Biden Order Charts Path to Help Schools Reopen, Avoid Virus Risk

  • Plan backs vaccines, contact tracing, smaller classes
  • Reverses Trump on in-home broadband to narrow digital divide

More federal help is coming for schools attempting to reopen campuses or teach students remotely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order Thursday directing federal agencies to get schools resources for Covid-19 testing, contact tracing, and vaccination for teachers. The order also calls on the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide new guidance on steps schools and colleges on whether and how they can reopen safely.

The order is Biden’s first step to reach a goal of reopening a majority of schools within 100 days of his inauguration. Biden has also called for Congress to direct new aid to schools as part of a $1.9 trillion stimulus proposal.

After the coronavirus became widespread the U.S. last March, schools across the country closed their doors and switched to remote instruction. Millions of students continue to attend classes from home almost a year later, fueling concerns about slower academic progress and growing inequities for disadvantaged students.

The Trump administration pushed for schools to reopen last year but education groups complained that federal guidance on safe operation of campuses was inadequate or inconsistent. Educators including the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest teachers union, have backed Biden’s call for campus reopenings as long as schools get significant new federal support.

Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A student raises his hand during an online class at home in Miami on Sept. 3, 2020.

The Biden plan drew praise from AFT President Randi Weingarten, who said that educators’ concerns about the virus have often been minimized in school reopening debates.

“We are already seeing the opposite with the Biden administration: They recognize that safety is paramount, and we are working with them to relay the direct experience of teachers who’ve tried valiantly to educate their kids absent any federal leadership or support,” she said in a statement.

Digital Divide

Biden’s executive order encourages the Federal Communications Communication to use funding for broadband connections to support remote learning in students’ homes. That step was opposed over the past year by the Trump administration’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, who has left the agency.

Pai argued the FCC was restricted by law from using existing funds for internet connectivity outside of school buildings. Democrats on the commission have indicated they want to act quickly to help get more students connected to the internet.

One estimate last fall found 17 million school-age children lack adequate internet access to attend classes at home. Almost $7 billion is needed to close the “digital divide,” advocates say.

Broadband Aid, Remote Learning Likely Democratic FCC Priorities

The executive order also calls for the Education and HHS departments to collect data on how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted students and schools It also calls for the creation of a clearinghouse for schools to share information on operating safely.

A separatememorandum addressed to the heads of the Defense and Homeland Security departments directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide reimbursement to t states and schools for the cost of supplies such as personal protective equipment in schools.

Biden issued those directives along with several other executive orders to carry out his response to the pandemic.

Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, said the proposal recognizes local leaders’ responsibility for reopening decisions and that “their voice, insights and recommendations should be reflected in any nationwide plan.”

New Covid Relief

Biden’s aid proposal called for $130 billion to cover K-12 school reopening measures and remote learning during the pandemic. That money would address mitigation efforts such as reduced class sizes and improving schools’ ventilation.

The stimulus plan sought another $35 billion in pandemic relief for colleges and $5 billion in discretionary funds for governors.

The administration has said it wants bipartisan support for its coronavirus legislation, though some Republicans have expressed skepticism after including a $900 billion package in a year-end spending package (Public Law 116-260).

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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