Republican senators are growing impatient with schools that aren’t holding in-person classes, and are using the COVID-19 relief package being negotiated in Congress to put public pressure on them.
Their efforts—including budget amendments from GOP members of the Senate education committee and comments from the Senate minority leader— might not have a direct impact on negotiations over more coronavirus relief for schools. Democrats control Congress and the Biden administration has shown no interest so far in conditioning COVID-19 aid on in-person classes or demanding flat-out that schools open their doors. (The administration has pitched a $130 billion aid proposal for K-12.) Similar efforts last summer to push school reopening, led by the Trump administration, failed.
But pressure from Republicans, and Biden’s own drive to reopen most K-8 schools within 100 days of his inauguration, could indicate that whatever help for remote learning becomes available in the weeks and months ahead, in-person learning could continue to dominate the national conversation about K-12 schools and the pandemic.
Already, fights over school reopening have pitted unions against district leaders in cities including Chicago. And San Francisco has sued its own school district to force it to reopen. Democrats, particularly at the state and local level, aren’t necessarily opposed to efforts to resume in-person learning. Yet national survey data doesn’t clearly show that the public has turned decisively against teachers and teachers’ unions due to school closures during the pandemic.
If nothing else, Republicans’ comments will add to the political maelstrom surrounding the decisions of more than 13,000 school districts making decisions about remote, hybrid, and regular classes—although many schools are already holding in-person learning.
On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said President Joe Biden was bowing to pressure from special interests instead of putting children first, and not being aggressive enough in trying to get children back in classrooms despite the position of health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Science tells us that schools are largely made safe with simple precautions,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “Science is not the obstacle. Federal money is not the obstacle. The obstacle is a lack of willpower, not among students, not among parents, just among the rich, powerful unions that donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities.”
On Thursday, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., announced he and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., had introduced a budget amendment that would withhold future COVID-19 relief from schools that don’t hold in-person classes after their teachers get a chance to get the virus vaccine. “Prolonged remote learning is putting kids at higher risk of falling behind, failing classes, and suffering from mental health problems,” Blunt said in a statement. (Blunt is on the Senate subcommittee that handles federal education spending.)
The day before, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he was introducing a similar amendment that would restrict federal relief from schools “that are refusing to reopen.”
“The effect on children and working-class families has been absolutely devastating,” Hawley said in a statement. “The federal government should put an end to this two-tiered education system for the haves and the have-nots by incentivizing schools to safely reopen.”
And late last month, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said “not one penny of taxpayer COVID money should go to schools that want to get paid not to work” while students are at home and “falling behind academically.” (The issue of remote learning’s effectiveness for students is not necessarily the same as the extent to which people believe teachers are working, or working less, during the pandemic.)
One of Scott’s colleagues on the Senate education committee, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., channeled this sentiment during Wednesday’s confirmation hearing for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s nominee for education secretary, albeit in a somewhat milder way. Burr stressed to Cardona that many parents are “at their wits end” during the pandemic due to various challenges surrounding remote learning.
"Prolonged remote learning is putting kids at higher risk of falling behind, failing classes, and suffering from mental health problems."
Cardona, in turn, promised senators that “we will work to reopen schools safely,” but said many disadvantaged students will need more support to help them academically and otherwise.
And on Wednesday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, said vaccinating teachers isn’t a prerequisite for reopening schools safely, although White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki quickly followed up by saying that Walensky’s comments did not represent official CDC policy.
Earlier this week, the Federal Communications Commission took a step toward freeing up funding to be used to improve at-home connectivity for students. That’s been a big priority for many schools and education organizations ever since the pandemic shut down schools last March.