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The Biden administration’s muddled message on reopening schools

Rochelle Walensky, nominee for director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appears during the introduction of President-elect Joe Biden’s health team in December. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

If there is one issue that increasingly bridges much of the political divide over the coronavirus response, it might be reopening schools. Growing evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations has suggested that schools pose very little risk of spreading the virus once they reopen, and the Biden administration has set a goal of making this happen in its first 100 days.

But when it comes to how we get there, the messaging from the administration has been a bit of a muddled mess — particularly over the past two days.

The big sticking point is whether schools might be able to reopen even before all teachers are vaccinated. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky made big news Wednesday when she seemed to strongly indicate that that was indeed where the guidance was headed.

“I also want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” Walensky said.

She then repeated the point: “So while we are implementing the criteria of the advisory committee and of the state and local guidances to get vaccination across these eligible communities, I would also say that safe reopening of schools is not — that vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.”

This was significant. While the data has indeed pointed in that direction, Walensky’s remarks seemed to signal a declaration from the Biden administration on reopening schools. Her comments were hailed by, among others, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who has been pushing for a reopening.

“The science, reaffirmed by the Biden administration, is that schools can be safe learning and working environments with the right safety measures in place,” a Newsom spokesman said Wednesday.

But then the White House on Thursday walked it back. During a briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki claimed that Walensky “spoke to this in her personal capacity.” Except Walensky made no such distinction in her comments and, in fact, made them at an official White House coronavirus briefing.

“Obviously, she’s the head of the CDC, but we’re going to wait for the final guidance to come out so we can use that as a guide for schools around the country,” Psaki said.

That latter point is a valid distinction to draw. Indeed, it’s one Walensky made in her own comments — both at the briefing and in later remarks Wednesday night to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. She qualified her statements by saying the official guidance wasn’t yet out, but she leaned awfully hard in the direction of that guidance being that teachers don’t need to be vaccinated to start reopening schools.

There’s a logical explanation for this reluctance to commit, which plenty of conservatives and school reopening advocates have noted: Teachers unions aren’t yet on board with the plan. That does make this touchy in advance of official guidance from Walensky and the CDC. Even if you don’t believe that the Biden administration is kowtowing to the unions, bringing them along through the process — given that teachers could ultimately decide whether they feel safe showing up in person — is a valid pursuit.

But we also just came out of four years when the top health officials in the Trump administration were, by their own accounts, muzzled. Indeed, in the same interview Walensky gave Maddow on Wednesday night, she spoke to this extensively. Even if her message wasn’t quite ready for prime time or she might have gotten over her skis a little before the official guidance is provided, that’s probably something she should explain. Otherwise it looks like she said something that made the White House politically uncomfortable. The “personal capacity” explanation, in particular, is very difficult to swallow.

It’s also worth noting that Maddow challenged Walensky on the unions’ stance, and Walensky seemed to double down.

“I also think that the science tells us that if we can do the proper mitigation measures — and I would emphasize, if we have the funding to do the proper mitigation measures as is put forth in the American Rescue Plan — that we can reopen schools safely, even if all of the teachers are not vaccinated,” Walensky said.

If this wasn’t the administration’s message, and Walensky was just speaking in her personal capacity, how did it get repeated again in an interview in which she was representing the administration?

We still have little clarity on what the White House’s and the broader administration’s posture will be in that looming scenario. Given the apparent possibility that the CDC might soon be at odds with teachers unions on this important point, Psaki was asked Thursday about former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s statement that Biden should stand up to the unions.

Again, a fair response would be: Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. But instead, Psaki said, “I think that’s a little bit unfair how you pose that question.” Except it’s a very distinct possibility and a fair question based on Walensky’s comments — not to mention what high-profile Democrats such as Newsom and Bloomberg have said about the looming tension. It’s hardly setting up a false choice, based on everything we know.

Psaki got another crack at this Friday, but again there wasn’t much clarity. She instead pointed to other mitigation measures and the need to pass Biden’s coronavirus relief package. When asked if Biden might apply pressure on teachers to return to the classroom, Psaki gave an answer which the reporter suggested amounted to a “yes with an asterisk.” Psaki responded: “If you are the spokesperson for the White House, you could certainly say that, but you are not.”

Reopening schools in the first 100 days is a nice idea which the vast majority of Americans probably like — at least in theory, and especially given how many of them have been dealing with virtual school, which they worry will set their kids back and which makes their own work-from-home life difficult.

But a goal isn’t policy. And at the very least, there seems to be a disconnect on how all this might soon be rolled out. These are tough questions but very important and perhaps imminent ones — again, based on the CDC director’s comments — that are surely worthy of clarity and coordination among those making such huge decisions.