In December, President-elect Joe Biden announced his policy on opening schools. “My team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days,” he said.
Last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki seemed to change the target.
The new goal was for “more than 50%” of schools to have “some teaching in classrooms” on “at least one day a week.” Even before that, the target had been adjusted. Prior to being sworn in, Biden switched his pledge from opening a majority of schools to opening a majority of K-8 schools. Asked about his position during Tuesday night’s town hall event in Wisconsin, the president seemed to pivot again. He said there’d been a “mistake in the communication.” He said his goal was to get schools “fully open” and that he thought many schools would stay open through the summer. But the policy is still a muddle, and the president failed to set matters straight.
This lack of clarity and ambition is a grave disservice to the country’s children, particularly those from subpar schools, where the educational divide had already left them vulnerable. By one measure, about two-thirds of public schools currently have either full in-person teaching (41%) or so-called hybrid learning (26%). Doing a lot better than this is both urgent and entirely feasible.
Even as things stand, the schools pose little risk. Nationwide they’ve been shown to have extremely low levels of transmission — particularly in elementary schools.
The biggest impediment to getting this right is the resistance of teachers unions. Biden and his soon-to-be-confirmed secretary of education need to make the case more forcefully — in addition to getting funds out the door and into schools.
The president’s respect for the teaching profession is well-known, but that doesn’t justify submitting to plainly unreasonable demands or causing such harm to the nation’s children.