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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he was directing the Education Department to use its legal authority against Republican governors who are trying to block local school officials from requiring students to wear masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Speaking at the White House, Biden said some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures into "political disputes for their own political gain" and warned that they are "setting a dangerous tone."
Biden said he had directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to wield his oversight authority and take legal action "if appropriate."
"We're not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children," Biden said.
Republican governors across the country have recently signed executive orders or enacted laws seeking to prevent local officials from imposing new mask mandates. As children head back to school amid a surge in the delta variant of the coronavirus, some local officials have decided that ignoring the measures is the only way to protect children, especially those under age 12, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Biden said emergency Covid funding in the American Rescue Plan could cover educators' salaries if their pay is cut for requiring masks in their classrooms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students in kindergarten through 12th grade wear masks when they return to classrooms for the new school year.
Biden also said Wednesday that all nursing homes will have to require staff members to be vaccinated to keep receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding, which will affect about 15,000 nursing homes and more than 1.3 million employees, an administration official said.
About 60 percent of nursing home staffers are already fully vaccinated, according to data from the CDC.
Nursing homes heavily depend on Medicare and Medicaid funds, and some have raised concerns that they would lose staff members if they required them to be vaccinated in an already tight job market.
With a surge in Covid infections driven by the delta variant, the Biden administration has been looking to use whatever levers it has to pressure more Americans to get vaccinated.
"While I am mindful that my authority at the federal level is limited, I am going to continue look for ways to keep people safe and increase vaccination rates," Biden said Wednesday.
Biden has already required that all health care and nursing home workers with Veterans Affairs be vaccinated and that federal employees get vaccinated or undergo routine testing. Many private-sector companies and universities have also begun requiring vaccinations.
The new policy could go into effect as early as next month. The timing is fluid as the administration works with nursing homes to ramp up vaccinations in the coming weeks, the official said.
Biden administration officials said this month that they were discussing using federal authorities and regulatory powers, including withholding federal funds, to persuade institutions to require their employees to get vaccinated, including nursing homes.
Nursing home residents have been particularly at risk for coronavirus infections even after they have been vaccinated. Data from the CDC showed that the vaccines' effectiveness dropped from 75 percent in March to 53 percent by August. Administration officials said Wednesday that they would recommend that all adults get booster shots eight months after their first doses starting next month.