NASHVILLE, TN—United States Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) is calling for the White House to support the immediate return of all kindergarten through 12th grade students to in-person learning after many senior administration officials, including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, have continued to take disjointed, ever-changing, and politically driven positions on reopening schools, despite statements from the Administration’s CDC Director and Chief Medical Advisor that schools can open safely with proper precautions.
“For the last year, then-candidate Joe Biden said he had a plan to return our K-12 students to in-person learning,” Senator Hagerty said. “Yet despite being in office for almost a month, the White House cannot seem to get its policy straight and now does not support immediately reopening schools full-time. Our kids are falling further behind every day. The medical experts and scientists have said it can be done safely. And the overwhelming majority of Tennessee school districts have already shown that schools can safely reopen. It’s time for the White House to put students, parents, and the many teachers who want to return to school first—not teachers’ unions—and support the immediate reopening of schools.”
The experts say that it is safe to reopen schools now. In late January, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor, stated, in response to a CDC study recommending that schools reopen as soon as possible with appropriate social distancing and safety precautions, that “we need to try and get the children back to school” and that “[i]t’s less likely for a child to get infected in the school setting than if they were just in the community.” Biden’s own CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said on February 3 that vaccinating all teachers “is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.” Yet, despite making this statement at a CDC briefing, the White House backtracked and said Director Walensky was speaking “in her personal capacity.” Contrary to such public health expert opinions, however, teachers unions in places like Baltimore and San Francisco, have opposed reopening until teachers are fully vaccinated and school ventilation systems are revamped.
On February 9, 2021, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden’s goal was to have “teaching at least one day a week in the majority of schools, by day 100,” despite that, by then, summer break would be on the horizon. The White House doubled down on that goal days later. According to a digital platform that tracks nationwide school data, this goal is behind where the country is right now, suggesting the Biden Administration is not aiming for substantial progress toward the full-time reopening of schools. This week, President Biden contradicted his own press secretary, saying she made a “mistake” and that the goal was in fact “opening the majority of schools in K through 8th grade” for five days per week, but that “it’s going to be harder to open up the high schools.”
On February 12, a few days after the unambitious White House goal was announced, the CDC changed course from its Director’s February 3 statement, releasing a new report that public health experts say imposes “new and unnecessary demands that will ultimately keep millions of kids out of school.” This guidance would reportedly keep more than 90% of schools from fully reopening, including in nearly all of the largest 50 counties in the nation.
On February 14, two weeks after backing reopening schools with appropriate safety precautions, Dr. Fauci shifted, as well: “I think that the schools really do need more resources and that’s the reason why the national relief act that we’re talking about getting passed—we need that,” indicating that a new condition of reopening schools is passing President Biden’s spending legislation filled with completely partisan proposals that have nothing to do with the pandemic — like bailing out states like New York and California for years of poor management.
More funding is not the obstacle to reopening schools: In fact, as of January 22, states have spent just over $4 billion of the $68 billion in COVID-19 relief that Congress already provided for K-12 schools. A recent report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office states that, “[b]ecause most of [those previously appropriated] funds remain to be spent, CBO anticipates that the bulk of spending of funds provided in the [Biden spending legislation] would occur after 2021.” In other words, though the Biden administration may be holding the reopening of schools hostage in an attempt to generate support for its radical spending legislation, this new money Dr. Fauci is referring to has nothing to do with school reopening, unless they plan not to reopen schools for years.
Also this week, Vice President Harris called the CDC’s recommendations “exactly that—recommendations”, suggesting that President Biden’s promise to “follow the science” may have unexplained exceptions. Despite the statements of Drs. Fauci and Walensky that schools can safely reopen without universal vaccination, when asked whether teachers must be vaccinated before schools can reopen, Vice President Harris dodged: “We have to decide whether we can put in place safe measures, this is why it is so important we pass the American Rescue Plan.” That very same morning, Dr. Fauci reiterated that vaccinating all teachers before reopening schools is “non-workable.”
All of this adds up to: There is no clear White House plan to support the full-time, reopening of all schools, despite the Administration’s own experts saying—and many school districts across the country proving—it can be done safely. All the while our students are falling further and further behind, their parents are unable to assume their normal roles in our economy and billions of dollars, indeed the vast majority of stimulus funds already earmarked for school reopening, remain unspent. Meanwhile, politics is dictating when schools reopen, whether in terms of catering to the teachers’ unions’ absurd demands or conditioning reopening schools on the unrelated passage of President Biden’s spending legislation. It’s time for the Biden Administration to stop ignoring the science, to stop playing political games with our children’s future, and step up to support the immediate, full-time reopening of all schools.