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Why it’s hard to link school reopenings to Biden’s efforts
If Your Time is short
If schools had adhered to school reopening guidelines issued by the CDC in February, many districts would have shuttered schools.
Biden called for prioritizing educators for vaccines on March 2. By that date, more than 30 states already offered priority for teachers.
The American Rescue Plan includes school funding, though much of it will be spent after 2021.
Myriad factors have gone into school reopening decisions by local and state officials, including declining COVID-19 cases and increased vaccinations.
President Joe Biden took some credit for school reopenings, tying increases in in-person learning to his administration’s efforts to vaccinate educators and send money to schools.
"Back in February, when many of our schools were fully or partially closed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the CDC — issued guidelines to help reopen our schools safely," Biden said April 21. "Then, in March, Congress approved the American Rescue Plan to fund the safe reopening of our schools."
But educators were anxious about going back to the classroom without being vaccinated and many parents were nervous about sending their children, Biden said.
"So, on March the 2nd, I launched a program directing all states to make educators, school staff, school bus drivers, child care workers eligible for vaccination in every state so that schools and child care centers could open with a peace of mind," Biden said. "Within a month, 80% had received at least one shot, and schools and child care centers all over the country are reopening."
It’s true that more schools have reopened from COVID-19-era closures in Biden’s first 100 days. But it’s hard to pinpoint how big a role the Biden administration played, as school communities were also influenced by other factors such as increased vaccinations, declines in cases, parent pressure and changes in state or local guidance.
The Biden administration prioritized increasing vaccine supply to the states, which led more adults, including teachers, to be vaccinated. But with 13,000 school districts nationwide, there was no overarching explanation for why or when local and state officials decided to reopen schools.
Early on, Biden and his administration gave conflicting messages about his school reopening goals. In December, he said he wanted to reopen the majority of schools during his first 100 days. But in January he narrowed that goal to apply to the majority of K-8 schools.
The CDC issued recommendations on Feb. 12 that called for reopened schools to employ universal masking, keep everyone 6 feet apart, clean regularly, and require quarantining and contract tracing for new cases.
The CDC also released a color-coded tool to guide reopening decisions based on weekly transmission levels. The controversial tool landed about 90% of the communities in the red zone due to high rates of transmission. By the guidelines, many middle and high schools would have had to close. Two public health experts concluded that the color-coded guidance would unnecessarily keep millions out of school.
Some states such as Florida, which had been offering in person instruction since the fall, shrugged at the CDC’s guidance.
And one month later, the CDC generally shrank the 6-foot rule to 3 feet, except in some middle and high schools where transmission is high.
"The move from 6 feet to 3 feet was absolutely an accelerator for school reopenings," said Dennis Roche, president of Burbio, a firm that is tracking data on school reopenings.
Just before the CDC issued the 3-foot guidance, Burbio found that school districts in multiple states were spacing desks by 3 feet as they converted to traditional in-person instruction from hybrid systems in which children attended school both online and in person. That trend continued in March and April with some districts citing the 3-foot rule in their decisions to fully reopen in person.
On March 2, Biden said he was directing states to prioritize vaccinating teachers. But by that point, more than 30 states had already done so — and some states that hadn’t prioritized teachers had reopened schools anyway.
The CDC found through federal data and surveys that nearly 80% of pre-K through 12th grade school staff and childcare workers received at least their first shot by the end of March.
Biden also said the American Rescue Plan — which he signed into law in March — funded school reopening. While figures show almost $129 billion will go toward the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, Biden’s statement seems to ignore that most of that money is directed to be spent after 2021.
Schools have moved toward in-person learning throughout 2021
There are two main ways to track weekly K-12 school openings: by school district or by students. The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, publishes a tracker that monitors over 8,500 public school districts on whether they’re operating with fully remote, hybrid or fully in-person learning. According to its metrics, about 5% of districts were fully remote as of mid-April, compared with about 20% a couple days before Biden took office.
Burbio, which tracks about 1,200 school districts, found that about 6% of students were in fully remote schools as of late April, compared with about half of students a couple days before Biden took office.
The trackers show that schools have steadily moved toward in-person instruction in 2021. But we couldn’t find any evidence of a significant shift to in-person learning that was specifically tied to the CDC’s February guidance, Biden’s announcement that all teachers were eligible for vaccines, or the promise of American Rescue Plan money.
"The real answer is there was a lot of things pushing schools to reopen during this period and all sort of tailwinds for reopening, making it pretty hard to figure out which one is the one to look at," said Nat Malkus, an expert on K-12 education at the American Enterprise Institute.
COVID-19 cases were declining in areas. Vaccinations were increasing. Parents were pressing schools to open. Pediatricians and health experts were urging a return to school. And some governors were advocating for more in-person instruction.
Biden’s efforts probably helped some districts move toward reopening, Malkus said, but "as far as the overall trend, I don’t think you can give the Biden administration a lot of credit for driving it."
Sean R. Gill, a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, said he believes the actions of states and governors had more of an impact than Biden’s moves. "Even in California, they made some new state funds contingent on being open for in-person or hybrid learning," he said.
Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state board of education in California, credited both Biden and state action with fueling reopenings there. The dramatic increase in vaccine supply under Biden’s watch "made a big difference because many many districts were waiting on vaccines to get to teachers to reopen schools," she said. Similarly, school leaders were able to start counting on money that would be coming.
Biden says his administration’s efforts have led to more school reopenings.
Biden cited guidelines issued by the CDC, his announcement to prioritize vaccinating educators and the passage of the American Rescue Plan.
We found it’s difficult to pinpoint the factors that drove more schools to reopen in 2021. While some of the Biden administration’s actions helped, many states and schools were already moving toward more in-person learning when those initiatives were announced. Other factors also played a role, including COVID-19 infection rates, overall vaccination rates, pressure from parents and decisions by local and state officials.
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White House, Remarks by President Biden on the COVID-19 Response and the State of Vaccinations, April 21, 2021
American Federation of Teachers, Survey of members on vaccinations, April 6, 2021
American Enterprise Institute, Return2LearnTracker, April 12, 2021
Burbio, School reopening trends blog, April 26, 2021
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nearly 80 percent of teachers, school staff, and childcare workers receive at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine, April 6, 2021
CBS, Report: 91% of students live in CDC's "red zones" for school reopening, Feb. 16, 2021
AP, Muddled promises on schools pose political problem for Biden, Feb. 17, 2021
New York Times, Biden Administration Steps Up Push for School Reopenings, March 3, 2021
Washington Post,‘An essential service’: Inside Biden’s struggle to meet his school reopening promises, March 7, 2021
Philadelphia Inquirer, Teacher vaccine plan fails to unite, March 7, 2021
Chalkbeat, The federal government finally has data on schooling during COVID. Here are 3 key takeaways, March 24, 2021
Chalkbeat, Reopening, 2021
Education Week, 6 Feet or 3 Feet: How Far Apart Do Students Need to Be? Feb. 23, 2021
PolitiFact, Some research suggests Biden’s school reopening goal has already been achieved, Feb. 25, 2021
Telephone interview, Dennis Roche, Burbio president, April 25, 2021
Telephone interview, Nat Malkus, resident scholar and the deputy director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, April 25, 2021
Email interview, John Rogers, Director, UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, April 22, 2021
Email interview, Alice Opalka, a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, April 23, 2021
Email interview, Sean R. Gill, research analyst at theCenter on Reinventing Public Education / University of Washington Bothell, April 26, 2021
Email interview, Kevin Munoz, White House spokesperson, April 26, 2021
Telephone interview, Linda Darling-Hammond, CEO and President of the Learning Policy Institute and member of the state board of education in California, April 27, 2021
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