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.
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.
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.
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.
CDC GuidelinesOn 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.
Many Teachers Reluctant for NowThe 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.
Both the administration and the union agree that schools need more money to reopen safely.