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WASHINGTON — Officials from the across the Biden administration gathered virtually on Wednesday to push schools to reopen for in-person instruction, hoping to meet the president’s goal of opening the majority of elementary and middle schools by the end of April.
What was billed as the “National Safe School Reopening Summit” began with first lady Jill Biden, a professor of education, relating her own feelings about remote instruction. “It just isn’t the same,” she said, raising her hands in a show of teacherly frustration.
She then told a story that seemed to not-all-that-subtly capture the Biden administration’s predicament when it comes to the resistance of some districts to reopening classrooms. Meeting a fifth grader during a recent visit to a Concord, N.H., elementary school, the first lady asked the boy what he had learned about himself during the pandemic.
“I can do stuff that can be hard or difficult,” he told her. “If you’re stuck, then keep going.”
The push to reopen schools isn’t stuck, but it is also not going as quickly as some had hoped. About 18 percent of American students have not been inside a classroom this year, according to the website Burbio. Another 31 percent are in hybrid arrangements that have proved unsatisfying for all parties but can act as a sort of bridge between shuttered and open schools.
The administration had hoped that the $122 billion allocated to schools in the president’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package would be sufficient for teachers’ unions to drop their opposition to reopening. But that opposition has only hardened in the days since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut the recommended guidance for classroom seat-spacing from 6 feet to 3.
Union leaders assert that science around the issue remains unsettled. Studies have shown that spacing students at 6 feet is no safer than spacing at 3 feet, but unions say those studies don’t account for aging, crowded buildings in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, where opposition to reopening has been strongest.
Coinciding with the reopening summit was an announcement from the Biden administration that it was releasing $81 billion to states from the coronavirus relief package. “It is my top priority to get students back in the classroom,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in a statement announcing the release of funds, which could help schools make infrastructure upgrades, buy personal protective equipment and hire staff.
The Department of Education also announced that Cardona would conduct a school reopening tour to ensure that the nation is “safely accelerating toward reopening all schools.” During an NBC “Today” show appearance earlier Wednesday, Cardona agreed that all schools would be open in the fall, but added that he wanted them opened this spring.
In that appearance and in the summit with educators that followed, Cardona diligently referenced the American Rescue Plan — as Biden’s coronavirus relief plan is known — in a reminder that teachers presumably have the resources they have been asking for.
The American Federation of Teachers, however, displeased at the new 3-foot guidance, informed the Department of Education that “districts lack the human resources and institutional planning ability to make changes like this quickly,” an implicit warning that teachers would come back into the classroom at their own pace.
Randi Weingarten, who heads the powerful union, made a brief appearance during Wednesday’s summit, noting that 88 percent of the union’s 1.7 million members supported the AFT’s reopening plan. What she did not note — but what none of the educators or public health officials would have missed — is that that plan calls for 6 feet of distancing in the classroom, not 3. That would keep many schools closed or in hybrid learning arrangements.
Prolonged clashes over distancing in the classroom, vaccine access for teachers and availability of diagnostic testing is precisely what worries parents who want their children back in school. Those parents say educators are no longer listening to the science, which points to the safety of reopening schools. “It looks like unions playing public health officials,” parent and pro-reopening activist Karen Vaites told Yahoo News. And as those parents’ frustration grows, so does the unwelcome possibility for Biden that they emerge as a highly motivated group of voters.
The need for a reopening summit only underscored how fraught and complex the issue of schools remains. There was little new to the three-hour event, other than the sense that the Biden administration is exceedingly impatient to get the issue resolved. For the most part, federal and local officials reiterated points they have been making for months.
An official from the CDC urged schools to have masks available, while the chancellor of New York City’s schools described the high cost and necessity of upgrading ventilation. Playing the enthusiastic master of ceremonies, Cardona cheered educators, vowing to have a dialogue on reopening, even as he reminded them to keep “students at the center of the conversation.”
Cardona was formerly Connecticut’s schools chancellor, earning praise for opening the state’s schools in the fall. He is now charged with doing the same nationwide, as evidence grows that remote learning has taken a devastating educational and emotional toll on students and parents alike.
As if to underscore that very point, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky recounted her youngest son’s experience with hybrid learning. Until about a month ago, the suburban district had been fully remote. “Last week he said to me, ‘Mom, it finally feels like I’m in school again,’” Walensky said.
“I’m so glad he’s back,” she added.
That kind of personal appeal was lacking from former President Donald Trump’s intense but unfocused push to reopen schools. His own grown children attended prestigious private schools (his teenage son, Barron, also attends a private school), as did those of Betsy DeVos, his education secretary, making them less convincing messengers for the kind of broadly reassuring testimony that Walensky offered. Trump hectored Democratic elected officials and their allies at the teachers’ unions, accusing them of keeping schools closed in order to hurt him politically.
Biden has benefited from the advent of coronavirus vaccines, which many states have already administered to teachers. And the narrow Democratic majority in Congress allowed him to channel more funding to schools.
For all that, the issue has continued to be a challenge for Biden, a fact that the reopening summit frequently underscored. The first panel, for example, came from Cleveland, discussing what was touted as that city’s successful reopening plan. But Cleveland returned to in-person instruction only days ago, with students in school just two days a week.
“As hard as closing was,” said the superintendent of that city’s schools, “opening is harder.”
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