Biden Adviser: President Not Certain Schools Can Reopen in Fall, Virus ‘Unpredictable’

May 3, 2021 Updated: May 3, 2021

Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to President Joe Biden, told CNN during an interview on Sunday that Biden is not certain schools can reopen full-time for in-person learning this fall because the pandemic is “unpredictable.”

“President Biden said in an interview that schools should probably all be open in the fall. Can you clarify?” CNN host Jake Tapper asked. Tapper also questioned Dunn if Biden would stand up to teachers’ unions if there was pushback about opening for full-time in-person learning.

“Now, he said probably. He didn’t say absolutely,” Dunn said. “But, given the science, if the vaccination program in this country proceeds, if people do go get their vaccines, he does believe that schools should be able to reopen in September, and reopen safely, following the CDC guidelines. But he said probably. He said, did not say absolutely, because we have all seen this since, unfortunately, January of 2020. It’s an unpredictable virus.”

Randi Weingarten, who heads the second-largest teacher’s union, the American Federation of Teachers, expressed her concerns about the CDC’s changing guidelines for schools, especially the change from 6 feet social distancing requirements to 3 feet.

Weingarten wrote a letter (pdf) to CDC director Rochelle Walensky and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, sharing that her union is “not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements,” and urged officials for “a national checklist outlining the enhanced mitigation strategies that must be in place if we move to 3 feet physical distancing.”

“Now that we have had a chance to review the research, we conclude that any shift from 6 feet to 3 feet must be accompanied by, at a minimum, universal and correct masking; effective ventilation; thorough cleaning of buildings; regular COVID-19 testing of teachers, staff and students; effective contact tracing and quarantine/isolation protocols; and the availability of vaccines to all people in schools who are eligible,” the union head wrote.

The CDC’s guidelines for classrooms include social distancing students with at least 3 feet and more when possible. The rules include masking, regular cleaning, and ventilation.

“My concern is the entire education community. In their new regulations or their new guidance, they say that teachers should be six feet apart still from children and from other adults. How do you do that in a classroom?” Weingarten told the New Yorker in an April interview.

Weingarten added that “trust gets earned when you have the protocols in place and people are actually acting by those protocols.”

The union leader said her community is skeptical of the guidelines.

“AFT members want to trust the CDC to keep all of us safe, and to trust the Education Department to have students’, families’ and educators’ well-being as its goal,” she wrote, adding that officials could help build that trust by providing answers to their concerns.

Cardona and Walensky’s offices did not immediately respond to a request for comment about concerns from teachers’ unions.

Meanwhile, Dunn praised the administration for prioritizing teachers and school personal for receiving the vaccine and said 80 percent of school personnel have been vaccinated in the effort to get back to normal.

“So, Jake, one of the great accomplishments of this administration and one the president is very proud of is an 80 percent of the teachers and school personnel in this country have now been vaccinated,” said Dunn.

Weingarten however, thinks vaccinations are only one part of the solution to reopening schools. “Our message right now has been: if you have the road map of viral mitigation and testing and vaccines, it’s safe for you to go to work in person, except for those who are high-risk. We have been pressing to have in-person schooling. So, the vaccines were not a prerequisite for that. The vaccines are an added layer of safety.”