During a town hall event on CNN in Milwaukee, Biden stated his desire for students to be back in school five days a week, with a priority on getting kindergartners through eighth-graders in school as soon as possible.
“The loss of being able to be in school is having a significant impact on the children and parents as well,” he said. “And what we found out is there are certain things that make it rational and easy to go back to the brick-and-mortar building.”
As a result, Biden attempted to give anxious, overextended families some hope that one of the most challenging parts of this pandemic could be coming to an end.
“I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days,” he said. “We’ve had a significant percentage of them being able to be opened. My guess is they’re going to probably be pushing to open all summer, to continue like it’s a different semester and try to catch up.”
But reopening to something that looks like normal could be a ways off, based on guidelines the Biden administration released last week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said districts should not transition to full-time, in-person school as long as transmission rates remain high — which they are in the overwhelming majority of the country. Instead, districts should embrace the hybrid system as long as schools can adhere to strict systems designed to prevent transmission.
The reality, though, is that the president and his administration won’t be the key decision-makers regarding school reopenings no matter their position on the issue. The federal government doesn’t have the power to make those determinations.
“The president has very little in the way of formal authority over school reopening decisions, as was illustrated by President’s Trump’s lack of success in that area,” said Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “In terms of what tools are actually available to the president, that starts with the bully pulpit, which he can use to make the case for the importance of reopening schools and to explain that it can be done safely.”
But West said the president could influence schools by working with Congress to tie funding to school reopening schedules.
“With Congress, he can work to provide money to cover costs associated with covid mitigation efforts,” he said.
Included in Biden’s coronavirus relief legislative package is $130 billion to help K-12 schools implement the safety measures to reopen.
But West disputes the idea that costs to reopening are the main barrier keeping teachers unions from supporting returning to schools.
“After all, many states have been offering in-person instruction all year without a new infusion of federal cash,” he said. “I think the real barrier is fear among educators and their lack of trust that districts will do what’s needed to keep them safe.
“So I think the president does have the opportunity to reassure educators on that front that this is something that can be done safely,” West added.
After months of back-and-forth with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who wanted to see schools open as soon as possible, the Chicago teachers union eventually agreed to return to classrooms after negotiating on health and safety standards. Lightfoot told me this week that her support for reopening as soon as possible was in part connected to her concern that learning from home has caused too many of the district’s Black and Latino students to fall too far behind — something that a recent study shows is a nationwide problem.
“We’ve been living through literally hell on earth over the last 11 months, exacerbated by incompetence of the former federal administration, whether it’s in covid-19 response, or more recently we’re seeing the bad legacy left by them regarding vaccines and not enough to meet the demand,” she told me on Washington Post Live. “But the reality is that people are afraid, they’re afraid for their own personal health, for the personal health of people that they may be caretakers for, or someone in their household. So, making sure that we address those issues and then phase the return of those teachers to in-person learning was a reasonable thing to do, and that’s what we agreed to as part of our agreement with the teachers union.”
The severity of the crisis continues to vary — sometimes greatly — from state to state. Therefore, how school districts — and the parents they serve — respond to the issue of school reopenings will probably depend on balancing the needs of students, interests of teachers and ongoing concerns about the health of the greater community where these individuals live. But for a president who campaigned on improving the federal response to a pandemic that has impacted every corner of society, showing leadership by providing solutions to problems that fall outside of his jurisdiction will come with real limitations.