On Friday, when asked by NBC's Craig Melvin whether public schools should be fully open for in-person instruction this fall given the widespread availability of vaccines, President Joe Biden said, "Based on the science and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance], they should probably all be open."
When Melvin asked essentially the same question to first lady Jill Biden, who is not just the president's wife but also a card-carrying member of the National Education Association (NEA), and who met with two national teachers union presidents to talk reopening policy on Day Two of the presidency, the answer was more equivocal: "Well, I think it depends on, you know, we're following the science and what the CDC says. And so, each district is different, and so I think we have to listen to the experts and the science, and then the districts have to decide."
Zagging back toward full-throated reopening was Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who in a speech Friday said: "We can't wait to get more schools open full time. This spring. Every day we wait is another day of potential lost instructional time….Every day that passes is a lost opportunity."
And in case the overall message wasn't muddled enough, White House Senior Adviser Anita Dunn on Sunday clarified to CNN's Jake Tapper that the president said "'probably,' he did not say 'absolutely,'" adding: "It's an unpredictable virus. And it is a virus that has—you know, it mutates. So we can't look in a crystal ball and say what September looks like."
Yet private schools, and the preponderance of public schools in Republican-governed polities, do know what September will look like in their buildings—full of kids, every day.
In one important respect, the White House's stammering on this issue does not matter overmuch. As illustrated by this burbio graphic showing the state-by-state percentages of public schools still teaching all-remote or hybrid, reopening is determined locally, with the wide variances at the poles clustered largely along partisan lines.
On the other hand, aside from the so-far ineffectual bully pulpit, there are two key ways that Washington could theoretically influence elementary and secondary reopening in the hinterlands: by attaching conditions to federal outlays, and by issuing safety guidelines for the operation of schools.
The conditions on federal aid do in fact exist. Yes, $81 billion of the initial $122 billion school component of the American Rescue Plan has already scooted out the door, along with an additional $12 billion for COVID testing. But to access the remaining $41 billion this summer, states and school districts have to convince the Department of Education that they have credible plans to "reopen schools" and maintain "continuous in-person school operation." There are strings attached.
What about the CDC guidelines? Well, famously, they have been a "stakeholder"-driven mess, careening from a February 12 guidance that if taken seriously would have kept more than 90 percent of schools at least partially closed in perpetuity, to—after near-universal backlash from scientists—a more reasonable (but still murky) recommendation that schools need not adhere to a social distancing requirement of an average of 6 feet.
The CDC's recommendations never did matter much in defiantly open states such as Florida, and also after the February botching in some blue states like Massachusetts as well. But they exert the most influence where teachers unions hold the biggest sway.
The national unions, who shower 95 percent of their political spending onto the Democratic Party, spent months withholding their final reopening terms until the new union-friendly Democratic administration took over in Washington. They exulted at that first February 12 guidance, then spat fire at the backpedal five weeks later.
A New York Post report over the past weekend, based on Freedom of Information Act requests from the conservative Americans for Public Trust, produced a paper trail detailing what had been obvious since February: The unions had their fingerprints all over that initial CDC guidance.
In at least two instances, language "suggestions" offered by the union were adopted nearly verbatim into the final text of the CDC document.
With the CDC preparing to write that schools could provide in-person instruction regardless of community spread of the virus, [American Federation of Teachers official Kelly] Trautner argued for the inclusion of a line reading "In the event of high community-transmission results from a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, a new update of these guidelines may be necessary." That language appeared on page 22 of the final CDC guidance.
The AFT also demanded special remote work concessions for teachers "who have documented high-risk conditions or who are at increased risk for … COVID-19," and that similar arrangements should extend to "staff who have a household member" with similar risks. A lengthy provision for that made it into the text of the final guidance.…
Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco who has written extensively on coronavirus, called the CDC-AFT emails "very, very troubling,"
"What seems strange to me here is there would be this very intimate back and forth including phone calls where this political group gets to help formulate scientific guidance for our major public health organization in the United State," Gandhi told The Post. "This is not how science-based guidelines should work or be put together."
With Monday's news that the Food and Drug Administration is on the verge of approving the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds, the slow-walking unions are running out of excuses for wringing the last drops of ransom from the governments they still influence. Many exhausted public school parents will likely just collapse with gratitude as the last holdout districts reopen (my kindergartener's Brooklyn school only switched to full-time this very morning). But they will also do so while making plans for September. Increasingly, further away from the intersection of government and education.