Biden Backtracks on School Reopenings. Here’s How Left, Unions Put Ideology Before Students.

COMMENTARY Education

Biden Backtracks on School Reopenings. Here’s How Left, Unions Put Ideology Before Students.

Feb 17th, 2021 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Lindsey M. Burke, Ph.D.

Director, Center for Education Policy

Lindsey Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues.
Teacher union opposition to reopening schools has left far too many public school students across the country without access to in-person learning for nearly a year. Westend61 / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

As bad as school closures are now, following this plan could mean even fewer schools are open to in-person instruction.

If the Biden administration wants to make progress toward its “goal,” as modest as it may be, it needs to take a firm stand against the unions.

At a minimum, states should provide emergency education savings accounts to families if their schools refuse to reopen for in-person instruction.

When setting goals, it’s important not to lower the bar. Yet that’s exactly what the Biden administration has done with school reopenings.

When asked last week about President Joe Biden’s “100-day plan” for reopening schools, press secretary Jen Psaki said, “His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools, so more than 50%, open by Day 100 of his presidency, and that means some teaching in classrooms.”

“So at least one day a week, hopefully it’s more,” she went on to explain.

In other words, the Biden administration’s definition of reopening is 51% of public schools, at the discretion of the district, with students attending one day per week.

That proclamation was followed by a “school reopening” plan published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The strict measures—including maintaining a pre-vaccine requirement to keep desks 6 feet apart and color-coded guidance based on community spread rather than incidence rates in schools—have led some to deem the document a “school closure” plan.

As Brown University’s Emily Oster points out, “currently, few places in the United States meet the agency’s criteria.”

As bad as school closures are now, following this plan could mean even fewer schools are open to in-person instruction.

The CDC guidance suggests that schools should only reopen when there are fewer than 50 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents during the prior seven days. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky conceded that over 90% of schools would be considered in areas of high transmission based on that standard.

The Biden administration’s “goal” for reopening, coupled with the CDC’s most recent guidance, is far below what most school districts are already providing. An estimated 60% of them were offering full-time in-person instruction to elementary school students as of November.

What’s more, the plan dismisses the science—produced by the very same CDC that previously found fully in-person learning in K-12 schools has rarely been a source of COVID outbreak and is one of the safest activities for students.

So why the inadequate goal?

The problem lies with many school districts in big cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C.—where teacher union opposition has kept the school doors largely closed. Because those districts enroll such a disproportionally large number of students, just 24% of public school pupils are currently receiving in-person instruction.

Contrast that with students who attend private schools, 60% of whom have access to full-time, in-person learning.

If the Biden administration wants to make progress toward its “goal,” as modest as it may be, it needs to take a firm stand against the unions—an unlikely proposition.

Teacher union opposition to reopening schools has left far too many public school students across the country without access to in-person learning for nearly a year. No face-to-face instruction, no spontaneous conversations with their teachers, no fellowship with their friends.

The unions’ position that reopening is a matter of health and safety is thin gruel. In Los Angeles, the unions’ demands for reopening included defunding the police and a moratorium on charter schools; in Chicago, it included rent abatement.

Union demands have also included a healthy dose of hyperbole. This week, Jerry Jordan, the president of the Philadelphia Teachers Union, said calling teachers back to work equated to “sheer cruelty.” 

One wonders if Jordan considers it cruel that police officers, first responders, hospital workers, and grocery store clerks have reported to work diligently over the past year.

Even when union demands are met, the subsequent openings are extremely limited. The Chicago Teachers Union just reached an agreement with the city of Chicago to reopen schools, but the agreement is only to allow in-person instruction two days per week. Moreover, that excludes high school students, and does not begin for nearly another month.

In addition to the administration’s goals for reopening being inadequate, it has embraced big spending on closed schools—another gift to the teachers unions.

The COVID spending package currently under consideration in Congress would send another $130 billion to elementary and secondary schools. In all, including higher education spending, the proposal would spend $170 billion on education.

If added to the two COVID spending bills already enacted last year, that would mean spending an additional $282.7 billion for education. This is nearly four times the Department of Education’s annual $72 billion discretionary budget. It is a breathtaking sum that will reward school districts still refusing to open their doors to students.

To add insult to injury for taxpayers, as education scholar Dan Lips found, states have yet to spend between $53 billion and $63 billion of the stimulus funds from March and December of last year.

Weak reopening goals, union politics, and another spending spree from Washington. It’s business as usual from the left on education, only now on steroids.

And it all demonstrates why families need school choice now more than ever.

At a minimum, states should provide emergency education savings accounts to families if their schools refuse to reopen for in-person instruction. Long term, states should transition permanently to funding students rather than systems, allowing funding to follow students to any school or education provider of choice moving forward.

Education choice for every child would have prevented so many students from being locked out of classrooms over the past year, providing desperately needed education continuity.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal.