Reopening schools in US: Time & Date, CDC & Biden actions
Reopening schools in US. Photo: Time

President Joe Biden launched a new, more centralized strategy to combat COVID-19 and reopen schools Thursday, formalizing pledges he made during the campaign and the transition.

Time & Date

President Joe Biden is pledging to reopen most K-12 schools within 100 days -- an ambitious goal as Covid cases surge and teachers across the country fight some plans to reopen.

Teachers' union leaders say they are pleased with Biden's sense of urgency and focus, but they warn that the 100-day pledge may need to be a goal rather than a fixed target, according to CNN.

Union leaders question the 100-day time frame

While many districts across the country are open, about half of K-12 students are currently attending virtual-only schools. Teachers have resisted reopening plans in major cities like Washington and Chicago.

Union heads describe having a close working relationship with the Biden team but argue that the 100-day goal is a big challenge.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says the goal may need to be reassessed depending on how the coronavirus is spreading over the next few months. Experts have warned that more transmissible variants, including the one first seen in the UK, could send cases surging again.

"I'm on board with the goal, but I'm very concerned about this new variant. None of this is done in isolation," Weingarten said.

National Education Association President Becky Pringle said the 100-day pledge sends a strong message that reopening schools is a top priority for Biden but that it's "not about the days, it's about the urgency he's putting on the issue."

"It's an aggressive plan, no question," Pringle added, noting there's "nothing educators want to do more than be back in person safely with their kids."

Biden Actions

Reopening schools in US: Time & Date, CDC & Biden actions
Photo: usnews

More personal protective equipment: Schools will be eligible for full reimbursement for supplies such as masks, gowns, and gloves through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund.

More testing: A Pandemic Testing Board will use the Defense Production Act and other means to produce and distribute more tests, including for schools. Workplaces with the resources, such as movie sets, have relied on frequent and rapid testing to operate safely during the pandemic, but access to tests for teachers and students has been limited by budgets.

Vaccines for teachers: The actions expand vaccine capacity in several ways; equitable distribution to teachers, in particular, is mentioned.

Better data: Up until now, there has been no centralized, national data collection of coronavirus cases or outbreaks in schools. "I'm not sure there's a role at the department to collect and compile that research," former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in October. This makes it difficult to appropriately trace, isolate, or even to understand the impact of school openings on the course of the pandemic, or the efficacy of various safety protocols. Many states and districts have their own reporting and dashboards, and there are some decentralized volunteer efforts. Among Thursday's actions is a call for the Education and Health and Human Services departments to take a more aggressive role in collecting, aggregating, analyzing, and reporting data and best practices to help schools and businesses reopen safely. That includes collecting data on the equity impacts of prolonged school closures.

These moves come as the organization Burbio reports more than half of the country's students are learning from home. Large districts, including in Chicago and Fairfax County, Va., are struggling to bring large numbers of students back for the first time this school year, while others are closing because of staffing shortages brought on by waves of quarantines. And there are worries over whether new variants of the coronavirus might spread even more quickly, overwhelming the safety precautions currently in place in schools, KQED reported.

Congress provides resources to reopen

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, Usnews wrote.

The new funding would be part of a broad $1.9 trillion relief package that would also include expanding unemployment benefits and direct stimulus checks. Congress, where Democrats now control both the House and the Senate, could take up the bill as early as next week. But it will take time for that money to make its way to school districts even if it's approved.

The American Federation of Teachers is calling for five specific things schools will need to reopen: tools like masks and cleaning supplies to mitigate the spread of the virus in buildings, testing and contract tracing, accommodations for at-risk teachers, quick vaccinations for teachers, and honesty and transparency about the guidance.

Previous CDC advice to schools

After Covid-19 began to take hold throughout the US, the CDC offered some considerations for closing schools in March last year, noting that suspending in-person learning for eight weeks or more would likely have more of an impact on mitigating community spread than shorter closures in response to positive cases. Some schools switched to virtual learning for the remainder of the academic year.

Ahead of the new school year in August, the CDC advised communities to weigh the benefits of in-person learning against the risks of reopening schools in the midst of a pandemic. The agency advised jurisdictions to make decisions about in-person learning based on their level of community spread.

For schools allowing in-person learning, the CDC emphasized the importance of maintaining a clean environment, wearing masks and social distancing. Schools were told they should try to keep students and teachers in distinct groups throughout the day and have lunchtime outside, when possible.

Experts have warned that learning during a pandemic can be hard on students. The agency advised schools to maintain mental health services and offer remote counseling.

In the months since, schools have adopted varying approaches that include in-person learning, online learning and a hybrid of the two.

CDC New Guidelines

Reopening schools in US: Time & Date, CDC & Biden actions
Photo: nprillinois

As communities in the United States consider how to safely re-open K-12 school buildings for in-person learning and activities and keep them open, CDC offers updated considerations for mitigation strategies that school administrators can use to help protect students, teachers, and staff and slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. These updated Considerations for Schools are intended to aid school administrators as they consider how to protect the health, safety, and wellbeing of students, teachers, staff, their families, and communities:

Promoting behaviors that reduce COVID-19’s spread

Maintaining healthy environments

Maintaining healthy operations

Preparing for when someone gets sick

Schools should determine, in collaboration with state and local health officials to the extent possible, whether and how to implement each of these considerations while adjusting to meet the unique needs and circumstances of the local community. Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of each community. It is also critically important to develop strategies that can be revised and adapted depending on the level of viral transmission in the school and throughout the community, as this may change rapidly. Strategies should be implemented in close coordination with state, local, or tribal public health authorities, recognizing the differences between school districts, including urban, suburban, and rural districts. These considerations are meant to supplement—not replace—any Federal, state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which schools must comply, CBS Miami cited.

What does Science say?

Experts say that with the right precautions, a return to in-person learning can be safe -- even before all teachers and staff are vaccinated.

"School should be the last places closed and the first places open," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing last week. "Our goal is to make sure in getting children back to school that we do so both with the safety of the children and the safety of the teachers."

Walensky previously said that vaccinating teachers "is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools."

Some schools have managed to implement full or part-time in-person learning, without the kind of Covid-19 spread seen in crowded offices or long-term care facilities. The transmission has occurred, but CDC researchers say there is little evidence that it has contributed meaningfully to increased community spread.

In one CDC study, mitigation measures, including social distancing, contact tracing and wearing masks -- provided to students through a grant from a private foundation -- helped 17 rural schools in Wisconsin achieve transmission rates that were 37% lower than those of the community at large. Of 191 Covid-19 cases, just 3.7% were contracted in school.

Those mitigation measures can make a big difference. Another CDC study detailed how two Florida high school wrestling matches -- a high-contact sport that does not allow for masking or social distancing -- became superspreader events that led to the loss of an estimated 1,700 in-person school days, according to CNN Health.

Biden actions relating to education in COVID-19

College access: Biden issued a proclamation ending the so-called Muslim travel ban, which barred entry to the U.S. of citizens from some majority-Muslim countries. The president also ordered the State Department to begin processing visas. Both moves should help colleges attract more international students after a massive decline in enrollment during the Trump administration.

A new action strengthening the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, gives legal protections to people who came to the U.S. as children. Colleges have long supported the program, which has helped many DREAMers enroll in college.

Student loans: Following an executive action signed Wednesday, the Education Department extended pandemic relief from payments for about 41 million federal student loan borrowers through Sept. 30. "Too many Americans are struggling to pay for basic necessities and to provide for their families," the Education Department said in a statement. "They should not be forced to choose between paying their student loans and putting food on the table."

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