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Biden trims ambitions on school reopening pledge

President Joe Biden.
President Joe Biden.Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden appeared to give many educators and parents what they had been seeking for nearly a year when he pledged in the first days of his White House to reopen schools by his 100th day in office: a plan.

But as the White House struggles to turn the president’s lofty pitch into reality, Biden aides are finding it rough going against new variants of the coronavirus, protests of teachers’ unions, and the fears and frustrations of students and parents.

In the weeks since being elected, Biden has narrowed his calls for reopening all schools to just elementary and middle schools. And in the past week, the White House has sought to temper even those expectations, setting a reopening bench mark of “the majority of schools” — or 51 percent.

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On Tuesday, in response to questions about what “open schools” meant, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, set the threshold of more than 50 percent of schools offering in-person teaching at least one day a week. On Wednesday, when asked why the threshold was so low — about half the nation’s students are attending school in person, and a majority of districts nationwide are offering at least some in-person learning already — Psaki indicated it was a starting point, but said it was part of a “bold and ambitious agenda.”

“We are not planning to celebrate at 100 days if we reach that goal,” she said. “But we certainly hope to build from that.”

By Thursday, she had clarified that Biden “will not rest until every school is open five days a week,” but wanted “schools to open safely and in accord with science.”

Education leaders say they were not terribly surprised by the administration’s vacillation, as the 100-day plan was always vague and largely symbolic. They also noted that the federal government had no say over whether schools opened and no power to force them to do so.

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Still, Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said even some of her members were taken aback by the low one-day-a week threshold. She said the union’s ties to the administration — Jill Biden, a college professor and Biden’s wife, is a member — enabled her to calm concerns.

“We understand that what they’re trying to say is that schools need the resources, the flexibility, the transparency, the collaboration, so we can get closer and closer to reopening our schools full time,” she said.

But Republicans criticized the clarifications as backpedaling on administration’s lofty opening promise.

“The Biden Administration’s stated goal of reopening 50% of classrooms for one day a week is unacceptable,” US Representative Kevin McCarthy, of California, the Republican leader, said on Twitter. “Our students deserve more.”

A group of Republicans lawmakers who work in the health care industry sent a letter to Biden, arguing that his own public health experts have expressed urgency for schools to reopen, even before all teachers are vaccinated.

The administration has indicated that its push to reopen schools will hinge on new guidance expected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.

That guidance has already been a source of tension in the White House after Biden’s CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, told reporters at a briefing this month that “there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen,” and that “the vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”

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Psaki said the next day that Walensky was speaking in her “personal capacity.”

The administration is banking on billions of dollars in relief funding for schools that is part of the huge coronavirus stimulus bill making its way through Congress.

House Democrats advanced a bill this week that includes $129 billion in education relief funding, which can be used for a variety or reopening measures such as repairing ventilation systems and reducing class sizes to allow students to socially distance. The measure includes a requirement that districts use 20 percent of their funding to mitigate pandemic-related lost learning through initiatives like summer school and extended days.

The bill also includes nearly $40 billion for colleges and universities, and requires half of schools’ allocated funding to go toward direct payments to financially struggling students.

The bill’s dollar figures are close to what elementary and secondary education advocates have been lobbying for, but fell short on what higher education officials had sought.

Ted Mitchell, the president of the American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents and higher education executives, said in a statement that at least $97 billion in critical needs were left unaddressed by the last pandemic relief bill. He added, “The situation facing students and colleges and universities — public and private, small and large, urban and rural — continues to be a crisis of almost unimaginable magnitude.”

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A document detailing the proposed funding, part of a broader $1.9 trillion package that Biden is pushing for, is circulating through Congress. It calls for $60 billion to prevent teacher layoffs, $50 billion for more staff to reduce class sizes, $7 billion to help close the “digital divide” inhibiting virtual learning for low-income students, and $6 billion to purchase personal protective equipment. It also includes billions of dollars for more counselors and custodial staff members, and to cover transportation costs.

But the requests have drawn scrutiny from Republican lawmakers who say they read like a union wish list for challenges that were neither created by nor relevant to the coronavirus crisis. A Republican aide noted that some of the requests were higher than those made by the sources for the estimates that the document cites — in some cases by billions of dollars. Those sources include the CDC and the American Federation of Teachers. The document says the requests are to cover the current and next school year.

Last week, Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, rejected the suggestion, made by US Senator Mitt Romney, of Utah, that the requests were gratuitous.

“The funds that are being discussed are really to help us with the long-term recovery process, preventing layoffs, when we need more teachers, not less,” said Cardona, whose nomination advanced out of the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.

Pringle said her union has been in contact with the Biden administration about its school reopening plans. She said his plan acknowledged that “if you have the unions behind what you want to do, it gets done.”

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Biden’s strong relationship with teachers’ unions, which helped elect him, is drawing concerns that it may ultimately thwart his ambitions for a full return to school for all children.

Psaki was bluntly asked about recent clashes in cities like Chicago and San Francisco, where teachers’ unions and school districts were struggling to agree on how to welcome students back to buildings.

“If it comes down to a binary choice, who would the president choose: the kids or the teachers?” a reporter asked.

“I think that’s a little bit unfair how you pose that question,” she responded. “But I will say the president believes schools should be open. Teachers want schools to be open. Families want schools to be open. But we want to do it safely.”