Biden Administration Gives Mixed Messages on School Reopening Promise

February 17, 2021 Updated: February 17, 2021

News Analysis

The Biden administration’s promise of school reopenings appears to be lost amid muddled messages.

While President Joe Biden just affirmed children are unlikely to spread COVID-19 and is talking about opening schools by April, health officials in his administration are recommending measures that appear likely to lead to a reduction of in-person instruction. The dissonance comes after Biden said his press secretary had given incorrect information about his goals for reopening.

Meanwhile, many public school teachers are still unwilling to teach in-person until a litany of demands is fulfilled, including vaccination priority and regular testing.

During a Feb. 16 CNN town hall, Biden was asked by a parent of an 8-year-old about the risk of COVID-19. He said children are the “safest group in the whole world” and that it was “not likely” that a child would catch the virus or spread it further. That roughly mirrors what Rochelle Walensky, Biden’s head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), had said previously.

“The data from schools suggests that there’s very little transmission that is happening within the schools, especially when there’s masking and distancing occurring,” she said during a White House Feb. 8 briefing on COVID-19.

Biden said in December that “if Congress provides the funding” and “states and cities put strong public health measures in place,” then he “will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open” within his first 100 days in office.

But the promise appears ephemeral. In fact, the administration may even be undermining it.

When asked on Feb. 9 what “reopening” means, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it would be at least one day a week of at least some in-person instruction at more than 50 percent of the nation’s schools, a day after she backed that goal as a part of “an emboldened ambitious agenda.”

But that goal was meaningless, given that as of Feb. 10, some 40 percent of K–12 students were already attending schools that offer traditional, in-person learning, according to data collected by Burbio, a community tracking firm.

Another about 25 percent of students were attending schools that offer at least two days a week of in-person instruction, according to publicly available data collected from 1,200 school districts that represent 35,000 schools in all 50 states, Burbio states on its website.

The data has since moved slightly more toward in-person instruction, the firm said in a Feb. 15 update.

During the town hall, Biden distanced himself from Psaki’s description, saying it’s “not true.”

“That was a mistake in the communication,” he said.

He described the plan as having “close to” the majority of K–8 grades opened for in-person instruction by the end of April, “many of them” five days a week.

“The goal would be five days a week,” he said.

It appears that goal is about to be reached, too, if it hasn’t been already.

As of Feb. 8, nearly half (48.6 percent) of K–5 students already had traditional in-person instruction available to them, according to Burbio. In grades 6 through 8, the number was 33 percent.

The numbers have likely increased since then and could be expected to rise further in the weeks ahead, regardless of the White House’s actions. Half of New York City middle schools are slated to open on Feb. 25, the Staten Island Advance reported. North Carolina state Republicans are advancing a bill that would require school reopening, although Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, may still veto it.

CDC Guidelines

On Feb. 12, the CDC released guidelines for school reopening.

While the guidelines don’t require full vaccination of students and teachers for reopening, they set up strict requirements for when schools should be allowed to reopen.

The agency has set four levels of COVID-19 prevalence in communities: blue, yellow, orange, and red. Only schools in blue and yellow zones should be allowed to open for five-days-a-week instruction. In orange and red zones, only partial in-person instruction should be allowed. If the schools can’t offer COVID-19 screening tests to all teachers and students at least once a week, only virtual classes should be allowed in the red zones, unless the school “can strictly implement all mitigation strategies” the CDC recommends.

One of the strategies is separating students into smaller “cohorts” and minimizing contact between the groups, which Biden acknowledged would require more teachers.

But a Feb. 4–6 poll of public school teachers shows that a majority (59 percent) of them deem it “essential” for “at-risk” teachers to be allowed to work remotely (pdf). More than 1 in 3 (36 percent) of the teachers identified themselves as “high-risk.” That would suggest fewer, not more teachers will be available.

When Burbio crunched the data, over 85 percent of people live in counties that fall into red zones; another nearly 12 percent were in orange zones.

It’s not clear how schools will respond. While not binding, CDC guidelines are commonly adopted as the official rules by states and localities. If that were to happen, many schools may be forced to reduce in-person teaching or cease it altogether.

Many Teachers Reluctant for Now

The teachers poll, conducted among 600 members of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s largest teachers union, showed that a majority was opposed to normal, in-person teaching. Only 23 percent said their school should be operating “on a full in-person basis,” while 35 percent thought their school should be remote-only. Of those already teaching remotely, only 40 percent agreed they would “feel comfortable returning to work in-person during the spring semester.”

Most respondents (88 percent) agreed that “full in-person learning can happen” if the AFT’s proposals are fulfilled.

“COVID-19 testing must become a way of life in schools and we need to test regularly and rapidly to monitor the virus. We need to ensure the proper safety protocols, including masks, physical distancing, cleaning and sanitizing procedures, and ventilation upgrades in every school. High-risk teachers and school staff need appropriate accommodations to keep them safe. And we need to prioritize vaccinations for teachers and school staff,” according to the poll’s summary of the plan.

The poll was conducted by Hart Research, which specializes in polling for Democrats and progressive organizations. Its respondents skewed toward large cities, underrepresenting rural areas and suburbs. Rural schools were most likely to be open for in-person learning, while city schools were the least likely, according to a Nov. 24–Dec. 28, 2020, survey of a nationally representative sample of 477 school districts conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (pdf).

Both the administration and the union agree that schools need more money to reopen safely.

Biden is asking Congress for nearly $130 billion for K–12 schools in his $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. But Congress has already provided over $110 billion of COVID relief to schools and “most of those funds remain to be spent,” according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO projected that only about $6 billion of the new money would be spent this fiscal year, another $32 billion in 2022, and the rest in subsequent years (pdf).

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