As President Joe Biden reaches 100 days in office, he also confronts the self-imposed deadline for one of his key priorities in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic: having a majority of K-8 schools open for in-person learning.
Various data sources provide slightly different answers about the extent to which Biden will meet that goal—which he first floated in December, before he was inaugurated—by his official hundredth day in office, April 29.
The most recent federal data, compiled from a nationally representative sample of schools surveyed in February, show that 46 percent of schools offered a full, in-person school week to all students at the time. Thirty-six percent of schools surveyed offered a hybrid of in-person and remote learning days. Schools in the survey included those with at least a 4th- or 8th-grade class.
If past trends continue, it’s likely that the number of schools offering in-person learning has increased, tipping that category into the majority. That trend toward reopening has also been documented by several private data trackers.
Biden is likely to note that progress in his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, the eve of his 100th day in office.
But, even if the administration can cross that specific, goal off of the list, the work to stabilize the nation’s education system is far from over, policy watchers and student advocates said. And, without a measurable, specific target on the horizon, what comes next may be even more tricky to navigate politically.
“I think the good news is that more students are in-person learning, but there are still too many shut out of in-person learning opportunities— despite the growing body of research that shows it is possible to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction,” said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has followed school reopening strategies.
That’s in part because of broad closures that remain in some urban areas. But it’s also because, even in areas that offer full, in-person learning, some parents have opted to keep their children in remote mode.
Biden’s school reopening goal has been a shifting target
The Biden administration reframed its school reopening pledge a few times, Bailey noted in an email, and that has made it more difficult to track success.
“My team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days,” Biden said in December, after winning the general election.
When he later unveiled his COVID-19 aid proposal, amid concerns that older children are more likely to grow severely ill from the virus, he said he wanted to see “the majority of K-8" schools reopened.
In February, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki faced backlash when she said a school would count as “open” if students could receive in-person instruction “at least one day a week. Hopefully it’s more.”
Biden later attributed Psaki’s comments to a “misunderstanding” and said his ultimate goal was to see all children return to classrooms full-time.
Different data sources show a gradual reopening trend.
AEI’s Return To Learn tracker, which tracks districts as a whole, says 46 percent of school systems are offering fully in-person instruction, while 50 percent are offering hybrid options. Those numbers have shifted upward over time.
Burbio, an events company that monitors 1,200 districts, found that 62.4 percent of U.S. students attended a school offering full-time in-person instruction April 19. Older children were more likely to be in remote-only schools than their younger peers, the data showed, as were children in states in the Northeast and on the West Coast.
Should Biden set a new, more ambitious goal?
The moment Biden meets his 100-day goal, he should set a new one to keep the momentum, said Robin Lake the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an organization that has tracked state and local strategies related to schools and the pandemic.
“President Biden ought to approach this the same way he did the vaccine goal, setting increasingly ambitious national targets until everyone who wants a vaccine can get one,” Lake said in an email. “Similarly, the goal with school reopening should be: every student who wants to learn in person can do so. We are a long way from reaching that goal, and there is no clear national target date.”
Raising the bar may be difficult for the administration. While school reopenings are frequently portrayed as a national issue, they rely on thousands of state and local decisions that vary greatly across the country.
And, as schools approach the next school year, leaders will likely face fresh questions about face masks, social distancing precautions, and differing perceptions of risk.
The Biden administration’s strategy thus far has relied on the things that are most directly within his control:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has expedited vaccines for teachers and school employees, a majority of which have now had at least one shot.
- The CDC released new guidance for schools, which was meant to restore consistency and credibility to its recommendations. The agency later revised its social distancing guidelines down to 3 feet, leading many states to loosen their own restrictions.
- Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, which provides nearly $130 billion in aid to K-12 schools to help them with reopening, supporting students, and pandemic recovery.
- The U.S. Department of Education has released playbooks of best practices, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has toured schools alongside first lady Jill Biden to demonstrate that in-person learning is possible.
What’s next for school reopenings?
So, as states and districts take different approaches to the pandemic, how can Biden exert influence next?
For millions of students, who are “still not in school at all, in school infrequently, or in school but getting some kind of severely watered down experience,” the rest of the current school year may be “a lost cause,” said Morgan Polikoff, an education professor at the University of Southern California.
Federal officials should next focus on addressing vaccine hesitancy among the broader population to help drive down transmission of the virus, Polikoff said. CDC officials have said reducing coronavirus case rates in surrounding communities will make it much easier for schools to open safely with fewer precautions.
Officials should also help schools identify and address the factors that have made some families more reluctant to return, Polikoff said. Federal data show that Black and Latino students are less likely to return to in-person learning than their white peers, even when their school gives them the option.
When he released the second volume of the Education Department’s reopening playbook last month, Cardona said it’s essential that schools work to earn the trust of all families and that they ensure equity as they chart a course for recovery.
Cardona should help ensure that schools spend their recovery money thoughtfully, in a way that really addresses some of the lost learning time caused by the pandemic, Polikoff said.
And, even as students return to physical buildings, federal officials need to turn their attention to “outcomes and student supports,” Lake said.
The Center for Reinventing Public Education has focused much of its research on documenting how schools will measure the academic effects of interrupted learning and how they are preparing for extended summer and after-school opportunities to help students catch up.
“As kids come back to school buildings, there is a national imperative to know how kids are doing and what our schools are doing to make them whole,” Lake said.