U.S. Schools Can and Should Open Faster

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In December, President-elect Joe Biden announced his policy on opening schools. “My team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days,” he said, while promising to provide the funds needed to make them safe.

Last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki seemed to change the target. The new goal was for “more than 50%” of schools to have “some teaching in classrooms” on “at least one day a week.” Even before that, the target had been adjusted. Prior to being sworn in, Biden switched his pledge from opening a majority of schools to opening a majority of K-8 schools. Asked about his position during last night’s town-hall event in Wisconsin, the president seemed to pivot again. He said there’d been a “mistake in the communication.” He said his goal was to get schools “fully open” and that he thought many schools would stay open through the summer. But the policy is still a muddle, and the president failed to set matters straight.

This lack of clarity and ambition is a grave disservice to the country’s children, particularly those from subpar schools, where the educational divide had already left them vulnerable. By one measure, about two-thirds of public schools currently have either full in-person teaching (41%) or so-called hybrid learning (26%). Doing a lot better than this is both urgent and entirely feasible.

Even as things stand, the schools pose little risk. Nationwide they’ve been shown to have extremely low levels of transmission — particularly in elementary schools. Biden is also asking Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion Covid relief package that includes $130 billion to help schools adapt. That sum, according to the administration’s own analysis, might need to be supplemented later, and the money already promised for schools in previous measures has been too slow to arrive. Nonetheless, substantial support is on the way.

At the same time, the pace of vaccinations is accelerating. New CDC guidelines prioritize vaccinations for teachers — while affirming there’s no reason schools can’t reopen safely without them. Given all this, the administration could and should set a much more ambitious goal for getting schools back to work.

Biden’s approach to vaccinations can serve as a model. On taking office, he saw that the nation was on track to fulfill his earlier promise of 100 million shots in his first 100 days. He pushed to do better, and the U.S. is now on track to hit 150 million.

He should do the same on schools. To put it bluntly, a school that’s giving in-person instruction once a week isn’t open. Distance learning doesn’t work, and the resulting educational deficit is going to inflict terrible and possibly irreparable damage on the poorest and most disadvantaged children.

The biggest impediment to getting this right is the resistance of teachers’ unions. Biden and his soon-to-be-confirmed secretary of education need to make the case more forcefully — in addition to getting funds out the door and into schools. The president’s respect for the teaching profession is well-known, but that doesn’t justify submitting to plainly unreasonable demands or causing such harm to the nation’s children.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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