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Everything the Biden Administration Is Doing to Reopen Schools

The new adminsitration is throwing everything it has at the problem. But will it be enough?

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“It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school,” Joe Biden said in December. “If Congress provides the funding, we need to protect students, educators and staff. If states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow, then my team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”

This pledge was one of the more aggressive statements Biden made during the transition, both due to its aggressiveness and the logistical problems in opening schools when they’re largely under local and state control. Add that to teacher’s unions understandably protecting their members and students in negotiations with school systems, demanding time-consuming steps like installing adequate ventilation and waiting for teachers to be vaccinated before they return to the classroom, and it’s clear that Biden’s promise to reopen most schools by the end of the first 100 days is a genuinely ambitious one.

But 42 days into the Biden presidency, and it sure looks like the president is doing his damnedest to keep his word. The COVID-19 relief bill as currently constituted contains $170 billion in funding for K-12 schools, fulfilling one of the conditions of his pledge. That bill will pass soon, and on Tuesday, March 2nd, Biden announced other plans to get schools open quickly.

Here’s what else the Biden administration is doing to reopen the majority of schools for in-person instruction by April 30, when the clock runs out on its first 100 days in office.

Giving school staff vaccine priority.

Teachers across the country have consistently said that they would be much more comfortable returning to school if they were vaccinated. And it’s hard to blame them.

On Tuesday, Biden seemingly acknowledged these requests. While about half of states already prioritized teachers for vaccination, the president pledged to use federal authority to direct every other state to make the vaccine available to teachers and child care workers.

“We want every educator, school staff member, child care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March,” Biden said in the Tuesday, March 2nd press conference where he also announced that by the end of May, he’d have enough vaccine doses made for every single American adult.

He also announced that the federal pharmacy program would prioritize educators and allow them to sign up for vaccine appointments, a huge step forward into getting teachers at least one vaccine dose.

Gathering data on school closing and reopening.

The Trump administration chose not to track school closing and reopening data across districts nationwide, but the Biden administration’s effort to do so via a national school survey is already a couple of weeks old. Recently confirmed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will likely use this data in conversations with states and districts to justify reopening when certain metrics are met.

Use the Department of Education as an advocacy organization.

The aforementioned localism of the American education system means that much of the influence the federal Department of Education can have is through, well, influence. Newly confirmed Education secretary Miguel Cardona knows this. Today, he and First Lady Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate in education, will tour public schools that have reopened for in-person learning in Pennsylvania and his hometown of Meriden, Connecticut. It’s the kind of high-profile event that will receive widespread media coverage and, the hope is, articulate the administration’s reopening plans, building trust among parents and educators.

The effort won’t stop there. The DOE is working on a handbook with additional guidance for addressing the effect of a year’s worth of learning disruptions, and there are rumors of a school reopening czar position that would be housed in the department to direct the effort.

We know about these efforts because Cardona penned an op-ed for USA Today that also mentioned a national summit on safe reopening, the creation of a best reopening practices clearinghouse, and a reiteration of the call for funding to adapt schools to the new reality, be it by hiring more staff to teach smaller, socially distanced classes, upgrading ventilation systems, or providing broadband for students in hybrid models.

Whether or not these efforts can get the majority of schools reopened by April 30th — a reality potentially upended by Texas and Mississippi deciding to throw community mitigation strategies against COVID-19 to the wind — is another question. But the Biden administration is clearly making good on at least trying to make it happen.