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President Biden Is Walking a ‘Careful Tightrope’ When It Comes to School Reopenings

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 19, 2021 9 min read
President Joe Biden answers questions during a televised town hall event at Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on Feb. 16, 2021.
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Hopes that President Joe Biden and his team could exert a calming, decisive influence over getting children back in classrooms are now getting tested.

After nearly a year of massive disruptions to schools from the pandemic and a Trump administration response heavy on pressure and at times bluster, Biden promised a swift, coordinated, and supportive response. But that pledge has run smack into the decentralized, politically hazardous specifics of actually reopening schools.

There’s no shortage of scrutiny as to whether the administration’s newly released technical guidance for reopening schools has struck a proper balance, put enough priority on key issues, or represented a major shift from what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under Trump had already recommended. Critics who see the new guidance as too restrictive have drawn a straight line from heated reopening disputes involving teachers’ unions in several cities to Biden’s chummy relationship with the national unions.

On national television, Biden reversed what White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki previously said about the exact nature of his 100-day goal for reopening schools. While that might have clarified the issue for some, it also underscored that the president thought a public political clean-up job was necessary after a barrage of skeptical media coverage.

Yet it remains to be seen if these Washington-centric stories have crippled Biden’s influence over the issue, or if frustration over his administration’s strategy will fade as school leaders make thousands of local decisions across the country on reopening, or as the pandemic wanes. And surveys about the issue have sometimes contravened easy or convenient narratives.

A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll focused on school reopening in the fall found, for example, that a small majority of registered voters (52 percent) said they had a lot or some trust in Biden with decisions about school reopening. Local administrators, school boards, and teachers’ unions , as well as national teachers’ unions, received positive grades from half or more of respondents; parents received the highest marks. The same poll found that in mid-February, 48 percent supported Biden’s handling of education, compared to 50 percent around the end of January, a change within the poll’s margin of error of 2 percent.

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A Morning Consult poll from last August about reopening in the fall of 2020 found similar relative approval ratings for several of those local groups.

Any burgeoning doubts or anger about Biden’s strategy are unlikely to impede the $129 billion K-12 aid package from Congress that’s a top policy priority for the president, unions, and school administrators. More broadly, some people might look askance at the situation nationally or the way Biden has discussed it, for example, yet still think their local school system is doing essentially a good job; to the extent data is available, it indicates most districts are offering some form of in-person instruction, and that most students have such an option.

‘Now it feels like the media’s circling’

Substantively, the CDC guidance reads like a “sensible statement of priorities,” and Biden’s public approach is more nuanced and thoughtful than Trump’s all-caps tweets, said Jon Valant, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the politics of school reopening.

But Valant also said the president’s position elsewhere has been hurt by “sloppiness” in his team’s public statements.

“Now it feels like the media’s circling, and they’re waiting for the next [mistake], and will be very quick to jump on it, whatever that mistake might be,” Valant said. “I don’t think that will necessarily affect anything on the policy and governance side. ... They’re getting a crash course now in the politics of education.”

Valant also questioned how much most people actually care about that national, 100-day metric, compared to what’s happening in their local schools. In fact, he said, Biden made a mistake emphasizing such a goal he can’t directly control, instead of just maximizing the number of schools that are safely reopening.

Whatever goals are shared for public consumption, Biden and his team stressed before and after his November election win that they were ambitious, not ambivalent, about getting students back in schools. That could lead to diminishing patience if Biden and other leaders don’t address a range of parents’ needs regardless of whether their local schools are open or closed, said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education who has tracked school reopening.

“My impression is that they’ve been more focused on checking the box on the 100-day goal of reopening schools, and providing some elements that were clearly missing that a president should help with,” Lake said. “They’re walking, seemingly, such a careful tightrope here. They need to keep the unions happy, but they also have to maintain the trust of parents who are frustrated. And that’s tough. I think the reopening problem is really a trust problem.”

One of Biden’s greatest political gifts, his ability to reassure people, is something he should draw on more, Lake added.

Biden hits a string of less-than-smooth events

The new administration set particularly high expectations on the CDC’s new guidance, which was released Feb. 12. It was supposed to represent a breakthrough compared to the agency’s past public positions on the coronavirus that many found confusing.

Some professional education groups, most notably the national teachers’ unions, praised the CDC’s efforts. (Donna Harris-Aikens, a former staffer at the National Education Association who’s now a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Education, was on a call with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky to discuss the guidance with reporters; Harris-Aikens told the media her presence on the call was not intended to send a message to unions.)

But after being talked up by the Biden administration, the guidance also provoked a correspondingly public backlash.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, denounced the CDC’s recommendations as “a disgrace” that put “politics and special interests ahead of what the evidence and observed experience says.” (Florida is requiring all schools to offer in-person instruction to parents who want it.) And the CDC’s guidance could lead to schools staying in hybrid learning modes “maybe indefinitely,” wrote Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University.

Other complaints have come from a different direction. Some said the CDC should have made teacher vaccinations a bigger priority if not a prerequisite for safe school reopening. Patrick Kelly of the Palmetto State Teachers Association in South Carolina, reacted to the guidance by saying that without educator vaccinations, “Then we will continue to have inconsistent and really insufficient staffing in our schools.” The CDC guidance lists teacher vaccinations as a strategy, but didn’t call them essential for safe reopening.

And Richard Corsi, the dean of engineering and computer science at Portland State University, said the crucial issue of school ventilation was given mere “lip service” in the guidance and called that “incredibly disappointing.”

They’re getting a crash course now in the politics of education.

The CDC had to consider “what would fly politically” in the guidance, said Sherman Dorn, a professor of education at Arizona State University. But when the pandemic eases and the nation moves further away from January’s death tolls of 4,000 a day, he said, angst about things like the guidance will also dissipate. While he was surprised by how little the CDC addressed ventilation, “I don’t think it would have mattered, whatever they came out with, people would have criticized it.”

Biden’s press secretary struck a separate nerve on Feb. 9, when she said a school holding one day of in-person instruction a week would represent progress toward Biden’s 100-day goal of having most K-8 schools resume in-person classes, a goal that America’s schools may have already achieved. A week later, after top congressional Democrats for education policy declined to publicly defend that threshold (and who were, according to one source, upset by Psaki’s comment), Biden disowned Psaki’s benchmark. He said in a Feb. 16 CNN town hall event that he wanted most K-8 schools open for regular classes five days a week by April 30.

“I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days,” Biden said.

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That wasn’t the first such disconnect and sign of confusion. In early February, Walensky said teacher vaccinations weren’t a prerequisite for safe school reopening. Later the same day, Psaki weighed in to say Walenksy’s comments weren’t official policy, even though Walensky made them at a White House event.

Looking ahead a few months, and to 2022

The guidance is not a federal mandate, and it can’t override directives in states like Arkansas, Iowa, and Texas that schools provide in-person instruction. But its role, perhaps inevitably, will also have political, as well as technical and epidemiological consequences.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., a group of parents said the city’s public school leaders should follow the CDC guidance and commit to reopening classrooms in some form, given local conditions.

“These guidelines balance the risks of COVID-19 exposure with the mental health risks and deterioration of educational performance caused by keeping children away from school,” the parents stated in the mid-February letter. They said they believed the Ann Arbor district was putting too little weight on children’s mental health and academic achievement. (The school board subsequently asked the superintendent to craft a plan to maintain virtual learning for most students.)

On the other hand, unions in places where schools are largely if not entirely remote, such as Portland, Ore., and Seattle, have said the CDC guidance validates their positions about what schools should do to resume in-person learning en masse.

“I think it’s actually emboldening local union actions,” said Lake, of CRPE.

I don’t think it would have mattered, whatever they came out with, people would have criticized it.

Education usually gets little attention in national politics, but the scrutiny the pandemic has brought to schools has altered that calculus.

Just as Democrats excoriated Trump’s approach to reopening schools during the 2020 election, GOP leaders are using the issue to attack Biden and gain leverage in advance of the 2022 election as they seek to win over suburban voters. Newly elected Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who is up for reelection in 2022, has already been targeted by one such ad focusing on schools. House Republicans are also stressing the issue.

GOP senators have also criticized Biden and other Democratic leaders for, in their view, being more interested in protecting teachers’ unions than students shut out of school buildings.

While linking national elections to Biden’s actions could prove tenuous or ephemeral, Valant, of Brookings, said school closures “can change real implications for local politics and can draw out a lot of people who might not have engaged in the political process.” It might become a key issue in local school board races.

Ultimately, the media furor over Biden’s rhetorical handling of the issue boils down to “Beltway chatter,” Dorn of ASU said.

“If you are in suburban Atlanta or suburban Philadelphia and your kids are going to school in the fall of 2022 … what are you going to pay attention to?” Dorn . He added that voters will likely say, “‘My kids are in school. I don’t have to worry about a pandemic. Do I have a job?’ Those are the things that are going to matter.”

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