As tensions over when—and whether—to reopen school buildings continue to build, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, told educators in a virtual town hall that he’s hopeful that vaccinations and a strong federal response can pave the way for in-person instruction.
In the town hall, hosted by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, Fauci said there is “some light at the end of the tunnel” with the availability of effective vaccines, and that reopening school buildings is a critical part of the administration’s response to controlling the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re not going to get back to normal until we get children back into school, both for the good of the children, for the good of the parents, and for the good of the community,” he said. “We want to make sure we do that by giving the teachers and the teams associated with teachers the resources that they need to do that. The idea of, ‘Go do it on your own'—that doesn’t work.”
Making sure schools can reopen safely is a personal issue for him, Fauci added: His daughter is a 3rd grade science teacher in New Orleans.
“The president is taking very seriously the issue, both from the students’ standpoint and from the teachers’ standpoint,” said Fauci, who is President Joe Biden’s chief medical officer. The president “believes that the [K-8] schools need to reopen in the next 100 days. ... That’s the goal. That may not happen, because there may be mitigating circumstances, but what he really wants to do is everything within his power to help get to that.”
The day after he was sworn in, Biden launched a new strategy to reopen the majority of elementary and middle schools. The plan, which was released alongside a flurry of executive orders, establishes increased data collection, clear guidance on how to operate in-person schooling safely, and a national board to create a unified testing strategy and to support school screening programs. Biden has also called for $130 billion in additional aid for K-12 schools and $160 billion in new funding for testing, vaccine administration, and building up the health care workforce.
Fauci said that funding can help schools implement safety precautions that will let them reopen. It will also allow for wider use of rapid antigen coronavirus tests, which are cheaper but less sensitive than PCR tests.
“If you intermittently survey the students, the teachers, the staff [with rapid antigen tests], you can get a feel of what the penetrance of infection is,” Fauci said. “When you want to know exactly if someone is infected, it’s not as good as the PCR [tests], but if you want to get a good rhythm of understanding what’s going on in the school, what’s going on in the environment, those tests—trust me, in a period of months and hopefully sooner—those tests will be done much more readily.”
Another key part of reopening, Fauci said, is to “get teachers vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can.”
“Not only would you have the public-health resources of masking, better ventilation, better spacing, but if we can get them vaccinated as quickly as possible that would hopefully get to the goal that we all want,” Fauci continued.
When Fauci last addressed teachers in August, he told them that given the lack of data on COVID-19 and schools at that time, teachers would be “part of the experiment of the learning curve of what we need to know.” Those comments sparked some outrage among many teachers, who said they didn’t sign up to be part of such an experiment.
Now, six months later, many teachers are still afraid to go back into classrooms, especially as coronavirus cases continue to surge in some areas and more contagious variants of the virus emerge in the United States. While many school districts across the country are holding at least some in-person classes, many big, urban districts remain closed—in part due to opposition from their teachers’ unions.
The San Francisco school district, for instance, told parents yesterday that it was unlikely they’d be able to bring most middle and high school students back to classrooms this school year, according to a New York Times reporter. And in Chicago, teachers are on the verge of a strike, after union members voted to refuse the district’s orders for elementary and middle school teachers to return to campus.
Fauci answered questions from educators for about a half-hour during the town hall, including on the new variants of the virus, on systemic inequities, and why it’s important for vaccinated people to continue wearing masks. For his full remarks, watch the video below: