WASHINGTON – President Biden appeared to give many educators and parents what they had been looking for for nearly a year when he pledged in the early days of his White House to reopen schools by his time. 100th day in power: a plan.
But as the White House struggles to turn the president’s lofty speech into reality, Biden’s aides find it difficult to stand up to new variants of the coronavirus, teacher union protests, and student fears and frustrations. and parents.
In the weeks following his election, Mr Biden reduced his calls for the reopening of all schools to elementary and middle schools. And last week, the White House sought to temper even those expectations, setting a benchmark of reopening “the majority of schools” – 51%.
On Tuesday, in response to questions about what “open schools” means, White House press secretary Jen Psaki set the threshold for more than 50 percent of schools offering in-person instruction at least one day per day. week. When asked why the threshold is so low on Wednesday – around half of the country’s students attend school in person and a majority of districts across the country already offer at least one in-person learning – Ms Psaki said it ‘was a starting point, but said it was part of a’ bold and ambitious agenda ‘.
“We don’t plan to celebrate at 100 days if we achieve this goal,” she said. “But we certainly hope to go from there.”
On Thursday, she clarified that Mr. Biden “will not rest until each school is open five days a week”, but wanted “schools to open safely and in accordance with science.”
Education officials say they weren’t terribly surprised by the administration’s reluctance, as the 100-day plan was still vague and largely symbolic. They also noted that the federal government had no say in opening schools and no power to force them to do so.
Yet Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said even some of its members were surprised by the low threshold of one day a week. She said the union’s ties to the administration – Jill Biden, a university professor and Mr Biden’s wife, is a member – allowed her to allay concerns.
“We understand that what they are trying to say is that schools need the resources, the flexibility, the transparency, the collaboration, so that we can get ever closer to reopening our schools. full-time schools, ”she said.
But Republicans criticized the clarifications as a flashback to the noble promise of opening up the administration.
“The Biden administration’s stated goal of reopening 50 percent of classrooms one day a week is unacceptable,” said California Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader. said on twitter. “Our students deserve more.”
A group of Republican lawmakers who work in the the healthcare industry sent a letter to Mr Biden, arguing that his own public health experts have expressed the urgency of reopening schools, even before all teachers are vaccinated.
The administration said its willingness to reopen schools will depend on new directions expected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.
This focus has already been a source of tension in the White House after Mr Biden’s CDC director Dr Rochelle P. Walensky told reporters in a briefing this month that “there is growing evidence suggesting that schools can safely reopen “and that” vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools. “
Ms Psaki said the next day that Dr Walensky was speaking in a personal capacity.
The administration is banking on billions of dollars in relief funds for schools that are part of the massive coronavirus stimulus bill making its way to Congress.
House Democrats this week introduced a bill that includes $ 129 billion in education assistance funds, which can be used for various reopening measures such as repairing ventilation systems and reducing the size of classes to allow students to move away socially. The measure includes a requirement that districts use 20 percent of their funding to mitigate learning losses related to the pandemic through initiatives like summer school and extended days.
The bill also includes nearly $ 40 billion for colleges and universities, and requires that half of funds allocated to schools be spent on direct payments to financially troubled students.
The bill’s dollar numbers are close to what primary and secondary education advocates have been pushing for, but have fallen short of the expectations of higher education officials.
Ted Mitchell, chair of the American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents and higher education leaders, said in a statement that at least $ 97 billion in critical needs did not been dealt with by the latest bill on combating the pandemic. He added, “The plight of students, colleges and universities – public and private, large and small, urban and rural – continues to be a crisis of almost unimaginable magnitude.”
A document detailing the proposed funding, which is part of a larger $ 1.9 trillion package Mr. Biden is pushing, is circulating in Congress. He calls for $ 60 billion to avoid teacher layoffs, $ 50 billion for more staff to reduce class sizes, $ 7 billion to help bridge the “digital divide” that prevents virtual learning for teachers. low-income students and $ 6 billion to purchase personal protective equipment. It also includes billions of dollars for more counselors and on-call staff, and to cover transportation costs.
But the demands have caught the attention of Republican lawmakers who say they read like a union wish list for challenges that were neither created nor relevant to the coronavirus crisis. A Republican aide noted that some of the demands were higher than those made by sources for the estimates cited in the document – in some cases billions of dollars. These sources include the CDC and the American Federation of Teachers. The document states that applications must cover the current school year and the next.
Last week, Mr. Biden’s candidate for education secretary Miguel A. Cardona rejected the suggestion, made by Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, that applications were free.
“The funds we’re talking about are really meant to help us in the long-term recovery process, avoiding layoffs, when we need more teachers, not fewer,” said Dr Cardona, whose appointment was advanced from the Senate Education Committee Thursday.
Ms Pringle said her union had been in contact with the Biden administration over plans to reopen the school. She said her plan recognizes that “if you have the unions behind what you want to do, it gets done”.
Mr Biden’s close relationship with the teachers’ unions, which aided his election, has raised concerns that it could ultimately thwart his ambitions of a full return to school for all children.
Ms Psaki was asked bluntly about recent clashes in cities like Chicago and San Francisco, where teacher unions and school districts have struggled to come to an agreement on how to greet students in buildings.
“If it’s a binary choice, if it comes down to a binary choice, who would choose the president: the children or the teachers?” asked a reporter.
“I think it’s a little unfair to ask that question,” she replied. “But I will say the president thinks schools should be open. Teachers want schools to be open. Families want schools to be open. But we want to do it safely. “