To his credit, President Joe Biden makes reopening schools for in-person instruction a visible priority for his new administration. On his first full day at work, Biden issued a professional order directing the U.S. Department of Education to establish national reopening guidelines, support contact tracing in schools, and gather data around the pandemic's impact on students. The stimulus bundle he's proposed to Congress includes $130 billion that schools can use to upgrade ventilation systems, increase testing, or hire additional staff. The aim, the administration's plan says, is to \”safely reopen most K -8 schools in his administration's first 100 days.\”
That goal may be less ambitious than it sounds. Most obviously, it leaves out high schools. Additionally, it doesn't define what \”reopen\” means. Will it imply that some students-perhaps only very young students and people with disabilities-are able to attend personally? Does using a hybrid model count? Or will it imply that a lot of students should have a choice of while attending college in person full-time? Organizations for example Burbio that are tracking school schedules are convinced that most public schools nationwide were offering at least some in-person instruction even before the November election, suggesting that Biden's team may have no trouble arguing they have met their stated goal.
Biden is hardly the first new president to create policy targets that defy falsification. And one could easily understand a desire for vagueness in defining this goal, because of the current challenges for you to get more students inside of schools. Covid-19 case counts remain near all-time highs through a lot of the country. New, more-contagious variants of the virus threaten to hasten its spread. Vaccine distribution is running behind schedule. It is understandable, if also tragic, that conversation in some quarters has considered mitigation measures that may need to be in position within the 2021 -22 school year.
And then there's the politics. The teachers unions resisting reopening are key people in Biden's electoral coalition. Within 24 hours the president issued his executive order, Dr. Jill Biden, herself a member of the National Education Association, hosted the organization's president, Becky Pringle, and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers at the White House. In a statement, Pringle praised the president's reopening plan but cautioned that \”right now, the reality in too many schools and institutions better education is that effective distancing, mask-wearing, ventilation, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and other crucial mitigation strategies aren't in position.\” Days later, in the nation's third-largest school district, 71 percent of voting members of the Chicago Teachers Union rejected the district's plan to return to in-person instruction on February 1. It isn't only teachers who're opposing coming back to college; some parents, too, are unwilling to send their children back, considering that no vaccine has yet been authorized to be used on U.S. children 15 or younger.
Viewed in context, then, the fact that obama has chosen to prioritize school reopening whatsoever is remarkable-and praiseworthy. The most recent survey data gathered by Education Next, reported in this issue (see \”Pandemic Parent Poll Finds Perverse Pattern\”), give a baseline for assessing the administration's progress. Additionally they reveal just how badly progress is needed. Lately November, 53 percent of American students were receiving fully remote instruction; just 28 percent were in the classroom full-time. Black and Hispanic children were less apt to be learning in person full time, at 18 percent and 22 percent, respectively. The mother and father of 60 percent of all students are convinced that their son or daughter is learning under the child would have if the pandemic had not occurred, and fogeys express increased worry about how Covid mitigation measures have affected their children's social relationships and physical fitness. Yet reports of learning loss along with other adverse effects are far less frequent for students while attending college in person.
What actions can the brand new administration take to change this picture? Clear federal guidelines on reopening would be a welcome start but they are unlikely on their own to work in overcoming union resistance. That need 't be the only real tool in the administration's disposal, however. The $130 billion for schools within the president's proposed stimulus bundle would amount to some $2,300 per student. With approval from Congress, the administration could require school districts in communities where safety conditions are met to provide all students the option to attend school in person to be able to receive those funds. And just what about students in districts that cannot safely reopen this school year-or won't do so? Parents might be given their share from the funds directly, to use as they decide to help their children catch up.