Biden Launches New Strategy to Combat COVID-19, Reopen Schools

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Education Week | by Elvie Blad | January 21, 2021

President Joe Biden launched a new, more centralized strategy to combat COVID-19 and reopen schools Thursday, formalizing pledges he made during the campaign and the transition.

Biden has set a goal of “getting a majority of K-8 schools safely open” in the first 100 days of his administration.

The 200-page federal plan, and executive orders he signed Thursday, call for “sustained and coordinated” efforts with the cooperation of states and new resources, guidance, and data for schools as they continue to respond to the pandemic.

Biden’s school reopening pledge comes as states and districts around the country take a patchwork of approaches. While many school districts have held in-person learning with modifications like mask wearing a social distancing, some large urban school districts have remained in or switched back to remote learning amid new surges in virus rates.

Hospitals are out of beds. Businesses are closed for good. Schools are caught in between.

President Joe Biden

The number of U.S. coronavirus fatalities is expected to reach 500,000 in the next month, Biden said at the White House Thursday.

“Hospitals are out of beds. Businesses are closed for good. Schools are caught in between,” Biden said. “And while the vaccine provides so much hope, the rollout has been a dismal failure thus far.”

The plan builds on Biden’s proposed coronavirus relief package, which calls for $130 billion in additional aid for K-12 schools and $160 billion in new funding for testing, vaccine administration, and building up the health care workforce.

Between those he signed on Wednesday and those signed Thursday, Biden will have finalized a total of 12 coronavirus-related executive actions this week, the plan says.

Education groups and teachers’ unions released statements Thursday thanking Biden for “listening to scientists.”

The plan is “a much-needed step forward in a coordinated response to the ongoing pandemic and will help to alleviate some of the downward pressure and decision making that was placed upon local leaders to date,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Updating guidance for schools

Thursday’s actions include an executive order on “Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers,” which will require the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services “to provide guidance on safe reopening and operating, and to develop a Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse to share lessons learned and best practices from across the country.”

Under the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance for schools on a range of issues, but some school leaders said the recommendations were inconsistent and lacked clear metrics to guide their decisions.

Hours after Biden was sworn in Wednesday, new CDC Director Rochelle Walensky sent a memo to agency staff that called for a comprehensive review of all existing COVID-19 guidance.

“Wherever needed, this guidance will be updated so that people can make decisions and take action based upon the best available evidence,” she wrote.

EXECUTIVE ORDER ON COVID-19 AND SCHOOLS

President Joe Biden signed a dozen executive orders on responding to COVID-19 this week, including an order on “Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers” that:

  • Directs the Education Department to report on “the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on students in elementary, secondary, and higher education.”
  • Directs the department’s Institute for Education Sciences to collect “data necessary to fully understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educators,” including data on in-person learning status.
  • Directs the secretaries of education and health and human services to submit a report to the White House on strategies to address the impact of the pandemic on educational outcomes.
  • Encourages the Federal Communications Commission to take steps “to increase connectivity options for students lacking reliable home broadband.”

The schools order also calls on the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights to assess the “disparate impacts of COVID-19 on students in elementary, secondary, and higher education,” and it calls on the agency to submit a report to the White House on strategies to address the effects of COVID-19 on students’ educational outcomes.

The order also directs the Education Department’s statistical arm to collect data on the effect of the coronavirus on education that can be broken down by student demographic factors like race, disability status, and family income.

Crucially, that collection will include data about the status of in-person learning, the order says. There is currently no federal data on how schools are operating or how many students have opted to remain at home, even after their schools offer in-person classes.

The order also calls on the Federal Communications Commission to increase connectivity options for students lacking reliable home broadband. Some advocacy groups have called on the agency to grant more flexibility in how schools use federal E-rate funds for such purposes.

Increasing testing for students and teachers

A directive on “Ensuring a Data-Driven Response to COVID-19,” which Biden signed alongside the school-related order Thursday, calls for “metric-driven public health guidance” and the collection and dissemination of consistent federal data on issues like hospitalizations, case rates, and vaccine distribution.

Another executive action establishes a national board to create a unified testing strategy and to support school screening programs. Broader testing strategies will “improve timely diagnosis and public confidence in the safety of settings like schools.”

Previously the Trump administration released 100 million rapid tests to governors to aid in school reopening efforts. But advocates for expansive strategies said that supply was not enough for the frequent and broad testing necessary to monitor the success of school mitigation efforts.

Biden’s proposed “American Rescue Plan,” which will require approval by Congress, calls for $50 billion in new funding for increased use of rapid tests, expanding lab capacity to process tests faster, and aid to schools and local governments to carry out testing programs.

Other orders Biden signed Thursday will direct federal agencies to use the Defense Production Act, if necessary, to address shortfalls in supplies for testing, personal protective equipment, and materials needed to administer vaccines, to reimburse states for dispatching the National Guard to help respond to the crisis, and to provide federal reimbursements for materials like protective equipment used in schools.

Launching ‘an aggressive vaccination strategy’

Even as many states include teachers and school employees in their priority populations set to receive early vaccine doses, a slower-than-expected federal rollout has hampered efforts.

The new federal plan calls for better data about the vaccine supply chain to guide state and local efforts and a new strategy for distribution, and support for large-scale vaccination clinics at places like stadiums and conference centers.

Rather than holding back “significant levels of vaccines” the administration will urge states to hold back “a small reserve” and administer current supplies as quickly as possible, the plan says.

“The United States will accelerate the pace of vaccinations by encouraging states and localities to move through the priority groups more quickly — expanding access to frontline essential workers and individuals over the age of 65, while staying laser-focused on working to ensure that the highest-risk members of the public, including those in congregate facilities, can access the vaccine where and when they need it,” the plan says.

Photo: Public School 95 in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn is one of many schools in New York ordered to close due to a flare-up of coronavirus cases in the area on Oct. 5, 2020.Kathy Willens/AP