It’s an old political trick to make an easily achievable goal sound vauntingly ambitious in order to brag about it when it’s inevitably met.
It takes another level of chutzpah, though, to set out as a target something that has already happened.
President Joe Biden sounded pretty resolute about the need to reopen schools on the campaign trail, and the press has portrayed his goal of reopening the majority of K-12 schools in his first 100 days as so far-reaching that the timeline might have to be extended.
Enter White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who explained on Tuesday that the administration defines a school as open if it holds in-classroom instruction at least once a week.
By this metric, the goal isn’t really having more than half of schools open — it’s having more than half of schools still 80 percent closed.
Not only is this a ridiculous standard — four days instead of five of remote instruction wouldn’t be a difference-maker for kids or parents — the country’s schools have already cleared the bar.
According to Burbio, which aggregates event data and runs a school opening tracker, nearly 40 percent of K-12 students are attending in-person schools, and 25 percent are attending hybrid schools. Only about 35 percent are virtual only.
This goal post moving, from a 25-yard field goal to one that has already cleared the uprights, exemplifies how the Biden team isn’t pushing nearly hard enough on school reopening.
This is an issue that has gone from being something of a red vs. blue battle line last year, with President Donald Trump’s blunderbuss (if correct) advocacy for reopening making it more contentious, to a cross-partisan area of consensus. More and more people realize that on top of a public health and an economic crisis, we have an education crisis with myriad dire consequences, thanks to schools closing or relying on remote instruction.
Barely a day goes by when another expert who’s looked at the evidence or a parent who has lived with the stresses of kids at home doesn’t call for the return of in-person instruction.
In intellectual and moral terms, the debate over reopening schools has been won, but political progress has been slow, mainly because powerful teacher unions are standing in the way, especially in big cities.
If Biden wanted to add a touch of unity to his governing agenda, he’d call out the teachers unions for being an obstacle to educational and economic progress at a challenging time for the country. Of course, their status as a political pillar of the Democratic coalition makes this impossible.
The science is clear enough, if that matters.
Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”
The authors cite a study of 11 school districts in North Carolina showing that “within-school transmissions were very rare” and “there were no cases of student-to-staff transmission.”
Numerous credible researchers around the world have found the same thing. This make the costs of school closures and remote learning all the harder to bear.
A McKinsey estimate from last June concluded that students may have lost three months to a year of learning, depending on the exact circumstances. This gap could affect the rest of their education and perhaps even their future earnings.
Then, there are the social costs for children, among them higher rates of depression and anxiety.
School closures have pulled women out of the labor force to bear the brunt of all the juggling that has to go on at home when the kids aren’t in school.
Nonetheless, teachers unions have fought reopening and help stymie reopening in cities and blue states around the county. Most schools in California have been remote. Elementary schools reopened in New York, but not middle schools or high schools. Chicago just finally got a deal with its union, which was threatening to strike.
School districts in the Washington, D.C., region are floating an ingenious solution to reopening — have kids return to the classroom so they can gather to watch remote teachers on computer screens.
Somehow private schools have largely managed to stay open, in part, because if they don’t, no one gets paid. In contrast, public school teachers are in a position to make demands to even consider coming back and doing their jobs.
After intense lobbying by the unions, most states have put teachers near the front of the line for vaccines (even though Biden’s CDC director has said “vaccinations of teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools”).
As David Zweig points out in a piece at Wired, many union officials have turned around and insisted that even vaccination won’t guarantee a return to the classroom. This would be like surgeons demanding to be vaccinated, then not showing up for operations anyway.
The Biden team insists that more spending is necessary to get the schools reopening. Biden is proposing another $130 billion in education funding in his Covid bill, but as Dan Lips of the center-right Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity notes, state departments of education already have tens of billions in unspent funds from the prior relief packages passed last year.
No, this is a question of political will. Biden’s goal should be to exert every ounce of influence that he has to get kids back in the classroom — for their own good and that of the country’s parents.