The Biden administration, in its first full day, fleshed out details for how it plans to get the country’s public school system back up and running for in-person learning nearly 10 months after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered classrooms for 50 million children.
“The United States is committed to ensuring that students and educators are able to resume safe, in-person learning as quickly as possible, with the goal of getting a majority of K-8 schools safely open in 100 days,” the plan, released Thursday, states.
Through an executive order, Biden will direct the Education Department and Department of Health and Humans Services to provide guidance on how to reopen safely for in-person learning and operate in a way that allows schools to stay open.
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The executive order will task the departments with collaborating to produce a Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse to share lessons learned from across the country – something education leaders for months have been clamoring for but which the Trump administration, and specifically former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, said was not their responsibility.
The proposal underscores the need for a “major, unified federal investment” in rapid testing, as well as clear guidance.
Biden has called on Congress to provide at least $130 billion in dedicated funding to K-12 schools, as well as $350 billion in flexible state and local aid that would help districts avoid lay-offs and close budget gaps. The latter pot of funding wouldn’t be entirely dedicated to schools, but given that an estimated 1 million educators and school staff have already been laid off, it’s widely anticipated that governors would direct a significant portion of those funds to the K-12 setting.
In addition, Biden proposed fully reimbursing states for eligible costs necessary to reopening schools through the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund, like personal protective equipment for staff – the Trump administration made schools ineligible for reimbursement through the fund last October – and proposed additional resources to help schools to establish screening, testing and tracing programs.
The plan, which is part of a sprawling proposal to curb COVID-19 in the U.S. and get the country’s economy and school systems back up and running, would also provide a handbook to school leaders outlining the precautions and strategies the Biden administration deems necessary for safe reopening.
The plan was greeted warmly by educators and school leaders across the country, all of whom have been begging for additional federal support and guidance since last summer – calls that largely fell on deaf ears. As it stands, more than half of the country’s children are learning entirely remotely or through a hybrid model that has them in classrooms just two or three days a week.
Low-income students, Black and Latino students and students living in big city schools districts – the very students whose communities have been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic – are more likely to be learning virtually and without sufficient internet connection to access their lessons.
“Finally, we have a president who is committed to doing what educators, parents and students have yearned for since the first weeks of the pandemic – a real national plan to crush COVID that follows the science and secures the resources to make in-school learning safe,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Teachers unions have been criticized as one of the biggest barriers to reopening schools by some who argue that they’ve demanded impossible standards for reopening.
In recent months, as more and more studies show that in-person learning doesn’t drive community spread as long as the infection rate in the community is relatively low, union leaders, including Weingarten, have been more resolute in trying to find a safe path to reopen schools for in-person learning, arguing that if the resources for testing, tracing, PPE, social distancing and sanitization are available, then schools should reopen. But those calls come at a time when the virus is surging, making it nearly impossible to reopen even if the infrastructure is in place.
“All too often in this crisis, educators’ concerns were dismissed or derided to downplay or minimize the virus,” Weingarten says, adding that she’s pleased to see the Biden administration attempting a course correction. “They recognize that safety is paramount, and we are working with them to relay the direct experience of teachers who’ve tried valiantly to educate their kids absent any federal leadership or support.”
Biden’s plan also proposes $35 billion in emergency stabilization funds for colleges and universities, where enrollment is down 20% in 2020 compared to 2019, especially among community colleges, which serve the largest number of low-income students.
“Reopening and keeping colleges open is critical to ensuring that all Americans have a shot at a college credential – but it must be done safely, to protect the health of students, faculty, staff, and the broader community,” the plan states.
While pieces of the proposal are sure to have bipartisan backing, as both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged the pandemic’s crushing blow to K-12 and higher education. But as part of a much larger $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, it remains to be seen whether the proposal will muster enough support to pass with the Democrats’ narrow margin of control in both chambers.