President Joe Biden is being accused of backpedaling on his pledge to reopen the nation’s schools after the White House added fine print to his promise and made clear that a full reopening is still far from sight.
Biden’s initial pledge in December was to reopen “the majority of our schools” in his first 100 days in office. In January he specified that the goal applied only to schools that teach through eighth grade.
And this week the White House said that schools will be considered opened as long as they teach in-person at least one day a week.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the goal on Wednesday, calling it part of a “bold ambitious agenda.”
“Certainly, we are not planning to celebrate at 100 days if we reach that goal,” she said. “We certainly hope to build from that.”
The White House had faced increasing pressure to explain its goal as calls to reopen schools grow more urgent. Pressed on the question on Tuesday, Psaki clarified that just one day a week of in-person learning would meet the mark.
“His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools — so, more than 50 percent — open by day 100 of his presidency,” she said. “And that means some teaching in classrooms. So, at least one day a week. Hopefully, it’s more.”
The goal drew criticism from Republicans who said Biden is setting the bar too low.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called it unacceptable and said schools are ready to open now. Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a former teacher, said the goal falls short of what students need.
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“Having only 51 percent of our schools reopen for as little as one day a week is not a success,” she said. “We should be working to safely get all of our children back to full-time, in-person learning”
With the new caveat, the pledge appears much less ambitious than it did when Biden first made it.
In December, it seemed his promise was to reopen half of the nation’s more than 130,000 schools. When it was scaled back to K-8 schools only, the scope narrowed to roughly 90,000 schools.
Now, critics say, the bar has been moved so low it may already have been reached.
Data from Burbio, a service that tracks school opening plans, recently reported that 58 percent of K-12 students are learning in-person to some extent.
“The administration doesn’t have to exert much effort to meet this goal,” Jonathan Butcher, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said.
Tracking progress on the goal has been difficult due to a lack of federal data on the topic. Last week the Biden administration said it will begin collecting data from 7,000 schools showing whether they are operating online, in person or in a combination.
Some companies and researchers have sought to collect the data on their own, including Burbio, which reported some recent progress on schools returning to in-person classes.
About 42 percent of students were learning entirely online late last month, the company found, down from 55 percent during the first week of the year.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan to fight the coronavirus includes $130 billion to help schools reopen.
Reopening efforts have faced roadblocks due in part to standoffs with teachers unions. In cities including Chicago and San Francisco, districts have faced resistance from teachers who refuse to return to classrooms until their demands are met.
Before Biden’s goal was clarified this week, even some of his top health officials expressed doubt that it would be reached. Talking to teachers last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Biden’s school reopening goal “may not happen because there may be mitigating circumstances.”
The delays have frustrated many parents, including many whose children have been learning from home for nearly a year.
In Congress, debate on reopening has become increasingly heated as Republicans oppose further school relief and point to evidence that schools are safe to reopen now.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a study last month finding that in-person instruction is safe. CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky later added that vaccinating teachers “is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.”
The White House declined to take a firm stance on the issue, saying Walensky made the comment “in her personal capacity.”
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