What the White House 'Help is Here' tour needs to get a passing grade

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First lady Jill Biden will sell the White House’s school reopening campaign on Wednesday to its key audience — teachers, students and school district leaders — at the administration’s summit on opening schools.

It’s a move to gin up momentum as many educators and families remain divided about their safety. But her positive outlook from the “Help is Here” tour last week may not be enough to assuage on-the-ground concerns that the country isn’t fully equipped to handle in-person school for all.

Two months into the Biden administration, millions of children are still learning at home. And President Joe Biden has deployed the first lady, an educator for more than 30 years, to promote his campaign for opening schools by May 1. Despite support from the Democratic White House and pressure from Republican lawmakers, sending students into classrooms will take more than rhetoric. Biden must overcome an aging school bus driver workforce, apprehensive parents of color, the lack of vaccine approval for young children and refusal by teachers unions to return to classrooms.

Congressional Republicans have excoriated school reopening guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for being too restrictive. The agency loosened social distancing requirements amid new research and an uproar on Capitol Hill, but teachers’ union leaders are skeptical of the changes.

“It’s time our kids return to the classroom. Schools remain closed because of fear and politics, not science,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and Anthony Fauci just before the guidance was updated. “Enough is enough. Our kids are in crisis.”

Here are four reasons many schools could remain closed for in-person learning, despite the administration’s best efforts at reopening them.

1. There might not be enough bus drivers.

When students switched to remote learning, school bus drivers left the industry in droves. Replacing them is a slow process, with local motor vehicle agencies offering limited opportunities to take licensing exams during pandemic shutdowns.

“As we enter into this transition we are concerned, especially in the fall, if we’re going to have enough qualified drivers to take the children back to school, and that’s the number one hurdle, by far,” said Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association.

Drivers, about a third of whom are age 60 or older, have left their jobs to avoid catching coronavirus. Many haven’t returned because of the “generous unemployment benefits” offered by Congress, Macysyn said. “In many cases, going on unemployment was more lucrative than maintaining your job.”

NSTA represents private school bus operators, which account for 40 percent of the nation’s 480,000 school buses that shuttle about 26 million children to and from school.

When students stopped taking the bus to school last spring, private bus contractors lost nearly $4 billion, Macysyn said, and they’re expecting billions more in losses this year. Many school districts stopped paying private bus contractors during the pandemic, but contractors were still expected to maintain costly business operations, he said.

“You still have a bus payment, an insurance payment on that bus, you still have to pay property taxes on where you have the bus,” Macysyn said. “If you’re not paying contractors to maintain that fleet, then how can there be an expectation that the fleet will be ready at a moment’s notice when children return to school?”

2. Parents of color are scared.

For families of color who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, a return to in-person learning comes with fear and uncertainty.

About 30 percent of Black Americans know someone who has died from Covid-19, compared to just 15 percent of white Americans, according to a poll from the University of Chicago and the Associated Press.

“Even with the schools that reopened in the fall and are reopening now to in-person learning, we have a huge amount of parents that don’t feel that the schools are safe yet,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.

“And so they’re making the decision to keep their students at home. It’s a disproportionate number of Black and brown and Indigenous families,” she added. “Why? Because of course, they’ve experienced this coronavirus in a much different way than others.”

More Americans say that learning loss is a factor that should be considered in reopening schools, according to a February report from the Pew Research Center. But, the data shows varying perspectives from communities of color.

“Black, Hispanic and Asian adults are more likely than White adults to say that the risks to teachers and students of getting or spreading the coronavirus should be given a lot of consideration in deciding whether to reopen schools for in-person instruction,” the report found. “Black adults are particularly likely to say these health risks should be a major factor.”

Bringing kids to classrooms later in the year may ease some parents’ anxiety, said Leslie Boggs, president of National PTA.

“I really believe that there’ll be some now that are just kind of waffling, but by fall — by the beginning of this next school year — everybody’s going to be up and ready to go,” she added.

3. Vaccines aren’t available for young learners.

A growing number of states now say teens age 16 or older are eligible for vaccines. But it’s going to take more time before younger children are able to get shots.

Ongoing studies are examining the vaccine’s safety in high school and elementary school-aged children. Moderna recently announced it dosed the first children in coronavirus vaccine trials that investigate the shots’ safety for kids as young as six months old, making the company the first vaccine developer to begin trials for its coronavirus vaccine in young children. Pfizer, meanwhile, has studied its vaccine for kids as young as 12.

“For high school students, it looks like they will be available to get vaccinated in the beginning of the fall, very likely for the fall term,” Fauci, the president’s chief medical officer, told lawmakers last week. “We anticipate we’ll have enough data to be able to vaccinate these younger children by the first quarter of 2022.”

Seventeen national education, labor and health organizations recently asked the Biden administration to “urgently focus resources in developing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine for use in children.”

“Unfortunately, until a Covid-19 vaccine is authorized for safe use in children, we are concerned that many students will continue to be educated in virtual settings or remain unable to participate in other important in-person academic and social opportunities that schools can provide,” the groups said in a letter to the White House.

4. Teachers unions are skeptical of new CDC guidance.

The nation’s leading public health agency offered a major amendment to its high-profile school reopening guidance last week: Students attending in-person classes only need to stay 3 feet apart, rather than 6, as long as universal masking is maintained.

The announcement prompted a muted, even skeptical, reaction from the leaders of the nation’s top teachers unions.

“3-foot distancing between students in classrooms will be particularly challenging for large urban school districts and those without the resources necessary to fully implement the very Covid-19 mitigation measures that the CDC says are essential to safe in-person instruction,” Pringle tweeted on Friday.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said her union would “reserve judgment” until it reviewed the new guidelines, especially as they apply to districts with high rates of community spread and older school buildings with poor ventilation.

“We are concerned this change has been driven by a lack of physical space rather than the hard science on aerosol exposure and transmission,” Weingarten said in a statement.

Six feet of distance is still recommended among school staff, between staff and students, in common areas, when students are eating and during activities that require increased exertion such as gym class, choir or band practice.

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