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‘An essential service’: Inside Biden’s struggle to meet his school reopening promises

Third-grader Za'Quan Daniels works on his reading at Patterson Elementary School in Southwest Washington. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
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The promise was clear and hopeful: With strong public health measures, then-President-elect Joe Biden declared in early December, “the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”

The reality has been far more complicated.

First came the clarification on Biden’s first full day as president, when the administration released a 200-page coronavirus response plan that explained the schools reopening plan included only K-8 schools — not high schools — in those first 100 days.

Then came a walk-back from White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who said the administration’s goal was only to have the majority of schools back in classrooms “at least one day a week.”

And finally came Biden’s walk-back of the walk-back in a CNN town hall, where he described the one-day-a-week standard as a “mistake in the communication,” and said he still expected to be “close” to opening the majority of K-8 schools five days a week by April 30 — the end of his first 100 days in office.

The shifting messages on school reopenings illustrate the administration’s ongoing struggle to meet one of Biden’s central promises — and to get as many of the nation’s children as possible back in classrooms, as soon as possible.

Unlike many of his other vows and directives — pledging 100 million coronavirus vaccine doses in his first 100 days or mandating that all Americans wear masks on federal property — reopening schools is a daunting task over which the federal government has little authority. Local and district leaders, and sometimes state officials, control how and when schools reopen, with guidance from Biden and his team on the margins.

Top infectious disease expert Anthony S. Fauci and White House press secretary Jen Psaki spoke Feb. 20 about what was needed to get children back in classrooms. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said the Biden team did not consult his group before setting its reopening goal. Domenech said that, had he been asked, “my recommendation would have been don’t put yourself out in terms of promises you might not be able to keep.”

“Most people don’t understand when it comes to a school district, the federal government and even the state government have little power over them,” he said, adding that his concern is that Biden is “raising expectations that cannot be met.”

And another deadline looms: the start of next school year in August, when the public may prove less forgiving if children are forced into a third consecutive year of disrupted learning.

“If the next school year doesn’t look more familiar, then that’s going to be a big problem,” said David Griffith, the senior director of advocacy and government relations for the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Griffith said although Biden and his team cannot control when schools open, he can create the conditions for it. “If those conditions aren’t there, that is going to be on them,” he said.

Last week, the Biden administration logged meaningful progress. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona laid out his five-point plan in USA Today, promising to gather experts for a reopening summit later this month. And in the early morning hours Saturday, the Senate cleared a coronavirus relief package that included nearly $130 billion to help K-12 schools manage and recover from the pandemic.

“If we can continue as a country to follow those mitigation strategies that we know work, and we can control the spread of covid-19, I do anticipate that we can continue to see more and more students in school,” Cardona said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I do anticipate that, come the fall, if the progress that we’re making now continues, that we’re going to be seeing a school that looks more similar to what we were before the pandemic.”

His agency also plans a second guidance document with “best practices” on school reopening, Cardona said. Webinars are planned to amplify the message across the country.

And later this spring, the administration is preparing to open testing hubs to oversee expanded coronavirus testing, including at K-8 schools.

Biden also announced Tuesday that coronavirus vaccines would be offered directly to educators and child-care workers, promising they could all get at least the first dose by the end of March.

Then on Wednesday, first lady Jill Biden, a longtime community college English professor, joined Cardona on a trip to an elementary school in Meriden, Conn. — where Cardona grew up and began his teaching career — and to a middle school in Waterford, Pa. Advisers are also discussing sending Biden to visit an open school, a senior administration official said.

In Meriden, the first lady quipped that Cardona’s homecoming had been “a lovefest,” adding, “Now our nation is going to have that love for you.”

'An essential service'

Some Biden officials had long contended that getting teachers vaccinated would be key to reopening schools — but there were a host of competing constituencies to manage in navigating the larger debate.

Teachers unions, for example, longtime Democratic allies, have been cautious and hesitant in returning to schools. And parents and students are hardly monolithic in their views: Some families want their children back full time in classrooms as quickly as possible, while others — especially in Black and Hispanic communities that have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s devastation — are reluctant to send their children back while virus risks remain.

During the transition, the teacher vaccination idea was nixed by Biden’s public health advisers, who argued that the imperative was to stem deaths and ease pressure on the country’s overwhelmed hospitals. The priority, they reasoned, had to be vaccinating the elderly, who were most likely to become very sick and die.

The administration also tussled with teachers unions over its vaccine recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that although teachers should be prioritized for vaccination, they can still go back to school if they’re not. That upset some teachers and their unions, and White House officials twisted themselves into knots to avoid saying whether they agreed with the CDC recommendation. In the end, they backed the CDC.

But as more vaccines became available — and the Johnson & Johnson one-shot dose was readied for Food and Drug Administration emergency authorization — administration officials revisited the idea of using their federal authority to push teachers and other school workers to the front of the line.

“Let’s treat in-person learning like an essential service that it is,” Biden said Tuesday, announcing the new policy in the White House State Dining Room. “And that means getting essential workers who provide that service — educators, school staff, child-care workers — get them vaccinated immediately. They’re essential workers.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Biden ally who had suggested to administration officials prioritizing teachers, said the new directive is an encouraging step.

“Nobody should have an excuse not to open schools, and nobody should feel unsafe when we do,” he said.

'A lot of confusion'

When they spoke in December, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a longtime Democratic operative, had a pointed message for Rochelle Walensky, then the incoming director of the CDC: The administration had one chance to get the guidance for school openings right.

“The last CDC director so messed this up and so undermined the credibility of the CDC that you really have one shot to get this right and to be a credible scientist leading the CDC,” Weingarten said she told Walensky.

When the CDC released its highly anticipated guidance in mid-February, Weingarten was pleased with parts and disappointed with others. She thought, for instance, there should have been more emphasis on coronavirus testing in schools and on proper ventilation. But she said she appreciated the science-based blueprint and was eager to promote the agency’s work.

Under President Donald Trump, the agency had become a political punching bag and frequent target of the president’s ire, while Trump appointees had interfered with CDC guidance for schools.

The Biden White House initially had planned to release the schools guidance alongside the CDC, but nixed the plan because advisers realized “it would look too political,” said one administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the White House.

In the end, the guidelines may have slowed down school openings more than sped them up. The document recommended that communities with high levels of virus transmission operate school remotely or on a part-time schedule — known as hybrid — with reduced numbers of students in the building at any given time. Under the CDC’s rubric, that included the vast majority of the country.

Biden pushes full-time school, but districts are cautious after CDC weighs in

“It was a chance to clear up a lot of confusion, and I think it had the opposite effect,” said Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Some groups that have been in touch with the administration, however, say they are pleased with the guidance.

“They don’t control the science, they don’t control the virus, and they don’t control the local school districts,” said Elaine Auld, executive director of the Society for Public Health Education. “So, it would be egregious to point a finger at the administration and say, ‘You didn’t solve my problem,’ when the solution is not necessarily in their hands.”

'Partly thought through'

Biden outlined three specific coronavirus-related goals for his first 100 days in office — distributing 100 million vaccine doses, urging a 100-day mask mandate and opening the majority of K-8 schools. Of the three, only the schools plan was largely out of the federal government’s control, but top advisers saw the school pledge as necessary — and the trio as intertwined.

“If we do these things, then we can take a huge step toward what people would think of as normal,” said Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser. “But you need to do these things in concert with each other. Schools can’t just magically reopen, vaccines aren’t going to magically get into people’s arms. We actually need a plan.”

Others close to the administration, however, said the plan for schools reopening was a little more nebulous than the others. “It was partly thought through” when Biden announced it on Dec. 8, said one official familiar with the conversations, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment, but “not all the way.”

Many praised the administration for its aspiration. “The goal of reopening schools was an ambitious one, and I applaud them for putting that down as a goal they wanted to reach,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Republican-leaning group.

But reopening schools quickly became a moving target even for Biden administration officials, who offered shifting and sometimes conflicting public statements on the objective.

A key question was whether hybrid systems would count as open or whether a school needed to be physically open to all students five days a week to be counted in Biden’s tally. If hybrid systems were included, the goal probably was met before Biden took office. But opening schools fully would be hard, especially given the CDC recommendation against it.

After some gyrations — including the back-and-forth between Psaki and Biden — the White House decided school buildings need to be available to all students five days a week to be considered “open.”

Allen, the Harvard professor, said the changing explanations confused many. “The administration so far has not done a good job on messaging around schools,” he said. “Schools are confused, parents are confused, and this country still doesn’t have a clear plan on how to get kids back.”

Dunn said the initial tweaks to the goal were simply a reflection of the fast-moving virus and evolving on-the-ground circumstances — but Republicans seized on the issue as a political one and are declaring the effort a failure.

Last month, the Republican National Committee tweeted that although Biden had promised to reopen most schools within his 100 days, “all he has done so far is put special interests ahead of our students.” And on Thursday, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) brandished a fake oversize report card for Biden with a large F circled in red at a news conference and claimed the president was a pawn of the teachers unions.

“If you were to grade Joe Biden’s abilities to keep his promises of opening schools, Joe Biden’s report card — he deserves an F,” Barrasso said. “He promised that he would have the schools open all across America within 100 days, and he’s failed and we’re halfway there.”

Tracking from Burbio, a data firm, found that as of last week, about 47 percent of K-12 students were in fully open traditional schools and 23.7 percent were in all-remote schools. The remaining 29.4 percent were in hybrid systems.

Another challenge was the lack of a clear Biden administration point person tasked solely with helping to open schools. The Post spoke with more than 30 education and public health groups in touch with the administration on the issue, and many remained unclear who was overseeing schools reopening. One top ally said health officials, rather than education officials, seemed to be taking the lead.

White House officials said that Cardona, confirmed last week, is the administration’s point person focused full time on reopening schools, but said he is likely to appoint a deputy to help in the effort.

Rahm Emanuel, who was chief of staff under President Barack Obama and is close to many in the Biden administration, said the White House made progress on meeting its goal, both substantively and symbolically, over the past week.

“The Republicans were upfront that they wanted to use school closings as a way to make gains in the suburbs, and the Biden administration in a one-two-three did a great job of checkmating that issue — secretary of education confirmed; vaccine priorities for teachers; and Dr. Jill Biden, the teacher greeting parents, students and teachers at a school in Connecticut,” Emanuel said.

On Thursday, Psaki declined to offer a new schools goal for the fall. But when asked whether families should expect that their children will return to a more traditional classroom setting five days a week at the start of the new school year, she offered an optimistic note.

“That certainly is our hope and our objective,” Psaki said.

Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.