take that initiative and get their public health labs fully up and running even as we improve testing through, say, our commercial labs."