Joe Biden is tapping a federal agency to help vaccinate teachers and child care workers.
He is using his bully pulpit to push states to get shots into teachers’ arms by the end of the month.
The administration is even considering creating a “school reopening” czar.
And newly-minted Education secretary Miguel Cardona will launch his tenure on Wednesday with a visit to elementary schools that have successfully reopened, in a high-profile event with First Lady Jill Biden.
The blitz is part of an intensified administration-wide push to reopen schools, as the Biden White House hurtles toward a 100-day self-imposed deadline to return children to the classroom.
For weeks, the Biden administration has said two things needed to happen for school reopenings to ramp up: confirmation of its Education secretary and passage of a massive Covid-19 rescue package.
But with the White House on the cusp of clearing both those hurdles, it’s become clear they need to do more to return children to the classroom, en masse.
Instead, Cardona, whom Vice President Kamala Harris swore in as Biden’s Education secretary on Tuesday evening, inherits a boiling cauldron of political conflict. Before Tuesday’s announcements, some unions were demanding the vaccination of teachers. But even with Biden embracing it as a priority, it could take weeks for teachers’ to develop full immunity, depending on the type of vaccination used.
Beyond that, the administration is still trying to overcome muddled messaging regarding its reopening goals. And there are complicated, local disputes around reopenings that are out of the White House’s control.
It all amounts to a precarious position for the Biden administration as it sprints to meet the president’s 100 day goal — a signature promise that will be central to Biden’s political messaging and that of Democrats in 2022.
Cardona has no formal power to reopen the nation’s schools in his new role. But now that he’s installed, administration officials are planning to flex the federal government’s soft powers.
The Education Department is planning to convene a national summit this month on school reopenings with students, teachers, school leaders and other organizations, Cardona wrote in a USA Today op-ed on Tuesday. The event will be aimed at developing ways to make reopening “as seamless as possible,” he wrote.
In addition, the Biden administration is weighing the appointment of a school reopening czar to serve as a point person on the issue, according to an administration official. The role would be housed at the Education Department.
Biden said on Tuesday that he had provided schools with a “road map” to reopen. And he’s pressing Congress to kick in $130 billion to help schools pay for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s virus mitigation strategies as part of his Covid-19 relief package that’s cleared the House and will be on the Senate floor this week.
The new federal directive for states to vaccinate teachers, Biden said, was another tool to “help accelerate the safe reopening of schools.”
“Let’s treat in-person learning like the essential service that it is,” Biden said. “And that means getting essential workers to provide that service — educators, school staff, child care workers — get them vaccinated immediately.”
Biden said Tuesday that he was tapping a federal pharmacy program to help distribute vaccinations to educators through the month of March, a major step given that about 20 states have not yet prioritized teachers for vaccinations. The program, the president said, would prioritize pre-K-through-12 educators and staff and childcare workers, who could make appointments at local pharmacies.
At the same time, Cardona will oversee a massive data-gathering effort that began several weeks ago to track school closures and reopenings across the country, information the Trump administration declined to collect.
The department is also planning to release another round of federal guidance to schools on how they can remedy the social and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on children and make up for lost learning during the shutdown through strategies like summer school.
Beyond that, Biden administration officials are eyeing ways to use the bully pulpit of the White House to highlight examples of schools safely reopening.
Anne Hyslop, a former Education Department official during the Obama administration who is now the assistant director of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education, said that because school decisions are so localized across the country, Cardona can play an important role in influencing the national debate and making sure states and districts are armed with comprehensive data on closures.
“He’s a former state chief, and I think he’ll use that convening power in a way that the previous administration did not,” Hyslop said, referring to the Trump administration’s efforts to force schools into reopening by threatening federal funding. “There is a big role for the Education Department here in shining a light on states that are doing a good job.”
Cardona and Jill Biden plan to do just that Wednesday with their tour of public schools in Pennsylvania and his hometown of Meriden, Conn. It’s a move, White House officials say, meant to convey that the administration is sensitive to concerns of people on the ground. As the state’s education commissioner, Cardona pushed Connecticut schools to reopen during the pandemic without alienating the state’s teachers unions, who backed his confirmation.
He’ll now have to strike that same balance on the national stage, amid an increasingly acrimonious debate over how and when schools should be open for in-person instruction.
Even if the $1.9 trillion relief package passes, it could take state officials weeks to deploy the money they receive to schools, leaving little time left in their spring terms. And while districts welcomed federal guidelines for moving forward with in-person learning, it’s still up to states and individual school districts to make the final calls on how or whether to do so.
Already, Republicans are attempting to find ways to shift the blame for school closures onto Democrats. On Sunday, former President Donald Trump chastised Democrats specifically on schools, to loud applause from conservative conference-goers.
The delays, however, are not entirely in the Biden administration’s control. The Trump White House prevented a smooth transition. The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol caused further disruptions, leading to the early resignation of then-Education Secretary Betsy Devos.
That left Biden’s transition team to attempt to head off some of the biggest obstacles to school reopening on its own. Members of the transition team and later the Biden White House were in frequent talks with New York public schools as they sought to shape their reopening plan.
“They were very interested in what we did on ventilation and air flows,” said Michael Mulgrew, United Federation of Teachers president. Mulgrew said he conveyed that key components to reopening schools also included aggressive testing and contact tracing. “There was a lot of work on trying to put together a plan, a blueprint that they could recommend through the CDC that would work in terms of getting schools open safely.”
While those discussions helped shape national health guidelines, which stated that it wasn’t necessary for educators to receive vaccinations to return to school safely, it soon became clear those guidelines alone weren’t enough to prod schools to reopen. Infection rates, concerns from parents, and disputes with local unions were among the factors keeping doors closed.
“I’m glad that the White House is actually saying that schools should reopen within the first 100 days, which every state in the nation should have prioritized months and months ago,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “Many of them prioritized bars and restaurants and gyms over schools.”