September 27, 2021

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travel, Always a step ahead

Biden’s goal to reopen schools meets high-stakes political test

Many parents, including those in politically crucial suburbs, crave the normalcy that will come with the reopening of classrooms, which have been closed for nearly a year in much of the country. But few groups did more to push Biden’s candidacy than teachers unions, which have resisted returning to school buildings in communities across the country.

“I think it’s time for schools to reopen safely — safely,” he said in an interview with CBS News, repeating the word “safely” for emphasis. In case his loyalties are not clear, he often mentions that first lady Jill Biden is a teacher.

Biden has repeatedly said he won’t push schools to open until his administration produces new safety guidelines and until Congress provides billions of dollars to implement the recommendations. Now, he is on the verge of getting both the guidelines, expected as soon as Friday, and the funding. But it is unclear whether that will be enough to bring recalcitrant teachers and their unions along or how hard the president will push them.

President-elect Joe Biden on Dec. 8 said his administration’s goal is to open a “majority” of schools by the end of his first 100 days. (The Washington Post)

Some following the debate closely say that in recent weeks, Biden and his aides have appeared careful not to upset the unions.

“I think unions are a very powerful constituency for Biden, and I think that there’s a desire to listen to and coordinate on messaging on reopening schools,” said Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director for AASA, the School Superintendents Association. As for Biden’s 100-day pledge, she said: “He’s definitely had to walk it back a little bit.”

Since making his 100-day goal, Biden and his aides have repeatedly loosened their definition of an open school, making it easier to meet his target.

Schools where children are in buildings even one day a week will count as “open.” Opening “most” schools means 51 percent, a metric the nation has probably already reached. And high schools, which are the most likely to be online only, aren’t counted in the measurement at all.

Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who is close to the president, said he believes the Biden team is feeling discomfort over pushing teachers to go back to work. Challenging an ally, he said, is always difficult.

“I think there’s always angst when you do it the first time,” Rendell said. “But it gets easier.”

He added that it’s important for Biden to show some independence from even key constituencies. “Tell your friends: ‘Look, I’ll listen to you. I’ll try to abate your concerns. But once I’ve done all that, I’m going to go forward,’ ” Rendell said. “You’ve got to tell your friends that — or else you shouldn’t run for office in the first place.”

Not all parents want their children back in school. Parents of color, in particular, whose communities have been hit hard by the pandemic, have been hesitant.

As early as Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to issue much-anticipated guidelines for schools to safely operate in person. In a sign of how carefully the administration is tending to the many stakeholders, the CDC met with more than 70 organizations as they crafted the upcoming guidelines, according to a person familiar with the outreach who was not authorized to discuss it. Groups ranged from the country’s two major teachers unions — whose presidents met directly with Biden’s CDC head — to organizations focused on children with disabilities, parents groups and even a group focused on charter schools.

But the CDC guidelines will not be significantly different from the bottom-line message delivered by the agency under the Trump administration, a person familiar with the planning said. The agency is set to again advise that schools can reopen safely, notwithstanding infection rates in the surrounding community, as long as steps are taken to mitigate transmission.

Those steps include mandating masks, keeping distance between students and staff, adopting protocols for hand-washing, cleaning facilities, ventilation in classrooms and contact tracing when exposures occur.

The CDC will also encourage states to prioritize teachers for vaccination, something the agency has already recommended, but will not set it as a prerequisite for opening.

Surprises are unlikely in the substance of the recommendations, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). She has advocated for reopening schools but has had to navigate opposition among her members, particularly in big cities, where facilities were often substandard and mistrust with the administrations was high even before the pandemic. She predicted the new guidelines will be helpful.

“I would expect that the new CDC guidance is going to look a lot like the old guidance, but it’s going to be clear, less equivocal and written in better English so people can understand it and adopt it,” she said. “Guidance can make a bigger difference (based on) who issues it, even if it’s largely the same. In a public health emergency, transparency, consistency and honesty can help create the trust.”

Yet teachers might remain skeptical about whether districts properly implement the recommendations, she said, especially in school districts with a history of mistrust.

“What’s important is the implementation,” she said. “Building of trust and confidence are as important as the rhetoric. Districts have an awful track record of doing what they say they will do.”

New federal funding is also on the way. Biden has asked for $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen their doors — more than double the dollars provided over two previous packages. It’s part of a larger pandemic relief package that congressional Democrats have fast-tracked. Approval could come as soon as early March.

The funding is aimed at a range of expenses associated with mitigating virus spread inside buildings, with some of the money set aside to address lost learning because of remote instruction.

In the meantime, the White House has appeared tied in knots as it attempts to navigate the politics of reopening, with Biden aides trying to minimize any potential conflicts between the administration and the unions.

Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about a standoff in Chicago between Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), who was pushing to open school buildings, and the Chicago Teachers Union, which threatened a strike and was refusing to return. She ducked.

“We are hopeful they can reach common ground as soon as possible,” she said.

The White House attempted to retreat from comments by Biden’s own CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, who told reporters that vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening schools.

“There is increasing data to suggest schools can safely reopen, and safe reopening does not suggest teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” Walensky said.

Asked about those comments, Psaki said, “Dr. Walensky spoke to this in her personal capacity.” She added, “Obviously, she’s the head of the CDC, but we’re going to wait for the final guidance to come out so we can use that as a guide for schools around the country.”

In late January, the CDC published a study saying it was safe to reopen schools if measures were in place to mitigate transmission of the virus. It cited research in several districts. Asked about this on CNN, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain appeared to dismiss the findings, saying one of the districts was in rural Wisconsin, where class sizes were small, and saying the district received a grant to help with expenses.

“In other states, we haven’t seen those kinds of investments,” he said. Asked why unions were overruling studies, he replied, “I don’t think unions are overruling studies.”

Some close to Biden believe that his priority is getting the classrooms open again and that he understands the cost to children of failing to do so.

“President Biden know in his bones that children start dropping out of college in third grade,” said Rahm Emanuel, who clashed with the Chicago Teachers Union when he was mayor. “If they are not in school, the rest of their lives are fundamentally altered.”

Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, said the coming CDC guidance should help Biden politically, and recommended the president make sure a copy goes to every school district in the country. “He should tell the teachers unions and the teachers, ‘I wouldn’t have done it if the CDC didn’t say it was basically a safe process.’ ”

Biden’s ties to teachers are long-standing and strong. They were on display in early July, when he joined an event for the NEA, the country’s largest union, via video from his vacation home in Rehoboth, Del.

“I happened to be married to an NEA member,” said Biden, a reference to his wife’s former membership, when she was a teacher in Delaware.

During the Democratic primaries, Biden skipped most union-sponsored forums, but he took time for teachers unions. Early last year, both Bidens appeared in person at an AFT forum in Houston. Biden told anecdotes about how his wife was at times recognized more than he was at Delaware events because they ran into so many former students that she had taught. “I am a union guy, beginning, middle and end,” Biden told them.

And the love goes both ways. Introducing Biden at a virtual NEA event over the summer, then-NEA President Lily García said: “I trust Joe Biden. And not just because he’s married to an NEA member — but I will tell you that doesn’t hurt. He knows us.”

Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

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