WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Wednesday said Dr. Anthony Fauci did not give an “acceptable answer” when telling senators Tuesday that there’s no easy answer on whether schools can reopen this fall.
“I think you should absolutely open the schools,” Trump said during a meeting with the governors of Colorado and North Dakota at the White House. "I don’t consider our country coming back if the schools are closed."
His comments came after a Senate committee hearing in which Fauci offered a much starker outlook on the coronavirus than what's been offered by Trump. The president has been eager to reopen parts of public life and on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke by video conference with more than a dozen university leaders about getting students back on campus.
But Fauci had offered a more cautious view on whether conditions will be conducive to reopening schools in the fall.
“I don't have an easy answer to that,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said Tuesday. “I mean, we just have to see on a step-by-step basis, as we get into the period of time with the fall about reopening the schools, exactly where we will be in the dynamics of the outbreak.”
Health officials also testified that the key for students to feel safe in returning to school will be more widespread testing, to isolate students who get infected, and good health practices such as social distancing.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the GOP chairman who conducted Tuesday’s hearing on how to reopen schools and businesses, said testing is not yet at the level needed to provide confidence to students and faculty who hope to show up at the University of Tennessee campus in August.
Alexander talked about the need for new testing technologies that could be scaled rapidly, such as a “lollipop sponge” that could light up if a student is positive.
"All roads back to work and school go through testing," he said.
Trump told reporters he was surprised by Fauci's testimony.
"To me, it’s not an acceptable answer especially when it comes to schools,” Trump said.
Earlier Wednesday, the president took a gentler approach when he criticized Fauci during a taped television interview set to air Thursday morning
“Anthony is a good person, a very good person,” Trump told Fox Business Network’ Mornings with Maria.
But Trump said he “totally” disagrees with Fauci’s hesitation on reopening schools.
“We have to get the schools open,” he said. “We have to get our country open. … Now we want to do it safely, but we also want to do it as quickly as possible. We can't keep going on like this. … You’re having bedlam already in the streets. You can't do this. We have to get it open.”
The California State University system, the nation’s biggest four-year university system, announced Tuesday there will be almost no in-person classes this fall.
Among the topics university presidents discussed with Pence on a video call Wednesday was the importance of opening and maintaining research labs to assist with COVID-19 research, testing and tracing, according to the vice president’s office.
Heather Wilson, president of the University of Texas-El Paso, told USA TODAY her community will have the testing capability needed to bring students back on campus.
“I know we do," said Wilson, who participated in the White House call. "It'll not be the same as last fall, but it's not going to be like this spring either."
Like many other universities, UTEP has a lab and has submitted a proposal to the National Institutes of Health to increase testing done there for the broader community.
"Higher education is an important economic engine for recovery," Wilson said.
Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and a mentor to Pence, is equally gung-ho about bringing students back at the end of August.
"This is what we do. We are going to keep doing it," Arnn said in a video message Wednesday to the community of the 1,500-student Christian institution that was released before he joined the video conference with Pence.
Other schools represented on the call are still formulating their plans.
"We're uncertain, but we hope to be able to open with in-person classes for the fall semester," said Paul J. Browne, a spokesman for the University of Notre Dame.
The school, located in Pence's home state, has been consulting with experts from Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Cleveland Clinic to prepare for broad testing, contact tracing, quarantine and isolation space for those infected, social distancing and general hygiene.
In a statement, Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins described the White House call as a "constructive, open conversation with university leaders" on how to keep campus communities safe while continuing "the vital work of education and research on our campuses."
Already, large segments of college-going students are reconsidering their plans, recent polls have shown.
Roughly 11% of students surveyed by the Strada Education Network said they had canceled their education plans since the coronavirus outbreak. Those who do plan to further their education are considering certificate programs or courses related to in-demand jobs instead of traditional degrees, according to the education nonprofit's ongoing poll of more than 5,000 people.
Contributing: Michael Collins, Bart Jansen and Chris Quintana, USA TODAY.