WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden is pledging to reopen most K-12 schools within 100 days -- an ambitious goal as Covid cases surge and teachers across the country fight some plans to reopen.
Teachers' union leaders say they are pleased with Biden's sense of urgency and focus, but they warn that the 100-day pledge may need to be a goal rather than a fixed target.
Biden is expected to sign several executive actions Thursday, his second day in office, to help support the reopening goal and establish a national strategy to get the coronavirus under control, but the measures stop short of requiring schools to reopen within any set time frame.
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One executive order will direct the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide reopening guidance to schools with a focus on masking, testing and cleaning. A separate presidential memorandum will offer reimbursement to schools for purchases of personal protective equipment through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund.
Biden's reopening policy is in stark contrast to former President Donald Trump's threats to withhold federal relief funding from schools if they didn't reopen for in-person learning, which neither Trump nor Congress ever put into action.
On a call with reporters Wednesday, Carole Johnson, Biden's Covid testing coordinator, acknowledged that the reopening timeline may need to be extended.
"The health and safety of students, educators, staff and families is paramount. The administration will always be honest about the challenges we face, including addressing how and whether changes in the pandemic may impact the reopening of schools or the ability of schools to reopen," Johnson said.
Union leaders question 100-day time frame
While many districts across the country are open, about half of K-12 students are currently attending virtual-only schools. Teachers have resisted reopening plans in major cities like Washington and Chicago.
Union heads describe having a close working relationship with the Biden team but argue that the 100-day goal is a big challenge.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says the goal may need to be reassessed depending on how the coronavirus is spreading over the next few months. Experts have warned that more transmissible variants, including the one first seen in the UK, could send cases surging again.
"I'm on board with the goal, but I'm very concerned about this new variant. None of this is done in isolation," Weingarten said.
National Education Association President Becky Pringle said the 100-day pledge sends a strong message that reopening schools is a top priority for Biden but that it's "not about the days, it's about the urgency he's putting on the issue."
"It's an aggressive plan, no question," Pringle added, noting there's "nothing educators want to do more than be back in person safely with their kids."
Congress is urged to provide resources needed to reopen
Teachers' unions and Democrats have long argued that the ability to open schools also depends on the resources available. Biden is pushing Congress to approve another $170 billion for K-12 schools, colleges and universities to help them operate safely in person or facilitate remote learning. Congress approved $82 billion in aid for schools in December, which Biden has said he views as a "down payment."
The new funding would be part of a broad $1.9 trillion relief package that would also include expanding unemployment benefits and direct stimulus checks. Congress, where Democrats now control both the House and the Senate, could take up the bill as early as next week. But it will take time for that money to make its way to school districts even if it's approved.
The American Federation of Teachers is calling for five specific things schools will need to reopen: tools like masks and cleaning supplies to mitigate the spread of the virus in buildings, testing and contract tracing, accommodations for at-risk teachers, quick vaccinations for teachers, and honesty and transparency about the guidance.
Bechara Choucair, Biden's pick to head vaccine coordination, said Wednesday that the administration will call on states to open up vaccine eligibility to teachers, along with first responders, grocery store workers and people over 65.
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President Biden pushes to reopen schools within 100 days as part of COVID-19 response