Biden’s Goal for School Reopenings Suddenly Became More Attainable
After pledging to reopen the majority of schools for in-person learning in 100 days, the White House now says a school is considered open if it holds classes at least one day a week.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN pledged to reopen the majority of elementary and middle schools for in-person learning in the first 100 days of his administration. Now, the White House has clarified that it considers a school open if it offers students in-person instruction at least one day a week – a much lower threshold than his initial pitch suggested.
“His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools, so more than 50 percent, open by Day 100 of his presidency,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday during the daily press briefing when asked what Biden’s definition of reopening is. “That means some teaching in classrooms, so at least one day a week. Hopefully, it’s more. And obviously it is as much as it’s safe in each school and local districts.”
When pressed for clarification about whether teachers would be physically present in school buildings, Psaki repeated the metric.
“Teaching at least one day a week in the majority of schools by Day 100,” she said.
It’s unclear whether providing in-person instruction for one day a week was always the metric the White House was using to count school reopenings, but it marks the first time a Biden administration official specified that detail.
Using that definition, Biden may have already reached his stated goal, according to at least one school reopening tracker. Burbio, one of the few outlets navigating reopenings, reported last week that more than half of the country’s 53 million K-12 students are enrolled in schools that offer at least some in-person instruction – though that could mean anything from a school that’s only open for students with disabilities to one operating on a hybrid model that offers all students a chance to learn in classrooms one to three days a week.
Without any type of standardized reporting requirement, it’s unclear exactly how many students are actually being taught by teachers inside school buildings. The Biden administration has tasked the Education Department’s Institute of Education Statistics to create a database to better understand the number of students receiving various types of education, but the monumental effort is just underway.
This is not the first time the president has appeared to move the goalposts. In December 2020, then President-elect Biden pledged to reopen schools, saying it should be “a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school.” But weeks later, he specified that goal as meaning schools that serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Now, as a confluence of hurdles overwhelms the school reopening debate – many of them out of the control of the Biden administration – the metric has suddenly become more attainable.
For school administrators, it comes as no surprise.
“I think what a lot of this is, is adjusting to reality,” says Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive of policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “He started with a very ambitious goal and you have to start with an ambitious goal. Did we ever think he’d get 100 percent of the schools open for 100 percent of the time in the first 100 days? Never. That’s not the role of the president.”
“Do we want more?” she asked. “Yes. But is it the place of the federal government to define and tell schools how many days they should be open? No.”
Ellerson Ng says it’s important to understand all the nuances at play, given school districts face different infection rates, have access to different amounts of resources and face different political challenges.
Indeed, the specified metric by Psaki likely reflects the reality that schools aren’t a monolith. There are urban, rural and suburban schools. There are schools that serve high percentages of low-income families and schools that serve families whose median income crests $1 million. There are schools where the majority of children are Black and Latino, and schools where the majority of children are white.
They operate and are funded differently, they have different flavors of politics, they have different community transmission rates, and – most importantly for this debate – they’ve all adopted different ways to tackle teaching during the coronavirus pandemic. Those decisions, fluctuating between fully in-person to fully remote, are for the most part a reflection of the resources they have at their disposal – though not always.
Complicating matters further, there are inequities within school districts that make it difficult for superintendents, especially at big-city schools, to impose a single reopening plan. For example, schools in certain neighborhoods might be able to afford a new ventilation system or a new school nurse, thanks to the fundraising efforts of powerhouse PTAs, while schools in other neighborhoods might be able to afford a few hundred masks for staff. Alternatively, some communities might have the resources to reopen for in-person learning safely but decide not to if a high percentage of their population is at high-risk for a serious infection.
“We can’t hyper-focus on 100 days,” Ellerson Ng says. “It’s not a one-time goal. It has to be a growing goal. Really, we got to put our money where our mouth is to focus on offering in-instruction as widely as possible in the fall.”