“Let me be clear,” Biden said, in his second speech in three days taking direct aim at his Republican opponent. “If President Trump and his administration had done their jobs early on in this crisis, American schools would be open. And they’d be open safely.”
The speech marked another attempt by Biden to emphasize Trump’s response to the global pandemic, the issue that Biden’s campaign believes will guide voters’ decisions more than any other.
White House advisers and Trump campaign officials reiterated Wednesday that Trump was pushing to reopen schools — a position they still view as politically advantageous — and they are moving to heighten demands that local districts begin in-person instruction.
Trump administration officials are considering allocating Abbott machines for rapid testing to states based on the number of students attending school this fall, giving states an incentive to put more students in classrooms, a person familiar with the discussions said. Like others, the person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration planning.
Biden made the remarks in Wilmington a day before he planned to travel to Kenosha, Wis., to meet with the family of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times by a police officer there.
Biden on Wednesday called for charges to be filed against the officer, as well as against those involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was killed in March when police entered her apartment in Louisville and opened fire.
The abrupt change of topic illustrated the multiple issues that Biden and Trump are juggling as they rush toward Election Day. Biden’s trip to Kenosha comes two days after Trump toured the wreckage from looting after protests there in the wake of Blake’s shooting, and it followed efforts by a number of Biden’s supporters to press his campaign to more aggressively respond to Trump’s “law and order” message, particularly in the Upper Midwest.
“There’s been overwhelming requests that I do come,” Biden said, in response to questions after his speech. “I have gotten advice from sitting members of Congress, in the Senate as well, to go — and that I should go. I’m not going to do anything other than meet with community leaders as well as business people, other folks in law enforcement, and to see — to start to talk about what has to be done.” Biden is expected to meet with Blake’s family, whom he has spoken to at least once since the shooting.
On the battle over schools, Trump has aggressively pushed schools to hold in-person classes — just as he has pushed for college football to return, for church pews to be filled and for businesses to reopen. Biden’s more cautious approach Wednesday was aimed at those less convinced than Trump of the wisdom of returning to the classroom, particularly those living in the suburbs who carry outsized political influence.
Biden, who in July outlined initial proposals for reopening schools, is now calling for nearly $200 billion in new funding to reconfigure classrooms, improve ventilation and take other steps to allow for social distancing within existing buildings. He also said that he would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to guarantee full access to disaster relief and emergency assistance funds.
Biden has called on the federal government to adopt clearer standards to help local districts decide when and how to reopen, including how low a region’s infection rates should be, what a maximum safe class size is and who should return to classrooms first if schools cannot accommodate all students.
Biden several times conceded that he has not come up with the answers to some of those questions, but as president would task various federal agencies with figuring them out.
“Protecting our students, our educators, our communities, getting our schools open safely and effectively, this is an national emergency,” Biden said. “But President Trump still doesn’t have any real plan for how to open our schools safely.”
Trump began pushing for schools to fully reopen in July, spurred on by his economic advisers, who warned him that it was key to helping fully reopen the economy. Without kids in school, they warned, parents would be unable to fully return to the workforce.
“The President has said continuously, as have numerous public health experts, that students belong in school. His Administration continues to offer guidance, supplies, and other resources to achieve this goal,” Brian Morgenstern, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.
But the president has also struggled to articulate any clear plan of how schools could safely return to in-person learning. Instead, he simply insisted that they should reopen, and threatened to cut off funding for schools that did not. In one tweet on July 8, Trump noted that schools had reopened with no problems in several European countries, and argued that Democrats were playing politics with the issue.
“The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families,” he wrote. “May cut off funding if not open!”
Early in the pandemic, Trump administration officials say they did not frequently discuss school reopening in task force meetings because they did not expect the pandemic to last this long.
Yet in July, the president became fixated on reopening schools even though polling was not in his favor. Trump was confident, he told political advisers, that reopening schools would be a popular position — particularly in the suburbs — and grew frustrated when he repeatedly saw on news programs that districts were reluctant to reopen.
“They should be taking every step they can to push resources into the schools so that they can open safely — additional resources for testing, even if they can’t test the entire student population,” said Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner in the Trump administration. “Test students who might become symptomatic in a nurse’s office.”
“You need to get resources to offset these costs,” he added. “You’re going to have a divide between the have and have-nots if you don’t.”
Gottlieb also said that federal agencies should also provide more guidance on reducing risk in the classroom, including more elaboration on what conditions should trigger opened schools to close again.
“One, obviously, to keep educating children so that they don’t effectively miss an entire year of school,” Murtaugh said. “And two, give parents the certainty of schools reopening so they can return to work and get the economy moving even faster to recovery.”
Murtaugh called on the former vice president “to demand that Nancy Pelosi pass the bill that the president has requested, for $105 billion to get schools the equipment they need to reopen safely. He has not said a word about that, as far as we know.”
Biden has urged Trump to negotiate with congressional leaders to help pass legislation that would pump more money into schools. Biden pointed to an estimate from the Schools Superintendents Association that projected schools need about $200 billion for this academic year alone to make classrooms safe.
“Mr. President, where are you?” Biden asked, looking into the camera. “Where are you? Why aren’t you working on this?”
He added: “Get off Twitter. And start talking to the congressional leaders of both parties . . . You always talk about your ability to negotiate. Negotiate a deal.”
Murtaugh said the Trump team believes that schools can reopen, and reopen safely — despite the lack of guidance for schools districts about what constitutes a safe reopening. “He always casts things as an either/or situation: Either we can open up, or we can be safe,” Murtaugh said. “The president disagrees with that. It can be both. The economy and schools can both be open and be safe.”
The issue of reopening schools has been a point of tension between Deborah Birx and Scott Atlas, two of the president’s advisers on the pandemic. Birx has argued it may be safe reopen many schools, but only in areas with lower levels of cases, and she has cited studies warning against school reopenings. Atlas has pushed for schools everywhere to be reopened, a position more in line with the president’s wishes.
Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, meanwhile, has taken a grimmer view of reopening.
A senior administration official said that while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released new guidelines for safely getting students back into classrooms, the administration’s overarching strategy so far has been to encourage state and local governments to create their own plans for how and when their districts should reopen. Another Trump administration priority is ensuring flexibility for both parents and students, so that families can choose schooling options that are best for them and their needs, and recognizing that needs vary by state.
The administration has also released guidelines for how colleges and universities can safely reopen, and the senior administration official said both advisers and medical professionals on the team are united in the belief that it is safer for college students to return to campus, in part because they are generally a lower-risk group. Still, the reopening of campuses has led to multiple outbreaks among students and staff members.
Last week, the administration announced a deal with Abbott Laboratories to produce 150 million rapid coronavirus tests, which will allow people to get results in 15 minutes. The administration plans to distribute these tests to the states, with specific recommendations on how they could be used for classrooms — although the states themselves will be responsible for administering them, said the senior administration official.
The administration also plans to allocate a specific number of the tests to historically Black colleges and universities, in part because Black Americans have proved to be at higher risk, the official said.