President-elect Joe Biden is calling for $130 billion in additional COVID-19 relief funding for schools, ramped up testing efforts, and accelerated vaccine distribution strategies to help reopen “the majority of K-8 schools” within the first 100 days of his administration.
The proposals, which Biden announced in a speech Thursday night, are part of a $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” that also seeks $350 billion in aid to state, local, and territorial governments.
“We can [open schools] if we give school districts, communities, and states the clear guidance they need as well as the resources they will need that they cannot afford right now because of the economic crisis we are in,” Biden said. “That means more testing and transportation, additional cleaning and sanitizing services, protective equipment, and ventilation systems in the schools.”
The plan will require approval from Congress, both chambers of which are narrowly controlled by Democrats, who have called for larger relief efforts. But some components, like a proposal for additional direct relief payments to individuals, may be sticking points for some members in both parties.
Biden’s announcement comes as schools around the country that have opened for in-person learning continue to face rolling closures and quarantines as they identify cases of COVID-19 among students and teachers. It also comes as many large districts, which have remained in remote learning since March 2020, struggle to determine when and how to reopen their buildings.
Some epidemiologists have said schools should “be bolder” about opening with proper mitigation strategies. But some teachers and administrators fear doing so in communities with rapid spread of the virus. And many education groups have said schools need additional federal aid to face the challenges of an unprecedented school year.
The CARES Act, a relief package that passed in the spring, included $13.2 billion in aid for school districts, and a spending compromise enacted in December included an additional $57 billion.
The education relief funding in Biden’s proposal could be used for a wide range of purposes, including hiring additional staff to reduce class sizes, modifying spaces to allow for more social distancing, improving ventilation systems, providing school nurses for schools that don’t have them, building up remote learning resources, and providing additional academic and social-emotional supports for students when they return to the classroom.
A portion of the new K-12 funding in Biden’s plan would be set aside for a COVID-19 Educational Equity Challenge Grant, “which will support state, local and tribal governments in partnering with teachers, parents, and other stakeholders to advance equity- and evidence-based policies to respond to COVID-related educational challenges and give all students the support they need to succeed,” according to an outline released by the transition team.
Biden’s call for state and local aid may also answer concerns from some education groups that have said the effects of education-specific relief funds may be muted if they merely backfill for budget cuts as the economy suffers and tax revenues dwindle.
The plan also calls for increased Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, which would allow schools to seek reimbursement for supplies like masks and cleaning equipment. And it would provide emergency expanded sick leave to allow families to quarantine without risking lost wages.
Vaccine distribution efforts would be stepped up
Biden’s plan calls for $160 billion in funding “to mount a national vaccination program, expand testing, mobilize a public health jobs program, and take other necessary steps to build capacity to fight the virus,” according to the transition team outline.
“We can’t wait to slow the spread of this virus. And, we can’t fight this pandemic in fits and starts,” the plan says.
Of that funding, $20 billion would be used for a national vaccine campaign that would include community vaccination centers and mobile units to deliver inoculations in “hard-to-reach” areas.
As Education Week has reported, most states have identified teachers among their vaccine priority groups, often placing them in line behind health-care personnel, nursing home residents, and other older adults. But logistical concerns and a slower-than-expected roll-out of the first doses mean some educators and school employees have waited longer than they expected to get their first shots.
Beyond school workers, higher vaccination rates in the general community will contribute to efforts to build “herd immunity,” making it less risky for adults to gather in schools and other buildings.
Aiming to step up testing efforts
Of the funding included in the plan, $50 billion would by used for a “massive expansion of testing” that would include increased use of rapid tests, expanding lab capacity to process tests faster, and aid to schools and local governments to carry out testing programs.
“Expanded testing will ensure that schools can implement regular testing to support safe reopening; that vulnerable settings like prisons and long-term care facilities can regularly test their populations; and that any American can get a test for free when they need one,” the plan says.
As Education Week has reported, the Trump administration has provided 100 million rapid tests to states to help with efforts to reopen schools. But epidemiologists say schools need more tests conducted more frequently. Some districts, like New York City, have announced their own testing plans, sampling random groups of students and staff on a rotating basis to monitor the success of their mitigation efforts.
Monitoring success may prove difficult
Education groups praised Biden’s proposal Thursday.
“Making these necessary investments is the only way to ensure that school buildings and campuses are reopened in a safe and equitable manner and that all students have what they need to thrive,” said a statement from Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association.
Biden’s stated goal of opening “the majority of K-8 schools” is narrower than what he’s suggested in the past, when he spoke more generally about opening all schools. Some districts have focused on opening classrooms for earlier grades, citing research that older students are more likely to deal with severe symptoms.
And it may be difficult to determine when and if the nation has met that goal. There is no federal data on schools’ operating status to indicate how many are open to in-person learning. Even in districts that are open, many families have opted to keep their children at home for remote learning.
Even if Biden meets the goal, the 100-day threshold would elapse at the end of April, which is near the end of the school year in some states.