Biden’s pledge to reopen schools now includes half of schools ‘one day a week’
In December, then president-elect Joe Biden pledged to reopen a “majority” of schools by the end of his first 100 days as president. This then shifted to a majority of K-8 schools, not high schools. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the plan now is seemingly less ambitious, with the Biden administration clarifying a school will be considered open if students receive in-person instruction at least one day a week, according to U.S. News.
“His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools, so more than 50 percent, open 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. And obviously it is as much as it’s safe in each school and local districts.”
But regardless of Biden’s stated goal to reopen schools, the federal government has little or no power to do so, reported Mike Antonucci in The 74. “He can boost funding, distribute equipment and protective gear, even call those union heads and ask them nicely to go along. But he can’t make them do anything.”
And even state and local governments who control most decision-making regarding the operation of local school districts are finding their say in school reopening is also limited, continues Antonucci. “Even if they are union allies.”
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening plan met with stiff resistance from the teachers unions and their friends in the state legislature.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown put teachers at the top of the vaccination list in an effort to reopen schools, but the union is making no commitments. “Our students’ families don’t have protection against COVID if they’re not vaccinated,” said Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers.
Even where agreements with unions have been reached, timelines are delayed or nonexistent. Chicago Public Schools, which had been scheduled to reopen last week, now have a March 1 reopening date. San Francisco reached a tentative agreement with its teachers union, but the agreement has no firm schedule. Meanwhile, unions in places like Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Fairfax, Virginia, are entrenched against reopening for the foreseeable future.
In Minnesota, elementary schools could resume in-person instruction with updated health and safety measures in place beginning January 18. But in the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts, local teachers’ unions pushed back on reopening plans, despite the reopening plans including the safety protocols required by the state.
Last week, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters that schools can reopen safely even if teachers are not vaccinated against COVID-19.
“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC. “I would also say that vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.” Walensky cited CDC data that social distancing and wearing a mask reduce the spread of COVID in school settings. But following the science complicates unions’ resistance to reopening schools.
“Parents who want to send their kids back to school are naturally baffled. It seems no combination of politicians, health experts and working teachers is affecting the views or actions of those resistant unions,” concluded Antonucci.
“More than 70 percent of all K-12 students in Alabama, North Dakota, Texas, and Utah have the option of in-person instruction, while Florida and Wyoming are teaching almost all of their students in person,” reported CBS News, citing data shared with them by Burbio, which tracks school reopenings across the country. “All of these states also have ‘right to work’ laws that say no one can be forced to join a union, which means that in these states, if the district orders schools to be reopened, teachers must show up for work or risk losing their job.”