Six months ago, when President Joe Biden was candidate Joe Biden, he spoke of “a crisis being felt all across the United States of America.” The crisis was school closures. Millions of children were staring at laptops rather than learning in a classroom. Biden said: “This is a national emergency. President Trump doesn’t have a real plan for opening schools safely. He’s offering nothing but failures and delusions.”
Six months later, the education crisis abounds, and now-President Biden is so far just making it worse.
At Tuesday’s press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the new White House goal was “to have the majority of schools, so more than 50 percent, open by Day 100 of his presidency.” She defined that as “some teaching in classrooms, so at least one day a week, hopefully it’s more.” This isn’t just walking back a promise; it’s completely erasing one.
According to school-data aggregator Burbio, we are already well past Psaki’s spring milestone today, and we were before Biden took office. Over 60 percent of school districts are already open with at least a “hybrid” model. “Hybrid” colloquially means two to three days a week of in-person learning. One day a week was not originally part of this debate. It’s a new and lower standard — one Team Biden has introduced.
At first, I thought the transgression was simply they had put the issue on the backburner and were not paying attention to it, given the strange one-day-a-week utterance. But after 24 hours of blowback, Psaki was asked to clarify these remarks and she doubled down, calling the plan “bold and ambitious.” And sticking to the one-day standard, she said they hoped to exceed it.
Again, this supposed bold and ambitious plan was exceeded before the inauguration. Politico Playbook said: “It is a goal so modest and lacking in ambition as to be almost meaningless.”
President Biden’s ambitious rhetoric around schools was always going to have a collision course with his teachers’-union benefactors, who simply do not want schools to fully reopen any time soon. Not even after teachers got priority in vaccinations, and K–12 schools received over $68 billion in 2020 to mitigate COVID issues. I just didn’t expect that he would be breaking a core campaign promise so early in his presidency.
So what’s holding Biden back from keeping his word? The White House would argue it’s funding, ventilation, and class sizes. Let’s look at each in turn.
As mentioned, Congress allocated over $68 billion in 2020 for COVID mitigation in K–12 schools. So far, most of this money has not been spent. That hasn’t stopped the Biden administration from demanding another $130 billion. But let’s ignore the currently unspent billions of dollars for a moment and ask the essential question: Will more funding help?
In fact, the schools that are currently open five days a week in America are parochial schools, which generally have less per-pupil funding than their public counterparts, and public schools that don’t compete with the per-pupil wealth of closed but well-funded districts such as Chicago, Fairfax County, San Francisco, and others. The issue is will, not resources.
Ventilation is simply a crutch to excuse doing nothing. It was a problem identified early in 2020, again to mitigate the return to school before a coronavirus vaccine was available. The $68 billion Congress authorized provided funding specifically for ventilation. But most schools did little or nothing in the past year to improve ventilation, and it is more likely that we finally return to school before any substantive changes are made to the thousands of schools that remain shuttered. The absence of new ventilation systems has not held back the majority of schools that have opened up to some degree without disruption.
Meanwhile, focusing the debate on the importance of class size is a way to disguise proposing that kids will go to school two days a week indefinitely. The idea is that a full class increases risk, so we need to cut class sizes in half. But nobody realistically believes that America is about to double its school-building capacity, at least not in the next year. Anyone whose kid has gone to class in a trailer behind a school building knows that it takes years to develop plans for new buildings, personnel, and district lines.
The two-day-a-week hybrid model, with its implicitly smaller class sizes, was created to get kids back into the classroom before a vaccine was available. Inept school boards kept delaying the end of this temporary measure. Now, after it has been done for so long, it is being deceptively embraced as the post-vaccine ideal. This is simply nuts. After teachers in closed school districts are vaccinated, schools should be open full-time, five-days-a-week, just as so many of their counterparts already are doing (and as some were doing before vaccines were even available).
Now that teachers are being vaccinated, for whom are we making these vast infrastructure changes anyway? It’s not for the teachers, whose risk will thankfully soon be measured in decimal points. And it’s not for children, who — public-health officials often and repeatedly remind us — are not significant spreaders or victims of this virus. In fact, the major health crises facing children today — depression, suicide, lack of confidence, academic failures, lack of socialization, poor nutrition, insufficient exercise — are being caused by the closures, not by the virus.
In September 2020, Joe Biden said: “President Trump may not think this is a national emergency, but I think going back to school for millions of children and the impacts on their families and the community is a national emergency. I believe that’s what it is.”
If this was a national emergency six months ago, and remains one today, where’s Joe?
Some would argue that he should have more time, and that patience is required. He’s only been in office a few weeks. But we shouldn’t be surprised that many parents are simply out of patience.
Others argue that advocating for school openings is anti-teacher. It’s a convenient way to shut down debate, because teachers are often underpaid and undervalued and thus not open to critique. But I love my kids’ teachers, who are doing the best they can. This is about being pro-children, not anti-teacher.
In September, President Biden said: “Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos haven’t stepped up. We’re all seeing the results. Millions of students are now starting the new school year in the same way they finished the last one, at home. At home. Parents are doing their best, but more and more they’re finding themselves at wit’s end struggling to balance work and childcare and educational duties or worrying about their lost paycheck and how they’ll make ends meet while trying to keep their kids on track with remote learning.”
Under Biden’s current plan, he has failed to live up to the standard he set for Trump.
It’s time for Biden to purposefully engage this issue. He has enormous influence over unions and those who are advocating for kids to remain locked out of in-person instruction indefinitely. He has a serious group of public-health advisers who can persuade nervous parents and teachers of the low risks they face returning to the classroom (especially after a vaccine).
As Joe Biden said six months ago on this subject: “Mr. President, where are you? Where are you? Why aren’t you working on this? Mr. President, that’s your job. That’s what you should be focused on right now. Getting our kids back to school safely.”