Biden Administration’s Changing Message On Reopening Schools

The Biden Administration Pledge To Follow The Science To Reopen Schools Is Already Being Watered Down, As They Promote Their Teachers’ Union-Backed Spending Plan That Would Keep Many Schools Closed


Previously, Medical Experts In The Federal Government Were Saying, ‘There Is Increasing Data To Suggest That Schools Can Safely Reopen’ And ‘It’s Less Likely For A Child To Get Infected In The School Setting’

CDC DIRECTOR DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: “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…. I would also say … that vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.” (White House Press Briefing, 2/03/2021)

MSNBC’s WILLIE GEIST: “I want to ask you about schools. There’s a growing frustration, as you know, in this country, among parents, among educators, that it’s been almost a year and some children have not been yet back to school, in that entire time. The CDC researchers put out some research this week that suggests that it is safe to have schools open, as long as we continue masking and social distancing … broadly speaking, should schools be open?”
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health: “You know, I would back the CDC recommendations, because that is really based on data. We didn’t really appreciate that early on, but the fact is that when you look at a community and look at the penetrance of the virus in the community and its spread at the community level compared to the school in that community, it’s less likely for a child to get infected in the school setting than if they were just in the community. So for that reason … we need to try and get the children back to school …” (MSNBC’s “Morning Joe, 1/28/2021)

DR. FAUCI: “… our default position should be to try to keep the schools open and get children who are not in school back in school as best as we possibly can.” (“As Coronavirus Numbers Spike, US Should ‘Try To Keep Schools Open,’ Fauci Says,” Fox News, 12/09/2020)


Less Than A Month Ago, The CDC Released A Study Saying With Care And Proper Precautions Schools Can Reopen Safely

Schools operating in person have seen scant transmission of the coronavirus, particularly when masks and distancing are employed … researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in papers published Tuesday. The CDC team reviewed data from studies in the United States and abroad and found the experience in schools differed from nursing homes and high-density work sites where rapid spread has occurred. ‘The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring,’ wrote three CDC researchers in a viewpoint piece published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. ‘There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.’ (“CDC Finds Scant Spread Of Coronavirus In Schools With Precautions In Place,” The Washington Post, 1/26/2021)

  • “‘The conclusion here is with proper prevention efforts ... we can keep transmission in schools and educational settings quite low,’ said Margaret A. Honein, the lead author of the JAMA report. ‘We didn’t know that at the beginning of the year but the data has really accumulated.’ … Still, Honein said, even in places with high infection rates, there is no evidence that schools will transmit the virus at rates that are any higher than those seen in the general community. She said they can operate safely as long as precautions are employed…. ‘With good prevention, we can safely reopen and keep open more schools,’ said Honein, lead for the CDC State and Local Health Department Covid Task Force.” (“CDC Finds Scant Spread Of Coronavirus In Schools With Precautions In Place,” The Washington Post, 1/26/2021)


But Now Those Same Officials Are Parroting The Biden Administration’s Position That Reopening Schools ‘Can Only Be Achieved If Congress’ Sends Even More Money To Schools Via The White House’s Stimulus Spending Bill

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: “Shortly before taking office, I set an ambitious but achievable goal of opening most K-8 schools by the end of my first 100 days. I’ve said all along that this is a national imperative — one that can only be achieved if Congress provides states and communities with the resources they need to get it done safely through the American Rescue Plan.” (President Biden, Statement, 2/12/2021)

QUESTION: “Are the goals as they are laid out right now for reopening entirely contingent on having the $130 billion, or are those goals to reopen a majority of schools by the end of 100 days based on not having that money and that money will only serve to turbocharge things?”
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: “Well, when the president announced his goal of reopening the majority of schools in 100 days, he conveyed that money was a pivotal part of that, and it is. And it is not--it is up to, of course, local school districts to determine which mitigation steps they will take. It is up to them to determine how they will use accessible funds. But that funding is needed by school districts across the country, and I think will be, you know, essential to our success.” (White House Press Briefing, 2/17/2021)

CNN’s JAKE TAPPER: “[B]ut what’s the science? Because you have said there’s -- I mean, not just you, but Dr. Fauci, others have been saying for months that the schools should be opened as long as there’s masking and cleansing and social distancing, everything that we talked about. If a school is doing that -- I understand if there’s a mask violation, that’s a problem. But if a school is doing that, I mean, the damage, as I don’t need to tell you, on kids, the isolation, the psychological damage, the educational loss of a year for many kids, not to mention the thousands of kids who are just slipping through the cracks, I mean, it’s hard to even calculate. And there are a lot of people out there watching who think, like, I thought the science said we should open the schools, as long as we take those safety steps. We’re taking the safety steps, and we’re not opening the schools.”
DR. WALENSKY: “Yes, it’s -- so there are numerous research studies that have demonstrated that if -- with universal masking and six feet of distancing and de-densification of the classrooms, that it’s possible to get schools back safely, with all that happening. Ninety-two percent of people on those studies wore mask. We have other data that was just published in CDC’s MMWR that demonstrate that somewhere around 60 percent of students are reliably masking. That has to be universal. So, we have work to do, especially when the country remains in the red zone of high community transmission. As the transmission comes down, we’ll be able to relax some of these measures. But the real point is to make sure that the science is consistent with our guidance, which is consistent to say, until we can ensure that we have all those measures happening, that there was -- schools wouldn’t be safe.”
TAPPER: “So, schools should not be -- schools are not going to be safe unless everybody is masking. I mean, I certainly hear that and understand that, but how do you open the school? I mean, I don’t even -- I’m just really confused. It seems to me like you’re saying, the schools are safe to open as long as everybody takes these steps, but not everybody is taking these steps; therefore, we’re not going to open the schools? Do I have that right?”
DR. WALENSKY: “Well, there -- we need to make sure that all of those steps are happening. And it’s masking, it’s distancing, it’s podding and cohorting of the younger children. It is cleaning of surfaces. It’s handwashing. And it’s contact tracing and diagnostic testing in an efficient manner, in collaboration with the departments of public health. Not all schools are able to do all of those things right now, and many of those schools are in red zones. So, we need to make sure that, as we come out of the red zones and do our part as a society to get down from red to lower area -- rates of transmission, and we need to do the works to get all of those mitigation strategies up and running in all of these schools. The American Rescue Plan has resources, $130 billion of resources, to facilitate and help schools get there. And that’s really why we wanted -- we’re pushing from the Rescue Plan, so that we can facilitate getting our schools, all of those mitigation measures, so that they can open safely.” (CNN’s “State of the Union,” 2/14/2021)

ABC’s GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: “How confident are you that the guidelines will be followed? And do school districts have the resources they need to reopen safely?”
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: “Well, George, the second part of your question is really a good one. I think that the schools really do need more resources. And that’s the reason why the national relief act that we’re talking about getting passed, we need that. The schools need more resources. The things we didn’t have before, there wasn’t that was -- there wasn’t anything that was put down solidly on paper on saying, these are the kinds of things that you should consider, these are the kind of things that you should follow. I mean, there was talk about it, but it wasn’t actually put down in a single document that you could access. The teachers, the educators, and everyone else can. I think it can be done. I mean, obviously, it’s not a perfect situation. But it’s really important to get the children back to school in as safe a way as possible, safe for the children, but also safe for the teachers and the other educators.” (ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” 2/14/2021)


Reminder: Of $68 Billion Congress Appropriated For K-12 Schools In 2020, Just $4 Billion Has Been Spent So Far

“Of the $68 billion Congress has provided for K-12 schools, states have spent just over $4 billion.” (“COVID-19 Relief Funding,” Senate Republican Policy Committee, 2/03/2021)

“Of the $37 billion Congress has provided for higher education, states have spent just over $11 billion.” (“COVID-19 Relief Funding,” Senate Republican Policy Committee, 2/03/2021)


Meanwhile, According To CBO, The New Biden Spending Plan Would Distribute Only $6.4 Billion More To K-12 Schools This Fiscal Year, With $122 Billion Left To Spend From 2022-2028

CBO: “The legislation would appropriate $170.1 billion for the Department of Education mostly to make grants to states, local education agencies, and postsecondary education institutions, which would result in outlays totaling $170.1 billion over the 2021-2030 period, CBO estimates. The Congress previously provided nearly $31 billion for education stabilization in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, enacted on March 27, 2020, and another $82 billion for this purpose in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, enacted on December 27, 2020. Because most of those funds remain to be spent, CBO anticipates that the bulk of spending of funds provided in the reconciliation recommendations would occur after 2021.” (“Reconciliation Recommendations of the House Committee on Education and Labor,” Congressional Budget Office Cost Estimate, 2/15/2021, p. 3)


 CBO Chart Of Dem Education Spending

(“Reconciliation Recommendations of the House Committee on Education and Labor,” Congressional Budget Office Cost Estimate, 2/15/2021, p. 12)

The White House Even Admits States Already Have Unspent Money For Schools But The Administration Wants Even More Money To Spend Later

QUESTION: “I guess what I’m asking is the scale of what the CDC is recommending in terms of the changes some schools would have to make, whether it’s through their HVAC systems, or their spacing, or as you noted, hiring bus drivers, teachers, that will take time. It takes time to get money out the door. How does that impact the first hundred days?”
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: “It impacts it because it means there is an urgency to getting this money through and to ensuring that schools have the ability to plan ahead. Some of these schools--and obviously I’m not speaking to any particular district, but broadly speaking, you know, they have funding that they can frontload, right, but they need to know there’s security of funding that is ahead. And so this funding is essential…” (White House Press Briefing, 2/17/2021)


So What Changed? Did Discussions With Politically Influential Teachers’ Unions Result In ‘Direct Changes To The Guidance’?

DR. WALENSKY: “I recognize that the decision on when and how to begin in-person learning is one that must be based on a thorough review of what the science tells us works and an understanding of the lived experiences, challenges, and perspectives, of teachers and school staff, parents, and students. We have conducted an in-depth review of the available science and evidence base to guide our recommendations, and we have also engaged with many education and public-health partners, to hear firsthand from parents and teachers, directly, about their experiences and concerns. These sessions were so informative, and direct changes to the guidance were made as a result of them.” (CDC Telephone Press Briefing, 2/12/2021)

YAHOO NEWS’ ALEXANDER NAZARYAN: “My second question is for Ms. Harris-Aikens. I don’t have to tell you you have a long relationship with the NEA. Is your presence here, sort of, a sign to the unions, the NEA, the [AFT], that they should be less reluctant to reopen schools?”

DONNA HARRIS-AIKENS: “And on your second question, or what I perceive to be your second question, no, my presence here is not a message to anyone. My employer is the U.S. Department of Education, and I represent their views. We have talked to a variety of stakeholders. And look forward to continuing our robust engagement with all sorts of stakeholders, not only in the school community but in the community at large. That includes superintendents, principals, civil-rights groups, and all sorts of other folks.” (CDC Telephone Press Briefing, 2/12/2021)

  • HARRIS-AIKENS:[W]e look forward to the American Rescue Plan being passed so that schools, states, and local districts, have the resources they need to make their schools safer so we can actually get all students back to school safely, and as soon as possible.” (CDC Telephone Press Briefing, 2/12/2021)

When Asked If The White House Reviewed The Guidance Or Her Remarks, Dr. Walensky Confirmed Only That The White House Had Not Reviewed Her Remarks

YAHOO NEWS’ ALEXANDER NAZARYAN: “Two questions. First, Dr. Walensky, you said that the new guidance was free of political meddling. Did the White House review what — your remarks or the guidance, itself?”
DR. WALENSKY: “We have presented pieces of this guidance to the White House, so that they knew what we were planning. But they have not reviewed my remarks.” (CDC Telephone Press Briefing, 2/12/2021)

‘Biden And The Nation’s Teachers’ Unions Are Close Political Allies’ And The Department Of Education Now Includes Staffers Who Were ‘Prominent Teachers’ Union Officials,’ Including The Advisor Who Announced The New School Guidance With Dr. Walensky

“Biden and the nation’s teachers’ unions are close political allies. During his presidential campaign and transition, the president has matched their calls for more funding and additional federal support, particularly in the context of the pandemic…. Biden’s COVID aid package includes $130 billion in direct aid for K-12 schools and other pieces directed to education, and the unions have applauded his plan.” (“Early Education Department Appointees Have Links to Jill Biden, Teachers’ Unions,” EducationWeek, 1/22/2021)

“Walensky and Donna Harris-Aikens, senior advisor for policy and planning at the Department of Education, announced the new guidance on a conference call with reporters.” (“CDC Revises School Reopening Guidance, Warns That Covid Variants Could Cause Issues,” CNBC, 2/12/2021)


Epidemiology Professor: Teachers’ Unions ‘Have Misinterpreted Scientific Guidance And Transformed It Into A Series Of Litmus Tests … Not Based On Science’

BENJAMIN P. LINAS, Boston University School of Medicine associate professor of epidemiology & infectious disease physician: “Since March 2020, I have been a frontline pandemic health care provider, adviser to my hospital, and consultant to my religious congregation and a local community college — all with the aim of preventing the spread of Covid-19. Toward that goal, I have also been a volunteer member of the public health and safety advisory panel to the Public Schools of Brookline, Massachusetts, where my family lives. Unfortunately, our panel’s expertise — and that of national and international health groups — have been frequently dismissed by the local educators’ union in favor of their own judgments about best health practices and the safety of in-person learning. In the process, they have misinterpreted scientific guidance and transformed it into a series of litmus tests that keep our district in hybrid learning. These litmus tests are not based on science, they are grounded in anxiety, and they are a major component of the return-to-school quagmire in which we are stuck.” (Benjamin P. Linas, Op-Ed, “I’m an epidemiologist and a father. Here’s why I’m losing patience with our teachers’ unions.,” Vox.com, 2/15/2021)



Related Issues: Education, COVID-19