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In-Person School Reopening Becomes Key Issue For Biden Administration

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When and how to hold in-person school during the pandemic is one of the most important questions that public officials are grappling with right now. Parents are fried. Students are falling behind. And districts are trying to balance all that with health concerns for their staff. President Biden finds himself in the middle of all of this as he reframes what exactly his administration would define as success when it comes to reopening schools. NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow joins us now to talk about all of this.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Hey. Good afternoon, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So last night, Biden attended this hour-long town hall on CNN. And I know that this topic came up a lot. Can you tell us, what did he say specifically about reopening schools?

DETROW: So he wants students to return to school as quickly as possible when it can be done safely. And of course, both parts of that sentence are incredibly subjective right now. Last week, the White House got a lot of heat when Biden's press secretary said the administration would view one day a week of in-person learning as meeting that bar. And last night, Biden clarified his goal for K-8 schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It was a mistake in the communication. The goal will be five days a week.

DETROW: There is a lot of talk right now about how the Biden administration has been setting low, achievable goals with the hopes of surpassing them quickly when it comes to COVID response, but this is not one of those cases. During the campaign and then the transition and lately, Biden has repeatedly said he wanted to set a clear hundred-day goal of getting as many students back in the classroom as possible.

CHANG: Right. And just remind us, what has the federal government recommended that schools do at this point?

DETROW: So last week, the CDC put out guidelines - and the key word here is guidelines - that linked reopening to a few factors, primarily the level of virus in a community. It also considers what mitigation is being used in schools, including masking and ventilation and things like that. And a lot of people were exasperated by the news because based on those guidelines, 90% of students live in what the CDC classified as red zones, which suggested it would just be really hard to get people back into classrooms. The reality is that schools have already had to make their own decisions in the absence of these guidelines, and many may not shift gears and follow what the CDC says. And according to the group Burbio, which is tracking this, 40% of students currently have the option of full-time in-person school.

CHANG: But the thing is, Scott, a big part of Biden's COVID-19 response is pushing the federal government to play a bigger role in setting policies and coordinating strategies. But that's not really how education policy is set, right? It's set through states.

DETROW: Yeah. And this is a tension the administration is dealing with. Just as a contrast, there's been the steady increase in average daily vaccinations over the past month to 1.8 million a day now. And that's due to increased supply and more coordination from the White House. This is different. Like you said, by nature, education policy is much more about local decision making, and that creates a tension between the goal and the reality of making it happen. And you could hear that in an exchange this morning between "Today" show host Savannah Guthrie and Vice President Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: And the science is very clear. The CDC's own science says schools are not a source of community risk.

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Well, so here's the thing. What the CDC - what they have recommended are exactly that, recommendations about how to reopen safely if they've been closed, how to stay open, if they've been opened.

DETROW: Of course, the administration is also arguing that resources are a big part of this, too. Having the funding for more mitigation is really key. And Biden's $1.9 trillion relief plan would spend billions on school pandemic safety. It would also increase funding to get vaccines distributed faster to get the virus better under control.

CHANG: And of course, there's one more aspect to all of this, whether teachers need to be vaccinated before schools even return to in-person classes. Now, President Biden, Vice President Harris and Dr. Anthony Fauci have all fielded questions within the past day about this. Where exactly does the administration stand?

DETROW: So Fauci was more blunt than the president and vice president, indirectly saying that the idea of every teacher being vaccinated before returning is, as he put it today, is really impractical. That's how he put it. But Biden and the rest of the administration are stressing that they want teachers to be given a priority in getting vaccines. And according to the White House, about half of states right now have prioritized teachers as they decide who gets vaccines when.

CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow.

Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.