President Joe Biden said Friday that K-12 schools “should probably all be open” in the fall for in-person learning after more than a year of most of the country’s kids facing the challenge of remote instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Based on the science and the (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), they should probably all be open. There’s not overwhelming evidence that there’s much of a transmission among these people, young people,” Biden told NBC.
Biden has made reopening schools a priority since taking office, but has stressed his administration would follow the guidance of science and medical experts on how to safely reopen. The administration has faced intense criticism from some parents who feel there is not enough urgency in the push to reopen school buildings.
The President’s sweeping Covid-19 economic relief law included about $125 billion to public K-12 schools to help students return to the classroom. Schools would be allowed to use the money to reduce class sizes, update their ventilation systems, help implement social distancing, buy personal protective equipment and hire support staff. Another $2.75 billion would go to private schools.
Biden said at a virtual summit on school reopening hosted by the Department of Education last month that $81 billion of that funding would be released immediately. The money is not tied to reopening, which has led to criticism from some Republicans who wanted to use the funds to be a further incentive to reopen.
First lady Jill Biden, who is a community college professor, told NBC she is concerned about the lost learning amid the pandemic.
“I am concerned about … the lost learning. But I do think we have an opportunity now to make things better. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited about the American Rescue Plan, because it has so much money in there for education,” Jill Biden said.
The first lady noted “each district is different,” and said, “I think we have to listen to the experts and science, and then the districts have to decide.”
“We’re following the science and what the CDC says,” she said.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Friday that the administration is continuing to push to have schools open this spring.
Cardona told CNN’s Ana Cabrera on “CNN Newsroom” there is “still some hesitancy” about the safety of reopening schools in communities across the country, “but we are working really hard to try to make sure that all schools open this spring.”
Cardona said more than 80% of educators have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
“We need to keep pushing hard,” he said. “Until we get to 100%, there’s a lot of work to do.”
Cardona said the administration is focused on providing students with the support that they need when they do return to the classroom.
“We know that some students were hit harder by the pandemic than others. I want to make sure that our systems are ready to meet their academic needs but also their social, emotional needs,” Cardona said. “That’s the focus that we’re taking as educators across the country.”
The issue of how and when to get students and teachers back in the classroom has been hotly debated since many schools across the country moved to online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A complicating factor in reopening schools is that Covid-19 vaccines currently authorized in the United States are only available for adults, except Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine, which is authorized for people ages 16 and older.
But clinical trial results of Pfizer/BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine showed its efficacy is 100% in young people ages 12 to 15 and that group tolerates it well. Pfizer has asked the US Food and Drug Administration to expand the emergency use authorization to include those ages.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky suggested in February that schools could safely reopen without teachers getting vaccinated against Covid-19. The White House initially distanced itself from Walensky’s comments, as some teachers unions criticized Walensky’s comments, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki later appeared to agree with Walensky and said vaccinations are only part of several mitigating factors that will help schools reopen safely.
The CDC in February released highly anticipated guidelines for reopening schools that focus on mask wearing, physical distancing, washing hands, cleaning facilities and improving ventilation, and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.
Last month, the CDC also made another recommendation that experts said would allow more schools to open. The CDC relaxed its physical distancing guidelines for children in schools to recommend most students maintain at least three feet of distance, down from six feet.
Reports of low levels of in-school coronavirus transmission helped persuade the CDC to lower its distancing guidelines for many schools from six feet to three feet. Reports from Utah, Missouri and Florida said if students wore masks and followed other mitigation measures to reduce transmission, the six feet of distance didn’t matter so much.