Analysis: Reopening of schools emerges as complex flashpoint for Biden administration

The issue of school reopenings emerged as a central flashpoint this week as the anger that many parents and teachers are feeling is spilling into courtroom battles and potentially headed toward the picket line in Chicago, home to the third-largest school district in the country. Biden has said he wants to open the majority of K-8 schools within his first 100 days, and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC will provide more advice on how they can safely do so next week.
But reopening policies and the readiness of campuses to usher children back through their doors currently vary wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — a legacy of the Trump administration’s decentralized approach to managing Covid-19. And the ability of schools to reopen hinges on the coronavirus transmission rate in each locality — meaning that the CDC’s advice next week is unlikely to offer anxious parents any immediate, one-size-fits-all answers that bring clarity to when their lives will get back to normal.
Even after Biden set his 100-day goal for reopening, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said achieving that goal “may not happen because there may be mitigating circumstances.”
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Meanwhile, governors and county health officials are struggling with agonizing ethical decisions about whether to use the scarce doses of vaccine they have to vaccinate teachers while simultaneously rushing to vaccinate adults 65 and over, the group that is most at risk of severe illness and death.
And the administration created fresh confusion this week over the direction its school guidance is headed when Walensky said during a briefing Wednesday that “safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely” — only to have White House press secretary Jen Psaki walk that back Thursday by stating that Walensky was speaking “in her personal capacity.”
Currently, 24 states and Washington, DC, are permitting some teachers and school staff members to get the vaccine.
Taking a cautious line on Friday, Psaki underscored that vaccination programs for teachers will be important but sought to highlight the funding for other school resources that is part of Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief proposal, known as the American Rescue Plan. In addition to scaling up testing and contact tracing — a key element for reassuring teachers that they will be safe as they return to the classroom — the President’s plan would provide $170 billion for K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities. That money could be directed toward a wide array of mitigation measures including reducing class sizes, modifying crowded spaces to allow greater social distancing for students and teachers, improving ventilation, hiring janitors and even ensuring that each school has immediate access to a nurse.
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“We’re looking at vaccines; that’s an important part of keeping teachers and the American public safe. But we also need to look at other mitigation steps… including masking, social distancing, proper ventilation in schools,” Psaki said Friday. “The urgency should prompt Democrats and Republicans … to come together to support the American Rescue Plan so we can get schools the funding they need. Schools are planning, but many of them don’t have the funding they need to take the steps necessary to reopen.”

Tensions rising among parents, educators and local officials

But many parents are not going to be satisfied waiting to see how Biden’s funding proposals shake out during marathon negotiations in Congress. And as federal officials sort out their guidance, smaller battles are erupting in cities and school districts all over the country.
Republicans have already signaled they hope to use school reopenings as a wedge issue, blaming Democrats and teachers unions for closures, in their quest to win back suburban voters in next year’s elections. But the disagreements are creating unusual political crosscurrents even in the most liberal cities in the country — sometimes pitting traditional allies against each another.
On Friday night, Chicago was bracing for a potential teachers strike after what Mayor Lori Lightfoot described as 80 sessions with the Chicago Teachers Union to try to reach agreement over safety protocols, personal protective equipment, testing and vaccination plans.
Lightfoot and the school district’s chief executive officer, Janice K. Jackson, sent a letter to teachers Friday evening stating that employees required to report to work Monday who fail to do so will be locked out of the school’s online systems — a move that was viewed as likely to provoke a strike.
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Pressing her case during a news conference this week, Lightfoot made a personal plea by noting that all children are not benefiting from remote learning, particularly “Black and brown kids who look like me, coming from circumstances like the one that I grew up in.”
“We are failing those children by not giving them the option to return to school. Failing grades, depression, isolation and so much more,” Lightfoot said. But the teachers’ union has maintained that the schools are not yet safe enough for staff to return and previously told its members to be prepared to strike if the district retaliated against them.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Mayor London Breed announced this week that they were suing the San Francisco Unified School District for “failing to come up with a reopening plan that meets state requirements” — calling the plans “woefully inadequate” and noting that the city has offered resources, logistical help and public health expertise.
“Unfortunately, the leadership of the school district and the educators’ union can’t seem to get their act together. The Board of Education and the school district have had more than 10 months to roll out a concrete plan to get these kids back in school. So far they have earned an F,” Herrera said in a statement.

Searching for clarity amid a maze of authorities

Los Angeles City Council member Joe Buscaino, whose wife is a teacher, said this week that Los Angeles should follow San Francisco’s lead, announcing that he would introduce a resolution next week asking the city council to order the city attorney to file a lawsuit modeled on the one in San Francisco to force the Los Angeles Unified School District to reopen its campuses.
“I stand with the 1,500 pediatricians in Southern California as well as the Director of the CDC who are calling for the safe reopening of our schools,” Buscaino said in a statement. “It has been nearly a year since our students have attended classes in person, giving the district ample time to prepare.”
But LA Schools Superintendent Austin Beutner responded that it would be unlawful for LA schools to reopen because the level of community spread in Los Angeles is still far above the state standard that allows schools to reopen.
“Not even for one day since March has the community of Los Angeles met the thresholds set by the governor of California for schools to reopen,” Beutner said in an interview Friday.
He noted that the LA school district has done everything recommended on the CDC’s list for reopening schools — from upgrading air filters to obtaining the necessary personal protective equipment to constantly deep cleaning and sanitizing schools and setting up what he calls a “nation-leading, school-based Covid testing and tracing system” that has now administered nearly a half-million tests to children, staff, their families and any other household members across the district since early fall.
But even with all of those pieces in place, there is no way to predict when transmission rates will reach a threshold that allows schools to reopen. Beutner said he and fellow school leaders across the country are feeling the same frustration as parents as they search for some sense of certainty or clarity — particularly as the entire country struggles with the question of how to get teachers and school staff vaccinated as quickly as possible.
School officials are still facing a maze of different decision-making authorities at the federal, state and county level. Teachers are being vaccinated in Long Beach, for example, but are not yet eligible to make appointments in Los Angeles County, which is right next door — and that lack of a coordinated strategy is being replicated all over the country.
“I wish this emerging consensus around the need for schools to be open was made coherent in everything that government is doing,” Beutner said, noting that clear and consistent guidance needs to come from the top, but then be translated clearly through the state and local levels. “If there’s not a whole-of-government response supporting the goal of reopening schools, then you get these conflicting tides and currents and statements and admonitions.”
“Let’s not make the next 10 months look like the last 10 months,” he added.