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By Richard A. Serrano, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhohkar Tsarnaev appeared in U.S. court Thursday for the first time in a year and a half as a federal judge held a final hearing to discuss last-minute issues before the trial begins Jan. 5.

For the second time, the defense asked Judge George O’Toole Jr. to move the trial out of Boston, saying negative publicity in the area would make it impossible for Tsarnaev to receive a fair trial. The defense also asked the judge to order an investigation into alleged government leaks in the case. O’Toole made no rulings but signaled he will issue formal orders later.

Security was tight around the courthouse as Tsarnaev arrived and during the brief hearing. Defense lawyers and government prosecutors also discussed jury questionnaires and other trial-related arrangements.

At one point during the hearing, the mother-in-law of a Tsarnaev friend who was shot to death by an FBI agent in Florida shouted out her support for the defendant, according to ABC News. Elena Teyer, whose son Ibragim Todashev was killed in Florida after allegedly attacking an FBI agent during an interview, said she told Tsarnaev in Russian: “We prayed for you. Be strong, my son. We know you are innocent.”

Some 1,200 potential jurors will be called to the courthouse, and jury selection alone could last a month. Tsarnaev faces 30 charges in the April 2013 attack that killed three people dead and injured another 260.

The government is seeking the death penalty.

There were no outward signs of a plea agreement, which some had expected. Nearly 90 percent of the case is sealed, making it virtually impossible to determine which side – the defense or the government – has prevailed in nearly two years of pre-trial skirmishes.

AFP Photo

Poll: Most Parents Oppose Rapid School Reopening

Numerous local school systems around the country are plowing ahead with plans to resume in-person instruction despite growing evidence that children are just as capable of spreading the coronavirus as adults.

Classes were set to begin on Monday in Baker County, Florida. Masks for students will be optional, not required. "It looks like it's back to normal this morning, honestly," a local television reporter observed as parents dropped their kids off in the morning. Many students wore no face coverings.

The Trump administration and the GOP have pushed for full reopening of schools for months."Schools in our country should be opened ASAP," Donald Trump tweeted in May. "Much very good information now available."

"SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" he reiterated on July 6.

"The science and data is clear: children can be safe in schools this fall, and they must be in school this fall," demanded Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) on Aug. 1.

"I believe our schools can, and should rise to the occasion of re-opening for in-person education this fall," agreed Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) two days later.

"The CDC and Academy of Pediatrics agree: We can safely get students back in classrooms," tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) last Tuesday.

But while Scalise, Mike Pence, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have all cited the American Academy of Pediatrics in their arguments for reopening, a new study by the group and the Children's Hospital Association raises red flags about how safe that will be.

Their report found 338,982 reported coronavirus cases in children as of July 30 in the United States. Between July 16 and July 30, the nation saw a 40% increase — 97,078 new infected children.

Last week, a high school student in an Atlanta suburb posted a photo online showing few students wearing masks in a crowded school hallway. Since that time, at least six students and three adult employees in the school have reportedly contracted the coronavirus, and the school temporarily has switched to online classes.

Another Georgia school district has already seen at least 13 students and staff members test positive since reopening a week ago.

A recent study in South Korea found that children aged ten and older spread the coronavirus at the same rates adults do. A separate study in Chicago suggested young kids might also be effective spreaders.

These contradict the false claims made by Trump and his administration that kids have an "amazing" near immunity to COVID-19.

"If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease, so few. They've got stronger, hard to believe, and I don't know how you feel about it, but they have much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this," Trump told Fox News on Wednesday.

"You got to open the schools. They have a stronger immune system even than you have or I have," he told Barstool Sports on July 23. "It's amazing. You look at the percentage, it's a tiny percentage of one percent. And in that one case, I mean, I looked at a couple of cases. If you have diabetes, if you have, you know, problems with something, but the kids are in great shape." Children have made up nearly nine percent of all cases, even with schools mostly closed.

And DeVos incorrectly said in a July 16 interview, "More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves."

In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for how schools could operate more safely during the pandemic.

Trump publicly ridiculed the guidelines, dismissing them as "very tough & expensive" and "very impractical."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.