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Biden aides continue to drive for school reopenings by April

An empty classroom at Collins Elementary School in Pinole, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020.
An empty classroom at Collins Elementary School in Pinole, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Top Biden administration officials insisted on Sunday that K-8 schools can safely reopen by April, even without requiring all teachers to be vaccinated first, as some states make educators a priority for Covid-19 shots.

White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki underscored that President Joe Biden wants to see those schools open for five days a week of in-classroom learning after his first 100 days in office, meaning by the end of April.

She said state and local governments should make decisions about vaccinations, retrofitting of buildings and other approaches using this month’s “science-based guidelines” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The fight over safely reopening classrooms has often pitted administrators and parents, worried their children are falling behind academically, against teachers concerned for their personal health. Many parents, especially mothers, have dropped out of the workforce to help their kids with remote learning in the past year.

“That’s our goal, that’s our objective, that’s our plan,” Psaki said of the April target on ABC’s “This Week.” She tied the goal to approval of $130 billion in school reopening funds that’s part of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill moving through Congress.

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“Many schools across country don’t have the resources to be able to invest in improving facilities, on hiring more bus drivers, on hiring more temporary teachers so we can have smaller class sizes,” Psaki said.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the administration doesn’t see the need to entirely link school reopenings with teacher inoculations.

Vaccinating educators is “a high priority,” Fauci said on “Fox News Sunday.” “But it’s not a requirement,” he added, referring back to CDC guidance.

Both spoke as the nation stands on the cusp of a grim milestone: the U.S. will surpass 500,000 deaths due to the pandemic in the next few days.

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The debate over how best to reopen schools continued after the CDC stressed mitigation strategies that include proper use of masks, social distancing, and rapid contact tracking.

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CDC director Rochelle Walensky has urged states to make vaccinating teachers a priority, yet didn’t call it a prerequisite for reopening. Schools should also regularly test students and teachers and do all they can to improve ventilation, she said.

Republicans in Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have taken aim at unions they say want teachers at the front of the line for vaccinations, but also balking at a return to classrooms.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, on Sunday praised cities like Washington, D.C., that have pushed for every teacher and school employee who wants a vaccination to get one. That’s also a priority in states like Ohio, Oregon and West Virginia, she said.

Some 85% of teachers surveyed by the union would be comfortable being in school if they had testing, vaccine prioritization and other approaches being used in some locales like New York City, she said.

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“If the NFL could figure out how to do this, in terms of testing and the protocols, if schools are that important -- let’s do it, and my members want it,” Weingarten said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They just want to be safe.”

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Psaki said the Biden administration opposes including any teacher-vaccine mandate in legislation that provides added pandemic relief funds to states or local governments.

“That’s not a contingency that we’re recommending,” she said. School districts “must make a determination what’s best for them,” and that can include vaccinating teachers or making other changes.

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