White House leans on Louisiana to reopen schools

Vice President Pence, head of White House Coronavirus Task Force, visits Baton Rouge

Vice President Mike Pence
In this file photo from July, Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, speaks during a visit to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a roundtable discussion with state leaders about the state's coronavirus response. The task force is reporting a a 175 percent increase in Louisiana's COVID-19 cases since last week. (Photo by Wes Muller/LAI).

BATON ROUGE — Vice President Mike Pence visited the Louisiana State University campus Tuesday to meet with the state’s top leaders to discuss reopening schools next month. Pence’s message was clear: the White House wants Louisiana to fully open all its schools despite the state’s high rate of COVID-19 cases.

Pence arrived on Air Force Two at Baton Rouge Municipal Airport at about 11:15 a.m. He was accompanied by a large contingent of Trump administration staff and several top officials from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, including Response Coordinator Deborah Birx, Education Secretary Betsy Devos, and Assistant Health Secretary Admiral Brett Giroir, known as the “Testing Tsar.”

Vice President's Air Force Two
Air Force Two lands in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday, July 14, 2020 to deliver Vice President Mike Pence to a meeting with state leaders for a discussion on reopening schools. (Photo by Wes Muller/LAI).

Pence and the task force spent about three hours in a closed-door roundtable discussion with Gov. John Bel Edwards,  a Democrat, Louisiana’s two Republican senators, John Kennedy and Bill Cassidy, and other state officials. 

In a press briefing following the meeting, both Pence and Edwards said Louisiana will open its K-12 schools and universities on schedule for the fall semester.

“To open up America, we’ve got to open up America’s schools,” Pence said. “We believe it’s absolutely in the best interest of students academically and in terms of every aspect of their personal well-being.” 

Pence said the federal government will provide the supplies and personnel needed to protect students when they return to school. Louisiana will be receiving military medical personnel, personal protective equipment (PPE), and three new COVID-19 “surge testing” sites in Baton Rouge. Surge testing sites are part of the federal government’s new response of deploying resources to communities that experience surges of new COVID-19 cases.

The task force is also distributing point-of-care tests to every nursing home in the country beginning next week. The point-of-care tests provide rapid on-the-spot results, the vice president said.

Pence commended Gov. Edwards for responding to the state’s epidemic with an approach that, he said,  balances concerns with the state’s health with concerns for the state’s economy.

“Governor, I know you’ve made a decision to pause reopening — to stay at Phase Two,” Pence said to Edwards. “We support your decision in that regard. We’ll continue to flow testing and PPE and resources to support the implementation of your policy.”

The governor said Louisiana plans to reopen schools under the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The state will have in-person instruction in as many schools as possible, though it’s likely that many schools will have to offer both online and on-campus instruction, Edwards said.

“Mask usage is going to be critically important,” the governor said. “We can do this. It’s not going to be easy, and quite frankly it’s not going to be without controversy.”

Unlike Edwards, Pence did not seem as committed to following the CDC guidelines if those guidelines were to recommend school closures.

“To be very clear, we don’t want the CDC guidance to be the reason why we don’t open schools,” Pence said.

Sen. John Kennedy said: “I can promise you that not opening our schools will do our children more harm than the coronavirus can.”

Vice President Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence arrives in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, to meet with the governor to discuss reopening Louisiana’s schools.

The Vice President urged Louisianans to wear face masks and follow the governor’s social distancing orders.

“Wear a mask whenever state and local authorities say it’s indicated,” Pence said. “We’re all in this together.”

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