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Biden clarifies school reopening plan during town hall on pandemic response

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During a town hall meeting on his pandemic response, President Biden promised a majority of elementary schools will be open five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office. On "CBS This Morning," top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said not all teachers can be vaccinated by that deadline. CBSN political reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns and Politico White House reporter Meridith McGraw join CBSN's "Red & Blue" host Elaine Quijano to discuss the administration's goals for reopening schools and vaccinating the country.

Video Transcript

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ELAINE QUIJANO: Hi, everyone. I'm Elaine Quijano. It's good to be with you. Thanks for joining. US President Biden spent most of today pushing for his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal. He sat down with top union officials after meeting with business leaders last week. Before the discussion began, the president laid out why he's more concerned about going big with this package than he is about the cost.

JOE BIDEN: I learned, based on the polling data, they want everything that's in the plan-- not a joke, everything that's in the plan. The fact is that I'd like to-- I asked a rhetorical question. Those who oppose the plan, what don't they like? What particular program don't they like?

Don't they want to help people with nutrition? Don't they want to help people be able to pay their mortgages? Don't they want to help people get their unemployment insurance? Don't they want to make sure that people are able to stay in their homes without being thrown out of their homes in the middle of this god-awful pandemic? What don't they like?

It's not about the money. It's about-- in order to do everything from open schools, as we should, to make sure that we're generating income for people who are in real trouble, it's about how much it costs. The federal government has to chip in.

ELAINE QUIJANO: The meeting comes after Mr. Biden's first official presidential trip last night. He visited Milwaukee for a town hall on his pandemic response. He told CNN he thinks there will be enough vaccine available for every American by July. He also cleared up confusion about his school reopening plan, promising a majority of elementary schools will be open five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office. On "CBS This Morning," top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said not all teachers can be vaccinated by that deadline.

ANTHONY FAUCI: I think you have to rethink that. I think if you were going to say that every single teacher needs to be vaccinated before you get back to school, I believe, quite frankly, Tony, that that's an unworkable situation. I think teachers should absolutely be priority among those who we consider essential personnel, and you should try and get as many teachers as you possibly can vaccinated as quickly as you possibly can. But to make it a sine qua non that you don't open a school until every teacher is vaccinated I think is not workable, and probably, most of the teachers would agree with that.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Caitlin Huey-Burns and Meredith McGraw join me now. Caitlin is CBSN's political reporter, and Meridith is a White House reporter for "Politico." Welcome. It is good to see you both. Meridith, let me start with you. The Biden administration has largely avoided the debate over school reopening. Aside from parents, whose interests are they trying to balance?

MERIDITH MCGRAW: Well, the White House is really in a tricky situation right now over the debate over schools reopening. They're trying to balance a bunch of different constituencies. They have, of course, the teachers union, which is an important Democratic constituency and a powerhouse in Democratic politics, of course.

You have parents who are increasingly frustrated over how school reopenings are being handled across the country, and then you have the CDC guidance as well. And so the White House is having to navigate, you know, addressing the concerns of teachers who have real worries about going back to school and teaching amid this pandemic. You have the CDC recommendations. And then you, of course, have parents as well.

And the White House has had to do some cleanup on this issue. You had President Biden last night in his town hall. He had to clarify that he hoped that he would see kindergarten through eighth grade open in the first 100 days of his presidency and open for five days a week after the White House had a communications stumble and it was thought that they only wanted one day of school to be open a week.

But it's really interesting. "Politico" and Morning Consult had a poll that just came out. And in that poll, it really hammered home that, in the end, it's parents, it's local constituencies, it's your school boards, it's your teachers that people have the most confidence in making the right decision here. But as you just showed with what Dr. Fauci said, in terms of making sure teachers are prioritized with vaccinations, and then, of course, trying to balance the concerns of parents and what the science says, it's a really tough situation / policy wise that they find themselves in this moment.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And Caitlin, on that point, we've watched this debate over school reopenings really become increasingly heated over the past year. What's at stake more broadly, when it comes to this issue?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS: That's right. There's a reason the new administration has come under fire and a lot of questions and even some criticism for whether schools can reopen, because this is an issue that affects everybody of all political stripes. And there have been lots of studies done and anecdotal evidence as well that shows the long-term impact that this is having on students. We're hearing story after story about the negative impacts that this is having on students, not being able to be in a classroom. We've also seen studies that show the disproportionate effect on poorer communities without that ability to be in the classroom.

And there's also-- you know, interestingly, tied to women in the workplace. We've seen that over half the jobs lost have been lost by women over the course of this pandemic. And just in January, there were about 275,000 women who left the workforce, and they're having trouble getting back in.

And a lot of that is attributed to the idea that, you know, a lot of women have kids at home. Not having daycares open, not having schools open is having an impact on whether women can go back to work. So you're seeing kind of the widespread impact of this, especially on the students, but also among other constituencies as well. And that's why it's been such a focal point, and that's why there have been so many questions over the past couple of days and weeks focused on this White House.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And Meridith, on another education-related issue, President Biden last night reiterated that he disagrees with members of his party who want him to cancel up to $50,000 of student debt per person via executive action. What is he planning instead?

MERIDITH MCGRAW: Well, cancelling student debt really is a big priority for a lot of progressives in Congress. And it was really interesting last night when President Biden made such a blunt answer when he was asked about whether or not he would write off $50,000 in student debt. He said right off the bat, no. But he said he would be interested in seeing, perhaps, $10,000.

And when the White House press secretary was asked about that today, she said that they still have a lot of questions that they need to answer. They need to know whether or not it's legal, how they can actually write off student debt, what are the parameters of that. So there's still a lot of outstanding legal questions that need to be answered. And they also said that they'd be interested in seeing what Congress will come up with itself.

But for progressives on Capitol Hill, there was some swift backlash to that answer because they really see that as a priority. But the White House and President Biden has said that he feels some of that money could be used in different ways, maybe helping disadvantaged students, children, and different priorities on that front.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Caitlin, you noted earlier today that this is all happening without a Senate-confirmed education secretary. How close is the president to getting a full cabinet?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS: Yeah, it was pretty striking that there isn't a secretary of education in place right now, just given how much of the focus is on the reopening of schools. Miguel Cardona, who, of course, is the nominee for secretary of education, has been voted out of committee, and they're expecting a vote on his final confirmation soon. But notably, only about seven of 23 positions have been confirmed by the Senate, and that's far below the pace of confirmations for Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, and even Obama. And when you look at the first 100 days of an administration, typically, you have the bulk of your confirmation-- your nominees confirmed. And especially by this point, you have your key people in place. That is not the case here.

Now, there had been delays, of course, from the very beginning. Unlike his predecessors, Biden was inaugurated without any of his nominees confirmed, although there was one confirmation later on in that evening on inauguration day. Of course, we just went through the impeachment process, which took a bulk of time in the Senate, even though they were trying to also hold confirmation hearings at the same time.

But notable among those who haven't been confirmed yet, in addition to the education secretary, is the secretary of HHS. Xavier Becerra has not been confirmed yet. We're, of course, in a pandemic. That is a key role.

And we've also not had the confirmation hearing process for Merrick Garland, the nominee for attorney general. That's significant as well for many, many reasons, but even today, as Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, was talking about whether the president has the executive power to take this action on student loan forgiveness. They said that they're waiting on DOJ guidelines, waiting for their nominee to be confirmed and in place to offer those guidelines. So the pace of confirmations is slow, and it is having an effect, given people in key positions aren't in those key positions yet.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Meridith, let's turn back to President Biden's meeting with union leaders this afternoon. What assurances is he making to them after meeting with corporate heads last week?

MERIDITH MCGRAW: Well, union leaders really are a key constituency for President Biden. It's something he mentioned. He called them friends in the meeting. But what they're hoping to hear from him is any sort of guidance or plan on infrastructure and, of course, these clean energy jobs. Biden and the Biden White House, they say that they're going to be able to do something on infrastructure, and that's something that every White House says.

And infrastructure, of course, does have bipartisan support, but it also comes with a pretty hefty price tag. And something he's going to be assuring them, as well, is his $1.9 trillion COVID relief proposal, as well. He's trying to get support for that, and that is still a priority for this White House-- is making sure that that gets passed mid-March. And then it's still TBD on what exactly an infrastructure plan would look like, what the details of that would be. And so hearing out those union leaders would be an important part of that.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And Caitlin, what is the latest on President Biden's planned COVID relief package? I mean, could it come in time to assure that people's unemployment aid does not expire in mid-March?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS: That's the big question. Well, mark your calendars for the week of March 8 because Steny Hoyer, who's the number two in House leadership on the Democratic side, who controls the calendar over there, said that they are expecting a vote on the House side on the COVID relief package next week. And then it will go back to the Senate, and then they make their adjustments and then back to the House. So he said the House will be in session the week of March 8, and it's expecting a vote on that relief bill.

But there are big questions about what kinds of changes the Senate will make, particularly on that issue of the minimum wage. As we've been discussing and talking about, this has been a big sticking point for this relief package, not only just among Republicans who are opposed to it, by and large, but also among some Democrats. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, senators who are kind of considered more moderate Democrats, have expressed some reluctance and opposition to having an increase in the federal minimum wage, and especially as part of this package. So look for that to be the big sticking point and something that, as Biden himself has acknowledged, may not make it through. But the House, at least according to Hoyer, they are hoping for a final vote on-- the week of March 8.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, we've got it marked on our calendars. Caitlin Huey-Burns and Meridith McGraw, thank you both very much.