Biden administration developing school safety standards for reopening during COVID-19 pandemic

There hasn't been a clear federal standard on when it's safe to reopen a school.

January 27, 2021, 4:49 PM

As officials nationwide grapple with how to reopen schools, the White House said on Wednesday it plans to develop school safety standards as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing that there are "a number of steps that will need to be taken" to meet President Joe Biden's goal of reopening the majority of K-8 schools within 100 days.

When specifically asked if the administration plans to develop metrics or standards for what a safe reopening of schools will look like, Psaki responded, "We do."

To date, there hasn't been a clear federal standard for when it's safe to reopen a school. While there has been guidance on masks and other measures to improve safety, schools and parents have argued over when transmission levels are too high or if teachers should be vaccinated first.

The Biden administration announced last week as part of its plan to fight the pandemic that it would release a handbook from the Education Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on school reopenings "in the coming weeks."

The strategy also mentioned Biden's call for Congress to "provide at least $130 billion in dedicated funding to schools," as well as "$350 billion in flexible state and local relief funds that will help districts avoid lay-offs and close budget gaps, and additional resources so that schools can safely reopen, including funds to implement screening testing."

However, Psaki would not engage on what would happen if Congress did not approve the funding, adding that she wouldn't "get into a hypothetical."

"Nobody wants to be having a conversation in May or June about why schools are not reopened," Psaki said.

A student walks the halls between classes during the first day of in-person learning at Arvada West High School in Arvada, Colo., Jan. 25, 2021.
Aaron Ontiveroz/Denver Post via Getty Images

Psaki reiterated that Biden's plan to safely reopen schools will "require testing materials, support for contact tracing, vaccinations for teachers and ensuring they're equitably provided."

On Monday, Biden responded to questions from reporters and he specifically addressed school reopenings, saying, "we should make classrooms safe and secure" for students and school staff.

"We need new ventilation systems in those schools. We need testing for people coming in and out of the classes. We need testing for teachers, as well as students, and we need the capacity, the capacity to know that, in fact, the circumstance in the school is safe and secure for everyone," Biden said.

The push to get students back into physical classrooms is not unique to this administration, however, the Trump administration did not issue a federal standard determining how and when a school should hold in-person classes, and instead left state and local officials to make the decisions on their own.

The CDC under the Trump administration issued guidance for K-12 schools on operating during COVID-19, but the administration continuously pressed for schools to be open. Former Vice President Mike Pence in July 2020 said, "We don't want federal guidance to be a substitute for state and local laws and rules and guidance."

"We are here to assist with the shared objective that I think is shared by every parent in America, which is what we want to get our kids back [in schools]," he said at the time.

On Tuesday, the CDC released a report that indicated when schools put strategies in place, like mask requirements and student cohorts, there is the potential to open safely.

Signs designating approved walkways line the halls and staircases during the first day of in-person learning at Arvada West High School in Arvada, Colo., January 25, 2021.
Aaron Ontiveroz/Denver Post via Getty Images

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and Biden's chief medical adviser, told FOX News on Wednesday that in-person learning can be successful if communities follow CDC guidelines.

"What the science tells us is the following -- that children in school right now, it appears that if you follow the safety guidelines of the CDC, that they are less likely to be getting infected than the community rate of infection," Fauci told FOX News Channel's "America Reports with John Roberts and Sandra Smith."

Following CDC guidelines though, "may require additional resources to the local school districts," he added.

ABC News' Anne Flaherty, Molly Nagle, Ben Gittleson and Karen Travers contributed to this report.