WASHINGTON – Pressure is mounting for President Joe Biden to deliver on reopening the nation’s schools amid the coronavirus pandemic as Republicans seize on his cautious approach and parents demand more aggressive action to address what he called a “national emergency.”
Biden was already walking a tightrope politically on the contentious issue, caught between teacher union allies who have resisted in-person learning until safety measures are assured and parents nationwide frustrated their children remain home.
Now, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set to release reopening guidelines Friday, Biden will have one of the components he said was needed to achieve his goal of having most public schools open within his first 100 days in office. He’s at Day 23.
Many parents want fast progress. But if recommendations include updating ventilation systems in aging school buildings or smaller class sizes – safety measures the president has discussed – fixes might not be quick. Yet few months remain in the 2020-21 academic calendar before summer break.
“President Biden is getting close to breaking his first promise,” said Rory Cooper, former communications director for Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and a parent of three children who attend public schools in Fairfax County, Va., where classrooms remain closed but are scheduled to reopen.
He pointed to Biden’s remarks on the campaign trail in September when Biden called closed schools a “national emergency” and accused then-President Donald Trump of lacking a plan. Like other skeptics, Cooper accused Biden of giving too much sway to teachers unions in cities, where the majority of schools conducting classes exclusively online during the pandemic are concentrated.
“Now that he’s president,” said Cooper, who was an outspoken critic of Trump, “things seem to be going backwards.”
Goal made more attainable
Disappointing many parents, the White House downsized Biden’s goal this week, clarifying it hopes for 50% or more of schools to open “for at least one day a week” within 100 days, not necessarily fully reopened.
Some projections suggest the U.S. has already crossed the threshold.
“It’s not an especially high bar,” said Jon Valant, an education expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The White House does not have a current count of schools operating in-person, fully remotely or with mix of online and in-person instruction. Officials pointed to an upcoming survey led by the U.S. Department of Education, at Biden’s direction, that will compile data the Trump administration did not track. A report is expected in March.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the lower bar is not the end goal.
“The president will not rest until schools are open five days a week,” she said Thursday.
When he announced the goal in December, Biden said he aimed to ensure “a majority of our schools” are open within 100 days. But in his plan to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, released on Biden’s first full day in office, the White House lowered its marker, saying the goal applies only to “a majority of K-8 schools,” not high schools.
“Parents have been concerned for quite some time about the endlessly moving goal posts about reopening,” said Karen Vaites of Manhattan, whose daughter is in third grade. She called it “ridiculous” to have a reopening goal that’s likely already met.
Vaites said she understands the president’s authority is limited on decisions made by locally controlled school districts. But she said Biden could use the “power of the pulpit” to ease fears about children attending school in-person.
“We have states across the political spectrum that have successfully opened their schools,” Vaites said. “The best thing that Biden could do is to elevate that and to talk really openly with Americans about what’s working in those states that are open.”
Superintendents seek guidance, funds and vaccines
Biden has repeatedly pointed to the CDC guidelines – expected to cover a host of issues such as masks, social distancing, proper hygiene, building ventilation and whether teachers need vaccinations – to provide direction for schools.
The president has also proposed $130 billion for school reopenings in his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, dubbed the American Rescue Plan, that he hopes to push through Congress within the next few weeks.
The money would help pay for increased staffing to reduce class sizes, modifications to improve ventilation, and protective gear to mitigate the spread of infection. It could also go toward extended learning opportunities for students who have fallen behind.
“I think it’s time for schools to reopen safely – safely,” Biden said in a recent interview on CBS. “You have to have fewer people in the classroom, you have to have ventilation systems that have been reworked.”
Some school districts – including public schools in San Bernardino, Calif, Richmond, Va., and Durham, N.C. – have already shut down in-person learning for the remainder of the year. Others are preparing to reopen this spring even before the release of the CDC guidelines and passage of Biden’s COVID-19 relief package.
“Every day that a child is out of school is a day lost,” said Brenda Cassellius, superintendent of Boston Public Schools, explaining why Boston is moving forward with reopening in-person classrooms beginning with K-3 students March 1. “They need to get back in school.”
To make the transition, Boston’s public schools – using guidance from local health officials – purchased personal protective equipment and N95 masks for students and staff at all 125 schools, installed new air purifiers, replaced air filters, repaired 7,000 windows, and hired more custodial staff and bus monitors. The district spent $32 million approved in last year’s CARES Act and is in need of more federal assistance.
Superintendents said they need clear guidelines, such as whether three feet of social distancing is adequate or whether it should be six feet. Cassellius said she would like to see the Biden administration work to deliver vaccines to teachers and eventually students.
“That’s the No. 1 thing we need,” she said. “They need to release these vaccines to teachers. The second thing is really clear guidance on what the health and safety protocols are because different states have different measures.”
Scott Brabrand, superintendent of Fairfax County Schools, outside Washington D.C, expressed optimism that “hope and help is on the way.”
Fairfax, one of the 10 largest school district in the country, is moving forward on a phased reopening of in-person classrooms beginning Feb. 16. The system initially reopened in the fall but quickly reverted to virtual learning as COVID-19 cases spiked.
“The clearer the guidance, the more confidence that we can have,” Brabrand said. “Honestly, President Biden has inherited a crisis of confidence about how to handle this pandemic as it relates to schools. And we’re in the middle of restoring that confidence, and I think President Biden’s plan is a great first step forward.”
Teachers union head doesn’t expect full school this year
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told USA TODAY in an interview she hopes for “clarity and consistency” in the new CDC guidelines, calling the constantly shifting guidelines of the Trump administration “chaos.”
Weingarten said she expects the CDC will say mitigation strategies – including mask wearing, ventilation, and cleaning – are “absolutely necessary.” And she hopes the agency will also spell out “how they’re going to use the bully pulpit to make states do it.”
If the guidelines include physical distancing, as she expects, that means full schooling can’t happen this school year unless schools can find 20% to 30% more space and more educators, Weingarten said.
“What you will have is, you’ll have less and less remote full time and you’ll have more and more kids come in for a certain portion of time,” she said. “Will we see this year that everything is back to what we saw in September 2019? I don’t see that happening.”
Teachers unions in some cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Buffalo and Montclair, New Jersey, have pushed back fiercely to opening classrooms because they don’t trust their districts could do it safely. Chicago’s teachers headed back to classrooms Thursday after union and city leaders clashed for more than two weeks over the plan to bring more K-8 educators and students back to buildings.
Although a federal tally of closed schools isn’t ready, Burbio, a company that aggregates school district calendars, found about 64% of U.S. students are attending schools offering at least some in-person learning – therefore already meeting Biden’s goal. About 35% are attending schools with virtual-only plans.
And 43 of 75 large districts that belong to the Council of Great City Schools, a member organization, are offering some in-person learning, according to a tally kept by Education Week magazine and the Council. The extent of classroom instruction varies widely, however.
‘Lack of coordination’ before Biden created a messy situation
Debates about school reopening plans have raged for weeks as new variants of the virus spread, as vaccine distribution varies widely, as teachers unions in some cities push back, and as many parents grow exasperated with the lack of an in-person learning option.
Some have called for increased, rapid COVID-19 testing in schools as a way to reopen more classrooms. Weekly, rapid antigen tests administered at K-12 schools in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Washington reduced transmission of the coronavirus by about 50% when both teachers and students participated, according to a new study commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation.
The nation’s top disease expert, Anthony Fauci, didn’t publicly name infection thresholds to be used as a guide for holding in-person classes until fall, after many districts already had chosen an instruction model to launch the new year.
Former U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos took a largely hands-off approach, other than to waive federal requirements for state testing. Miguel Cardona, Biden’s nominee for education secretary, is awaiting confirmation by the full Senate.
“The lack of coordination of everything at the state and national level left every district to do their own thing,” Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents association, said in January.
Valant, of the Brookings Institution, said Biden’s goal for schools is a different type of metric from his pledge to administer 100 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine within 100 days. Instead of setting a numeric threshold for opening schools, he said, the goal should be to reopen wherever its safe to do so. Determining what that is has been difficult, he said, because there wasn’t a clear federal voice during the Trump administration, contributing to states and localities setting different safety benchmarks.
“The federal role is somewhat limited,” he said, “but certainly part of their role in a situation like this is being very clear about research and what we know about when and how it’s safe to open schools.”
Republicans hit Biden on reopenings
As Republicans look to reclaim the House and Senate in 2022, reopening schools has already become a top line of attack.
Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who heads the political arm of House Republicans, told Politico this week that school reopenings are one issue that will help his party retake the House in the 2022 midterm elections
The National Republican Congressional Committee that Emmer chairs has accused Biden of backtracking on his pledge and is trying to use that against Democrats in competitive districts
“Why hasn’t Abigail Spanberger spoken out against Biden’s broken promise?” NRCC spokeswoman Camille Gallo asked in a news release Wednesday about Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat.
Spanberger is one of 12 Democrats targeted in an ad campaign on the issue announced Thursday by the American Action Network, a conservative advocacy group aligned with the GOP.
Suburban women were crucial to Biden’s victory and opening schools is a top priority for them, said Republican pollster Christine Matthews.
“If you have a child in K-12, this is your No. 1 issue,” she said.
How much breathing room does Biden have?
Parents are worried about the toll online learning has taken on their kids and on their own ability to work while supervising at-home learning.
But eagerness to send their kids back to school splits along racial and ethnic lines. Black and Latino parents may be more reticent than white parents because their communities have been hit harder by the pandemic and because they may have experienced more problems with their schools being able to handle even basic services like heating, Matthews said.
“There’s a level of trust here, which is like ‘How successfully can my school do the things necessary to keep my child safe?’” Matthews said. “If you’re in an affluent, white, public school, your confidence is probably a little higher.”
While Biden has taken ownership of speeding up the vaccination rate and will be judged on that, Matthews said, parents are more likely to pay attention to what their school superintendent, mayor or governor is saying about schools reopening than what the president is doing.
. “I think the stakes are a little lower for Joe Biden on this because I don’t think people are looking to him as the sort of deciding factor as to whether their particular school opens or not,” she said.
Some parents are looking squarely at Biden, though.
Cooper said if Biden believes school buildings across the country need retrofitting to reopen safely, then that needs to start happening today, not after his COVID-19 legislation passes.
“My fifth-grader will have spent half of fourth-grade, all of fifth-grade and possibly all or half of sixth-grade not going to school full-time,” he said. “At what time does this begin to concern political leaders that our children are simply not being educated?”
Contributing: Staff reporter Erin Richards. Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison and Maureen Groppe on Twitter @mgroppe.
Source: USA Today – Breaking News