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President Joe Biden on Tuesday evening recast his own press secretary’s benchmarks on the pace of school openings in America, saying he imagined that K-8 schools would have in-person learning on a nearly full-week basis by the end of his first 100 days in office.
“I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days,” Biden said during a Milwaukee town hall hosted by CNN. “We have had a significant percentage of them being able to be opened.”
It was a walk-back of White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s comments last week, when she said having schools open one day a week would count for the administration’s goal of resuming in-person learning within the first 100 days. That yardstick met stiff criticism from weary teachers and parents eager to end pandemic-altered schooling.
Psaki said at the time that the guideline was “not the ceiling” and added on Thursday that “the president will not rest until every school is open five days a week. That is our goal.” She said the administration would open according to scientific guidelines issued by the CDC.
When asked about a one-day-a-week benchmark, Biden responded on Tuesday that it was not true and that it “was a mistake in the communication.” He said opening K-8 schools for five days a week by the end of his first 100 days was a realistic goal, and that instruction would probably stretch into the summer to make up for time lost from remote learning.
Psaki on Tuesday evening squared her earlier school-opening remarks with Biden’s town hall comments, tweeting: “In case helpful. Last week I said @POTUS goal was to open schools five days a week as quickly as possible. And that we are going to rely on science. Which is exactly what we are doing.”
Biden acknowledged that it would be harder to open up high schools because older students transmit the disease more easily than young children. He also rebuffed a question about the safety of crowding students together in packed classrooms in dated, poorly ventilated school buildings.
“Nobody is suggesting, including the CDC in its recent report, that you have large classes, congested classes,” the president said. “It’s about needing to be able to socially distance, smaller classes, more protection, and I think the teachers and the folks who work in the school, the cafeteria workers and others, should be on the list of preferred to get a vaccination.”
The comments illustrate the high sensitivity around school openings for the Biden administration — a conundrum compounded by fatigue from parents juggling a year of at-home learning. Teachers unions have squared off with school districts over safely reopening schools, and Republicans have been pouncing on the tension to pin delayed reopenings on Democrats.
It was Biden’s first town hall appearance of its kind since he entered the White House, and he spoke with audience members on issues ranging from vaccine rollouts to raising the minimum wage to police reform. He faced an audience composed largely of Democrats and independents, though a couple of attendees were introduced as having voted for former President Donald Trump.
Though Biden said he was “tired of talking about Donald Trump,” he took numerous swipes at the previous administration for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden had avoided talking about his predecessor during the Senate impeachment trial, which ended Saturday.
Biden urged the audience to have patience as the county emerges from the pandemic with a skeletal vaccine rollout plan from the Trump administration. He said there should be enough vaccines for all eligible Americans by the end of July, but that distribution would remain a challenge.
“We wasted so much time,” Biden said of his predecessor’s response to the health crisis.