Schools should be '100%' open this fall, White House says

WASHINGTON — All schools should be open for in-person instruction for the 2021-22 school year, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday, rejecting concerns about the Delta variant of the coronavirus potentially relegating American students to another year of remote instruction.

“Our plan and our objective and our desire and commitment is to push forward and ensure 100 percent of schools are open across the country,” Psaki said during a White House press briefing, adding that the Delta variant — which is more transmissible but does not necessarily cause more severe cases of COVID-19 — “has not changed our public health guidelines.”

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance that strongly advocated for the return to in-person instruction. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told Yahoo News she was “leaning in heavily on full, in-person, safe learning for all schools.”

Psaki acknowledged on Friday that it was ultimately “up to school districts to implement” the full reopening that the White House has envisioned. Neither the federal government nor the CDC ultimately controls whether schools reopen; those decisions come at state or even local levels, and can be the result of political and pandemic-related developments far removed from the White House.

Students at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, Calif., November 2020. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

As her boss, President Biden, has frequently done, Psaki let it be known that schools received $122 billion in the coronavirus relief package passed earlier this year, which she said would “provide funding for mitigation measures for schools so they can invest in social distancing opportunities or repairing vents that are needed to improve ventilation.”

Teachers across the country have clamored for such upgrades, pointing to the sorry physical state of America’s schools.

The overwhelming majority of American educators are vaccinated, as are nearly 8 million adolescents, according to the CDC. Children under 12, however, are not yet authorized for vaccination, and it could be months before the Food and Drug Administration grants the requisite approval.

According to the data analytics website Burbio, about 28 percent of students finished the 2020-21 school year in a hybrid classroom, meaning they attended in-person school for only part of the week. Since most school districts are planning to dispense with such arrangements, classrooms will be at full capacity again five days a week.

Last year, the powerful teachers' unions were widely seen as (and criticized for) resisting a return to the classroom. They have since come out in support of in-person instruction, but have asked for protective measures like ventilation upgrades and masks.

Melissa Moy
Melissa Moy, a teacher at a public school in New York City, with her students. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended universal masking for students, and large districts like Chicago have adopted that guidance. “Measures that protect students also protect teachers and staff,” former CDC Director Tom Frieden wrote on Twitter. “Data shows that teachers aren’t at greater risk of Covid than other essential workers. Getting vaccinated and having strong safety measures in place will keep risk low.”

School masking policies have been explicitly rejected in some states with Republican governors. Among them is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024. “We're not doing that in Florida,” DeSantis said earlier this week, in reference to what he described as “compulsory” mask mandates from the federal government. (The federal government can’t compel such a mandate; it can only recommend it.)

The governor’s rejection of new mask rules for schools came as Florida once again became a coronavirus hot spot, much as it did last summer. Psaki addressed DeSantis’s anti-mask stance earlier this week. “If I were a parent in Florida, that would be greatly concerning to me,” she said.

Frieden, the former CDC director, went further, calling the rejection of masking in schools by some Republicans “horrifying.”


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