President Joe Biden has made it clear one of his first priorities in office is getting students back into the classroom, but after an almost year-long debate over the safety of schools during the pandemic, the new administration could face an uphill battle as the trajectory of the virus in the United States remains uncertain.
During Biden’s first week in office, his administration announced its strategy to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included several initiatives aimed at reopening schools and an appearance by the first lady, Jill Biden, who addressed the nation’s educators alongside the presidents of two teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
The president said on Monday that he believes “we should make school classrooms safe and secure,” adding that schools need new ventilation systems and testing for students and teachers.
“We need the capacity, the capacity to know that, in fact, the circumstance in the school is safe and secure for everyone,” he said.
And on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that indicated when schools implement strategies like mask requirements and student cohorts, there is potential for them to open safely when those certain mitigation steps are in place.
The strategy put forth by the Biden administration last week relies on things like calling on Congress to provide at least $130 billion in funding specifically for schools, supporting expanded testing and screening efforts in schools and issuing updated safety guidelines for schools.
His plan comes as some educators have begun to receive the vaccine in the latest push to restore normalcy. However, there’s still hesitancy in many parts of the country over returning to a physical classroom full-time, following the previous administration’s push to reopen with little federal guidance on how to do so.
“Part of the challenge he's [Biden] facing now is he realizes that, you know, without leadership from federal governments, the different states are doing different things,” the NEA president, Becky Pringle, told ABC News.
The Chicago Teachers Union announced on Sunday it had voted to continue teaching remote. The CTU has asked Chicago Public Schools to “establish clear public health criteria” and “enforce safety protocols in schools,” among other things, before returning to in-person learning, according to the union’s list of demands.
Virginia Education Association President James Fedderman released a statement on Jan. 8 calling on the state to implement an all-virtual learning curriculum until all school staff are vaccinated.
The Omaha Education Association in Nebraska is pushing back against a full return to in-person learning until all teachers are vaccinated.
“In our view, it is absolutely imperative that OPS educators and staff are vaccinated before we return to greeting, teaching and caring for all of our students each and every day. Without vaccinated educators and staff, every school day at every OPS school building becomes a potential virus super-spreader event,” OEA President Robert Miller said in a Jan. 13 statement.
“It always goes back to” following the science and involving everyone from educators and administrators to parents and health experts when deciding on the safety of returning to school, Pringle said.
“All of them need to be involved in decision making around when it is safe to go back to school, and then how … are we going to build a plan so that we're thinking about equity in terms of access to opportunity to the vaccine itself, all of those things, and so his plan takes that into consideration, but you’re hearing a lot of angst,” Pringle said, adding that has occurred because “there wasn't any leadership.”
As schools across the nation are at varying stages of reopening, returning to school safely doesn’t necessarily mean that every single teacher needs to be vaccinated before a school reopens, Randi Weingarten, the president of AFT, told ABC News.
“The issue is that we should be aligning vaccination with school opening. That doesn't mean every single teacher has to be vaccinated before you open one school, it means there has to be that alignment,” Weingarten said.
When asked if teachers should return to in-person learning, Biden on Monday said that he hopes to ensure schools have safety precautions in place, like plastic dividers, and the capacity to test for the virus.
“The teachers I know, they want to work,” Biden said. “They just want to work in a safe environment, and as safe as we can rationally make it. And we can do that. And we should be able to open up every school, kindergarten through eighth grade, if, in fact, we administer these tests.”