President Joe Biden made the case on a national stage Tuesday for schools to reopen their doors with appropriate safeguards against the coronavirus through smaller class sizes and proper protective equipment, and also pushed for teachers to get high priority for receiving the vaccine.
In a town hall event in Milwaukee broadcast by CNN, Biden also repudiated comments from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki last week that schools holding in-person classes one day a week would count toward the Biden administration’s goal of having most K-8 schools open by April 30 (a goal that data indicate might have already been met under that standard).
Calling her comments “a mistake in the communication” that did not accurately reflect his administration’s position, Biden stressed that his goal is for those schools to open five days a week after 100 days and said he thinks schools will get “close to that.” He also raised the possibility that schools might operate during the summer to help students recover from the pandemic’s effects. That’s an idea that tracks with key elements of congressional Democrats’ latest COVID-19 relief bill, although the extent to which districts end up expanding summer school or other extended learning programs will depend on several factors.
The town hall put a priority on school reopening issues, just four days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance intended to help schools reopen safely. Based on recent rates of community transmission of the virus, almost 90 percent of counties are considered “high risk” for reopening schools with respect to in-person instruction, according to the guidance. The guidance provides somewhat more leeway for in-person classes in elementary schools than it does for middle and high schools under those conditions.
The Biden administration touted the guidance in the days before its release, saying it would provide detailed information that school leaders could act on. Yet it remains to be seen how much the guidance recommendations change the minds of state and local officials who are ultimately in charge of decisions about when to authorize remote, hybrid, and face-to-face instruction. Many schools might already be largely engaged in the practices the CDC recommends.
The first two people to ask Biden a question at the town hall raised the issue of reopening schools. A questioner who said he was a parent asked the president about his plans to get students back in classrooms. Biden acknowledged the pandemic’s “significant impact on the children and parents as well” with schools not holding in person classes.
He then said additional personal protective equipment for teachers, students, and all school staff, as well as smaller class sizes, would help schools reopen their doors. And he explained why he was focused on elementary and middle schools in terms of when certain schools resume regular classes.
“It is much better, much easier, to send kids K-8 back, because they are less likely to communicate the disease to somebody else,” Biden said. Although some research has indicated that young children are less likely to be a significant driver of infections than their older peers or adults, concerns continue about about children’s exact role in the spread of the virus. Recent CDC research about the virus’ spread in schools is here.
The next question came from a teacher, who pressed Biden about the wisdom of bringing educators and students back into school buildings. Biden focused on the importance of vaccinations, although the CDC guidance does not say that vaccinating teachers should be a prerequisite for schools to reopen safely.
“I think we should be vaccinating teachers. We should move them up in the hierarchy,” Biden responded.