Becerra Ducks Hearing Question on School Reopenings: It’s ‘a Local Issue’

Xavier Becerra, President Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks during his confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., February 23, 2021. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

President Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, evaded a question about school reopenings during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, saying the matter is “a local issue.”

Senator Susan Collins (R., Maine) pressed Becerra on school reopenings, noting the “losses in academic achievement, literacy, social and emotional development” as a reason to prioritize returning students to classrooms as soon as possible.

She expressed concern over a Washington Post op-ed penned by two public-health experts earlier this month that claims current CDC guidelines recommending that schools should keep children six feet apart is serving as a barrier to returning to in-person learning when just three feet of distance is adequate for safe classroom instruction.

“Won’t maintaining this six-foot recommendation, despite these very credible alternative views by health-care experts, prevent many schools from resuming full-time in-person learning this year, and possibly even into next year?” Collins asked.

“No one wants to risk the life of their child, and no one wants to have a child be the reason an adult becomes ill from COVID,” Becerra said. “I believe . . . the best approach . . . is to let science guide us and to let the experts determine when it is safe, remembering that schools and education are a local issue.”

“We should not be the ones making the final decision on how and when a school will reopen,” Becerra added.

“I would suggest that when the American Academy of Pediatrics is suggesting the harm . . . we need to broaden who we’re listening to,” Collins responded.

Despite Becerra’s comments, the federal government has waded into the conversation over how and when to reopen schools safely, with President Biden in December pledging to reopen the majority of our schools in his first 100 days in office and CDC director Rochelle Walensky earlier this month saying there is “increasing data” that students can safely return to the classroom.

“Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” Walensky said then.

A peer-reviewed study from the American Academy of Pediatrics of more than 90,000 students and staff attending school in-person at eleven school districts found that only 32 COVID-19 infections were acquired within schools and no instances of child-to-adult transmission of the virus were reported.

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