Biden is vowing to reopen schools quickly. It won’t be easy.

By Dana Goldstein

In his first 48 hours in office, President Joe Biden sought to project an optimistic message about returning the nation’s many homebound students to classrooms. “We can teach our children in safe schools,” he vowed in his inaugural address.

The following day, Biden signed an executive order promising to throw the strength of the federal government behind an effort to “reopen school doors as quickly as possible.”

But with about half of American students still learning virtually as the pandemic nears its anniversary, the president’s push is far from certain to succeed. His plan is rolling out just as local battles over reopening have, if anything, become more pitched in recent weeks.

Teachers are uncertain about when they will be vaccinated and fearful of contagion. With alarming case counts across the country and new variants of the coronavirus emerging, unions are fighting efforts to return their members to crowded hallways. Their reluctance comes even as school administrators, mayors and some parents feel increased urgency to restore educational business as usual for the millions of students who are struggling academically and emotionally.

Given the seemingly intractable health and labor challenges, some district officials have begun to say out loud what was previously unthinkable: that schools may not be operating normally for the 2021-22 school year. And some labor leaders are seeking to tamp down the expectations Biden’s words have raised.

“We don’t know whether a vaccine stops transmissibility,” said Randi Weingarten, the powerful president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union.

Some virus experts, however, have said there is reason to be optimistic on this question.

Weingarten said that key to returning teachers to classrooms in the coming months would be promises to allow those with health conditions, or whose family members have compromised immune systems, to continue to work remotely; in-school virus testing; the collection of centralized data on the number of COVID-19 cases in specific schools; and assurances from districts that they would shut down schools when cases occur.

Fights over those very demands have slowed and complicated reopenings across the country. But Weingarten also indicated that Biden’s efforts to fill classrooms would be greeted more favorably than those of Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who were largely reviled by public school educators.

“Don’t underestimate the bully pulpit,” she said. “Truth and trust are so important.”

Biden’s executive order directs federal agencies to create national school reopening guidelines, to support virus contact tracing in schools and to collect data measuring the impact of the pandemic on students. The White House is also pushing a stimulus package that would provide $130 billion to schools for costs such as virus testing, upgrading ventilation systems and hiring staff.

School leaders are eagerly awaiting additional cash from Washington, which could amount to several thousand dollars per pupil. But they emphasize that it will be equally important for federal officials to directly address the anxiety about in-person work that has swept the teacher corps and that has been given an influential voice in places where teachers unions are powerful.

The Trump administration fed that anxiety by demanding schools open while issuing vague and conflicting guidelines about how to do so safely.

Under the Trump administration, unions and public school advocates argued that schools could only reopen with an enormous infusion of federal funding to purchase sanitation equipment, lower class sizes to maintain social distancing, and hire nurses and psychologists.

Money is beginning to flow, but Marguerite Roza, a school finance expert at Georgetown University, said it was perhaps even more important for the federal government to shore up districts’ abilities to negotiate forcefully with their unions.

The Biden administration could establish a clear threshold for community virus transmission, below which it would advise schools to stay open, Roza said, or even require them to do so in order to access federal dollars.

Research has pointed to the potential to operate schools safely before teachers and students are vaccinated, as long as practices like mask wearing are adhered to, and especially when community transmission and hospitalization rates are controlled.

Tying stimulus money to opening schools might be a heavier handed strategy than the new Democratic administration is comfortable with, especially given union reluctance. On Friday, a White House spokesperson said partnership and cooperation with teachers unions would be central to reopening schools successfully.

But Biden could also work to combat teachers’ anxiety by speaking to the rank and file directly.

“The offer of money? I don’t know if that will really be the thing that gets people to go back right now,” Roza said. “The fear is real.”

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