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Is Biden Lowering the Bar for What ‘Reopening Schools’ Means?

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 09, 2021 5 min read
White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House on Feb. 9, 2021.

Updated Feb. 11

Just what does it mean to “reopen schools,” and how precise should leaders and the general public be with their answers?

As President Joe Biden and his administration navigate the political and practical implications of trying to help U.S. schools reopen their doors to students in the first few months of his presidency, the public might be gradually learning that the White House’s definition of reopening schools doesn’t perfectly match what many people are picturing.

In December, after winning the election, Biden promised that, “My team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days,” provided that Congress, states, and local governments give additional funding and support to ensure schools can open safely. In Biden’s COVID-19 aid proposal that he released in mid-January, he specified that his aim was “to open the majority of K-8 schools within the first 100 days” of his administration.

Since Biden’s inauguration, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has been quizzed regularly about the administration’s position on the issue. On Tuesday, a reporter asked Psaki to add more details about the administration’s idea of what it means to reopen schools—whether that meant teachers in classrooms teaching students in classrooms, or whether it just meant kids in classrooms, but still on screens with teachers at remote locations.

After noting that it meant in-person classes in the majority of schools (without specifying K-8 schools) by day 100 of his presidency, Psaki said, “That means some teaching in classrooms. So at least one day a week. Hopefully it’s more,” Psaki said, adding that it should occur “as much as it is safe [to do] in each school and local district.”

Pressed about the details of that answer, Psaki specified that she meant “in-person teaching.”

A clearer, but less-ambitious goal being set?

Perhaps the most important thing to say about Biden’s goal—as Psaki articulated it—is that there are indications the nation’s schools might have already met it, although a clear answer is elusive at the moment.

An estimate published last month by Burbio, which tracks various learning models schools are using, 58 percent of the nation’s K-12 students are getting some kind of in-person instruction. And a December survey by the Center on Reinventing Public Education 68 percent of districts were offering some level of face-to-face instruction. Many districts, of course, have chosen to provide a mixture of hybrid and remote learning, meaning, among other things, that not all students who attend in-person classes necessarily do so five days a week for full school days.

Last week, the Biden administration revealed details about its plan to collect official data directly from school districts covering things like in-person learning, although that data won’t cover all districts.

The administration, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is also expected to soon release updated guidance to schools about reopening safely. Educators have been calling on the CDC for months to issue clear and useful guidance for schools, after the mixed signals sent by the Trump administration last year. There was also confusion last week after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said teacher vaccinations weren’t a prerequisite for schools to reopen safely; Psaki later said Walensky’s remarks didn’t represent CDC policy, even though Walensky made the comments at a White House event.

The Biden administration doesn’t have the power to order schools to open their doors. But while many parents might be grateful for any sort of return to in-person learning, they also might not be thrilled at the idea that the Biden administration is setting the bar relatively low at just one day of traditional instruction a week. And concerns persist about the long-term impact of school closures on students’ academic progress, as well as their physical and mental well-being.

“It seems like they are making the target less ambiguous, but also less ambitious than what I think many people had interpreted it to mean,” said Martin R. West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who’s looked at polling data on reopening schools and written about the issue. “I think what it means is parents and advocates hoping for a major federal push to reopen schools in a more robust manner in the 2020-21 school year are going to be disappointed.”

A spokesperson for Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Asked about Psaki’s remarks, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Senate education committee, stressed the need for more resources to help schools and students in a statement Wednesday, and that “there’s no one solution that will ensure safety on its own,” but did not respond directly to Psaki’s comments. Also on Wednesday, Scott’s committee advanced legislation that would provide $129 billion in aid to K-12 schools, and which is modeled in part on Biden’s aid plan for education.

What about superintendents trying to negotiate relatively ambitious timelines for reopening regular classrooms? West said it’s possible that they “are going to be less able to point to federal pressure, or even the use of the bully pulpit by a new administration, to urge educators back into schools.”

Some reporters and observers have focused on Biden’s close political ties with teachers’ unions, which in some urban districts have resisted reopening until they’re satisfied that schools are safe for students and staff. After bringing up unions’ protracted negotiations with urban districts over reopening, a reporter asked Psaki on Feb. 4 whether the Biden administration, in a “binary choice,” would side with teachers or students. Psaki dismissed the question, calling it unfair.

Public anger at districts that haven’t reopened yet amid tense conversations with unions has become a prominent feature of school reopening debates. And some superintendents, like Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, have stressed that large shares of students, including those with special needs and the children of essential workers, are ill-served by remote learning.

At the same time, public opinion surveys indicate that public attitudes about the relationship between unions and shuttered schools isn’t crystal clear. A survey from the journal Education Next conducted at the end of 2020 found that a plurality of parents surveyed—46 percent—said teachers’ unions had a positive affect on schools (an increase from last spring), compared to 30 percent who said they had a negative affect. Some polls have also shown that Black and Latino families are less likely than white families to support sending their children to in-person classes during the pandemic.

West stressed that he respects the Biden administration’s public approach to the issue, and thinks Biden officials deserve praise for focusing on reopening schools. But he said the Psaki’s latest comment on this issue isn’t necessarily shocking.

“The Biden administration would hardly be the first to set goals that defy easy falsification,” he said.

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