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Biden calls for teachers to receive COVID-19 vaccines "immediately"

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President Biden has called for teachers and support staff to be prioritized for vaccines against COVID-19. Laura Meckler, a national education reporter for The Washington Post, joined CBSN's Tanya Rivero to discuss the difficulties of reopening schools during the pandemic.

Video Transcript

JOE BIDEN: Let me be clear-- we can reopen schools if the right steps are taken even before employees are vaccinated. But time and again we've heard from educators and parents that have anxieties about that. So as yet another move to help accelerate the safe reopening of our schools, let's treat in-person learning like an essential service that it is. And that means getting essential workers provide that service-- educators, school staff, child care workers-- get them vaccinated immediately.

TANYA RIVERO: Hello, everyone. I'm Tanya Rivero. Welcome back to CBSN. That was President Biden earlier this week stressing teachers should be prioritized for vaccinations. He said he wants all educators and support staff to have at least one shot by the end of the month. The debate over whether or not to reopen schools has been ongoing during the pandemic. For more on this, I want to bring in Laura Meckler. She's a National Education reporter for the "Washington Post." Hi, Laura. Great to have you with us.

You have reporting on President Biden's announcement to move teachers up in the line to get the vaccine. Do the school systems and the teachers' unions think that this will make a difference?

LAURA MECKLER: Well, there's sort of mixed reaction right away. There are a lot of people who think it will make a difference, that a lot of teachers have been resistant of going back into school buildings, fearful for their own safety and their own health. And this should make a difference. Only a little more than half of states have been prioritizing teachers today. So that's a lot of places where teachers have not been able to get vaccinated.

At the same time, there are places like California where you can get a vaccine. And yet, many school districts still remain in full remote learning. So it is not a panacea that's going to solve all problems. But I do think that it's one of the few levers that the federal government has to pull that it can speed things up.

TANYA RIVERO: It feels like, for better or for worse, there is a shift in the air, though, with literally just today I got an email from my son's school-- he's in sixth grade-- saying after spring break we are returning to full in person class. And before that, just to set the stage, they'd been doing week on, week off. And I hear similar stories from other parents. So it seems as if something in the ether is shifting. I don't know if this is just anecdotal. But what is your reporting bearing out?

LAURA MECKLER: Yeah, it's not just anecdotal. We are definitely moving towards more in-person learning. In some cases, that's moving from full remote to a hybrid system, like your son has been for a while. In other cases, it's moving from hybrid to fully open. There are just fewer and fewer districts that are 100% remote. We don't know exactly how many there are. But there is survey data out there. And that number has been shrinking week by week. So I think it's due to a lot of reasons why we see more kids going back, more districts reopening.

Some of it has to do with the Biden administration's focus on this and some of the support that they've provided for it. Some of it has to do with the fact that districts have been trying all year, and now they're finally kind of getting their act together. Plus, the parent frustration, really wanting their kids back in school, and a growing understanding of just how damaging it is to be away.

TANYA RIVERO: Right. And the CDC released guidance last month on reopening schools safely. How have we seen that impact schools? Have they been taking that guidance to heart?

LAURA MECKLER: You know, it's interesting, because the CDC guidance was meant to speed the reopening of schools by providing a road map for districts that want to reopen and how to do so safely. But in fact, the guidelines actually were fairly conservative. They made clear that if you have high infection rates, which most of the country still does by the CDC definition, then you really should go slow. At most, open part time, hybrid.

And I talked to some districts, as you're seeing the headline of that story right now, who told us that they were planning, perhaps, a full reopening and they're ratcheting it back to a hybrid situation. Some are slowing down their plans. So I think the CDC guidelines ultimately are helpful in helping districts get confidence as they figure out how to reopen.

But at the same time, it's not like they supercharged it. They did give pause to quite a few communities.

TANYA RIVERO: Right. So speaking of not supercharging, we know that President Biden's COVID relief bill has been touted by the administration. And Democrats are trying to get it passed, something that would supercharge that process. It includes funding for schools, presumably to help them put in place all of the COVID protocols that would make teachers and parents feel better about sending their kids back into these buildings.

So if this bill is passed, how do you think this will impact schools and their ability to reopen? Or do you think it's going to take time for that funding to come and it won't really affect this spring, it will maybe have more of an effect in the fall?

LAURA MECKLER: It's a really excellent question. I think it will help. It's almost $130 billion going out to schools. Now, it isn't-- what the White House likes to talk about is the things that it would pay for that facilitate reopening, such as PPE, upgrades to ventilation systems, maybe Plexiglas between teachers and students.

And those are important things. Most of the money, though, is really going to be spent in the out years, both for mitigating the learning loss that we've seen during this pandemic, as well as preventing teacher layoffs in the future, being able to ensure smaller class sizes, which is important if you're going to try to distance students.

So there's a lot there to shore up the educational system in general, which is important, but it isn't necessarily going to-- it's not like they're going to turn on a dime and they're going to receive a check on-- the bill passes on Monday and on Friday they get a check and on the following Monday, they have reopened. I mean, it's not going to be like that. Districts [INAUDIBLE] still have some money from the previous relief funds that have gone out. So I think it's a little bit of a mixed bag.

TANYA RIVERO: So like so many other things in our society that we're already weak to begin with before the COVID pandemic hit, I feel as if this has sort of laid bare so many of the weaknesses that our educational system has been grappling with or facing, with teacher shortages, which have only gotten worse during the pandemic, facilities that need updating, that are now possibly incubators for viruses. All sorts of issues that were already bad have gotten worse. There are now children who have fallen off the school rolls-- they have not showed up online. They've not been showing up in school-- that need to be tracked down.

There's so much that this pandemic has uncovered and exacerbated. Does this bill go even half the way towards addressing all of those issues?

LAURA MECKLER: Oh, man. I mean, there's so much there. I could not agree with you more. And I'll just say before I get to the bill, I mean, not only has it showed us all the problems and weaknesses in our school system, but it shows the vast inequities that exist in our school systems. If you have a well-funded school district with new facilities and the ability to upgrade ventilation, this pandemic looks very different than if you are in a district with a lot of really rundown buildings that have already been unsafe on a good day to start with.

So yes, will this solve those problems? No. Will it help? Yes. I mean, any time you inject tens of billions of dollars into the system, that obviously is going to make a difference. At least, we certainly hope so. Some of that money is likely to be set aside for the summer to help kids catch up this summer, which I think could be really important. A lot of educators are looking to the summer. So yeah, I do think that the bill is going to help. But will it solve all those problems? I highly doubt it.

TANYA RIVERO: All right, well, Laura Meckler, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate your insight.

LAURA MECKLER: Thanks so much for having me.