Biden Wants To Re-Open Schools, But How Much Can He Really Do About It? : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden has made reopening schools a benchmark for how his administration is handling the pandemic. It is a politically tricky goal, since those decisions will be made by local districts. We look at the roadblocks to achieving that goal and what the political fight might look like.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, White House correspondent Scott Detrow, and education correspondent Cory Turner.

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Biden Wants To Re-Open Schools, But How Much Can He Really Do About It?

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Biden Wants To Re-Open Schools, But How Much Can He Really Do About It?

Biden Wants To Re-Open Schools, But How Much Can He Really Do About It?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/969166713/969187025" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHAUN: Hi, everybody. This is Shaun (ph) on the Texas Gulf Coast, where we have this white stuff. I believe you guys call it snow. It's sitting on the ground out here. And unfortunately, we have no power in our homes either. This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

2:35 p.m. on Thursday, February 18.

SHAUN: Things may have changed by the time you listen to it. Hopefully, the change is that we get our power turned back on because I don't know if my phone battery will last another 24 hours. All right, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: Texas, I feel for you. That was not a state prepared for the snow.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: It's rough.

DAVIS: My brother lives in Austin, Scott, and he told me that they don't even own a shovel (laughter).

DETROW: It's, like, from the individual level to the infrastructure level - unable to handle it. It's a tough situation.

DAVIS: It's tough. But if any state can handle it, man, it's Texas. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

DETROW: And I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And we have Cory Turner from NPR's education team here with us. Hey, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey.

DAVIS: You're here to try to help us answer one of the most important questions in the world right now to tons of American families - when are my kids going back to school full time? We know there's a lot of pretty exhausted parents out there. We work with many exhausted parents. Many of us are exhausted parents.

TURNER: I am an exhausted parent.

DAVIS: (Laughter) You're one exhausted parent among us. So let's try to start with some good news because I think people could use it. Maybe there's a teeny light at the end of this tunnel. This week, President Joe Biden says he wants to have most kids kindergarten through eighth grade back in school within the first 100 days. Scott, let's start with you. Just politically speaking, I was kind of surprised by this. It seems like a pretty big, bold promise to make.

DETROW: Biden had, early on, promised as many kids back in school as possible at the end of his first 100 days - was a big goal. It's something he campaigned on. It's something he talked about a lot about during the transition. But then when he got into the White House, there were a lot of questions. OK, what's the status of this? What does this mean? What does the CDC say?

And in a briefing last week, his press secretary, Jen Psaki, answered this question, saying the administration viewed success or the bar of in-person school as one day a week of in-person instruction. That got a lot of blowback because a lot of parents are saying, I am tired of this. What does that even mean?

DAVIS: Yeah, that don't count.

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: Cory, I want to ask you to weigh in on this, but before we get there, can you just give us a sense of how many kids we're talking about right now who are not in school full time?

TURNER: There's not solid data telling us how many kids are back yet and how many aren't. The best place to go for that is a website I've mentioned often. It's called Burbio. And interestingly, if you go to Burbio today, it suggests that President Biden's commitment isn't that ambitious at all. Burbio suggests that roughly 65, 66% of K-12 students in the U.S. are right now attending schools that are either offering every day in-person schooling or at least some in-person schooling through a hybrid model. So, you know, that's 65, 66% of kids attending these schools. We're also seeing a new wave of school districts starting to open in March and early April. Lots of districts - we saw Chicago moving forward. I live in Maryland, where many of the largest districts are now starting to reopen. We're getting there (laughter), I guess, is the best answer I've got.

DAVIS: Yeah. So what did you make of this promise from Joe Biden - 100 days, kids back in school?

TURNER: What I made of it is that it kept shifting gently. I mean, I remember when he was on the campaign trail and it was much broader and less specific. He was talking about all schools. Suddenly, all schools became K-8. High school students were suddenly removed from the goal. Then it became most schools, a majority of schools. Again, based on where we are now, a majority of K-8 schools will - we may already be there or getting close to there.

The other thing I'll say, the really important caveat to all of this is that there is a really outspoken crowd of parents, who are obviously entitled to their opinion, who have been pushing very hard for schools to reopen. But if you look at polls of parents more broadly, you still see a lot of concerns.

DAVIS: Scott, it seems particularly tricky for the president here, though, because he doesn't run the school system. We don't have a federalized school system. This is really a state-by-state issue. So how much power does the president really have here to get schools reopen?

DETROW: Not that much. And you're right, that's a big political tension point here. Because so much of Biden's response to COVID has been to simply bring the federal government into the picture. That was a very low bar to clear because the Trump administration really left so many things to the states. So you've seen how this has worked on vaccines. The federal government is providing more vaccine, securing more vaccines from companies that make them. The White House is a lot more involved in coordinating and providing data to the states. And you have seen week after week the number of vaccines go up, and Biden can say, this is us working.

When it comes to reopening schools, all the Biden administration can really do on one hand is say, this is what we think you should be doing. Please do it. On the other hand, they can use the political argument as they try to pass this massive $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan. They're saying, look, we want to give school districts the money to do this safely. That is a key part of this plan. That's why you need to pass it right away.

DAVIS: Yeah, I think there's, like, something like 160 billion in there for schools to get back up and running.

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: So, Cory, vaccines do seem to be a huge part of this. What is the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control as it relates to teachers and getting schools reopened?

TURNER: Yeah, I think this has been probably the biggest source of tension between the Biden administration and teacher union allies who really helped get President Biden elected. Teachers unions have been pushing for teachers to get vaccinated, to be prioritized for vaccinations and, in many cases, to delay school reopening until teachers are vaccinated. The CDC guidelines that came out, though, made very clear that the CDC does not consider teacher vaccination a prerequisite for school reopening.

Now, what you'll hear from the Biden administration, from President Biden, Vice President Harris, you'll hear this sort of tightrope walk between, we think teachers should be prioritized. We think teachers should be given the vaccine right now. But you will not hear them say that schools should stay closed until teachers get that vaccine.

So I think folks were expecting something clearer, maybe a clearer green light for schools to simply reopen. And what the CDC finally gave schools is really what superintendents have been clamoring for for months and months, which is science-driven guidance that says, consider this, consider this, consider this, but it's still your choice.

DAVIS: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we're going to talk more about the political fight over reopening schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: And we're back. And, Scott, one thing I keep thinking about is all throughout the campaign, Joe Biden and Democrats more broadly talked about the pandemic, saying we will go with the science. We trust the science. We'll do what the science says. But this seems to be a case in which Democrats aren't necessarily trusting the science. The CDC is saying one thing, and the Biden administration isn't really willing to say the same thing.

DETROW: Right. You know, by and large, that's a talking point that has worked well for the way that they want to govern the country. But this is an area where the science is kind of politically inconvenient. You know, Cory was talking about that vaccines question. And I think the way that the president and vice president have danced around that issue compared to their science and medical advisers is telling. Biden did that CNN town hall the other day. The next morning, Vice President Harris was on the "TODAY" show. She was repeatedly pressed, should teachers go back to school? Should school resume before everyone can be vaccinated? She did not want to directly answer that question.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Can you reassure teachers who are listening right now that it is safe for them to go back to school even if they are not vaccinated, if these public health measures like distancing and masks are being implemented?

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: So, first of all, let me just say this, and the president has said it. And we're all really clear - teachers should be priority. Teachers should be a priority. Look, let me just tell you something. I love teachers. My first-grade teacher...

DETROW: A couple of hours later, Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked the question. He gave a much more blunt answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, first of all, let me just clarify the issue of having to get every teacher vaccinated before you can really open schools and get children back to schools. That really is rather impractical to make that a sine qua non of opening the schools.

DETROW: Fauci went on to agree with Biden and Harris that that being said, teachers should get a priority along with other, you know, first-line responders. But that's an awkward thing for the Biden administration to say, especially given the fact that teachers unions are such an important political ally.

DAVIS: Cory, you follow teachers unions closer than any of us. I do think it probably does speak to the power of their political influence in this moment.

TURNER: Yeah. And I think it's also important to make clear that the national leaders of the two biggest teachers unions, the NEA and the AFT, led by Randi Weingarten and Becky Pringle - you know, I got statements from both of them after the CDC guidance was released. And they were supportive of the guidance, even though it specifically said teacher vaccination is not a prerequisite for school reopening. But you have to keep in mind that just because the leaders of the national organizations say this doesn't mean that the rank and file at every local union, county by county, state by state, are going to agree.

DAVIS: Yeah.

TURNER: And so, like, where I live in Maryland, several counties have announced reopening plans that are fairly measured. They're going hybrid. And the teachers unions there have come out in pretty strong opposition, saying, we think all teachers should be vaccinated before you do this.

DAVIS: Scott, it's interesting to see how quickly - maybe not quickly 'cause we've been in the pandemic for so long - but since Biden took over as president, Republicans really see an opportunity here. We're seeing it on the congressional level. Outside Republican groups are starting to run ads in states like Michigan and New Jersey and North Carolina targeting Democrats and saying they're on the side of the unions; we're on the side of the kids. Does the White House see this as a potentially big political vulnerability here, especially because Biden - so much of his campaign was about getting us on the other end of this pandemic?

DETROW: I think the past week has made the White House very aware that this is an area where it's going to be, you know, a big impact on how Americans view their presidency, right? I mean, we were talking about this at the beginning of the podcast. You know, short of vaccinations, I don't know if there's another large-scale policy that every single American is going to experience in his or her own life and know whether the talking points are real or not, right? You know, like, you can say, well, 40% of this. But if my school district, if my part of the world still doesn't have remote school and I'm pulling my hair out, I'm not going to have a super positive opinion on the track things are going on.

You saw Republicans try and stick to this open-things-up argument last year. Of course, when President Trump was in the White House, it played a little differently - turned out to not maybe be the most effective political argument, but they are certainly zeroing in on it now. We've seen a lot of House Republicans in particular point to school reopenings to say the Biden administration needs to move faster here. And I think the better the pandemic numbers are - and we're seeing this kind of roller coaster drop right now in daily new cases, which is a great thing - I think the more this pressure is going to increase.

DAVIS: All right, Cory. I need some real talk. If a hundred days is maybe a little overoptimistic - overly optimistic, what about this coming fall, the next school year? Is there more optimism that kids are going to be back in school full time come September?

TURNER: You know, the thing that keeps me up at night thinking about school reopening is the fact that the sort of gateway for schools right now before they can get to the full-time, everyday model is what we call hybrid. And the reason so many schools are in hybrid and so many schools that are virtual-only will be going to hybrid is because many of these schools only have about half of their kids saying, we want to go back. And so being able to maintain the 6-foot distancing the CDC recommends, all of these safety protocols - they're manageable if you only have about half the kids in the building, right?

DAVIS: Yeah.

TURNER: Well, once we get to summer, I would be surprised if there were a lot of parents looking or hoping to continue keeping their kids home.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

TURNER: And so once we have, you know, 90, 95, close to a hundred percent of families looking to their schools and saying, well, you're taking my child now - right...

DAVIS: Yeah.

TURNER: ...Suddenly, 6-foot distancing is essentially impossible. Hopefully, either we have moved entirely beyond COVID or we're going to have to be OK jettisoning some of these CDC recommendations. And I don't know what gives.

DAVIS: Well, we're going to find out. Cory, thanks so much for joining us and talking to us today about all this. It's really interesting.

TURNER: Yeah, you're welcome.

DAVIS: And we'll be back tomorrow with our weekly roundup. Until then, you can find all the ways to stay connected with us in the description of this episode.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

DETROW: And I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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