GOP seizes on CDC research to press Biden on schools

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The Biden administration is coming under pressure from Republicans to support the reopening of schools after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published new research that says that schools can operate safely despite COVID-19.

The CDC researchers on Tuesday wrote that there is “little evidence” of widespread coronavirus transmission in schools when proper precautions are followed.

Teachers unions in several places across the country, however, are resisting the push to return to in-person instruction, arguing it is not safe. 

Experts stress that the picture is nuanced, and schools should not be thrown open without care and precautions. But they say repeated evidence from around the country shows that schools can open safely under the right conditions. 

That puts the new Biden administration in a tough political spot given support from teachers unions for the Democratic Party. And the GOP is seizing on the issue, arguing that schools should be reopened.

“Trust the ‘Science,’ Unless Special Interest Groups Say Otherwise,” read the title of a Wednesday statement from the office of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

“Open the schools,” the Senate Republican Conference tweeted simply on Tuesday night.

The Biden administration is calling on Congress to first pass $170 billion in new funding to help schools reopen safely, part of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus response package. It argues that this is a necessary step before seeking to reach its goal of having a majority of schools open in its 100 days.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain, pressed on the issue by CNN’s Erin Burnett in an interview on Tuesday night, defended the unions’ position after Burnett asked why “the unions in many cases are overruling what the studies show.”

“I don’t think unions are overruling studies,” he replied. “I think what you’re seeing is schools that haven’t made the investments to keep the students safe.”

Doug Andres, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pointed out Wednesday that Congress already passed $82 billion to help schools reopen in the relief package in December. 

The White House says the funding Congress passed in December is only a “down payment” and that more is needed. 
“I think the President recognizes, as we all do, the value of having children in schools and doing that in a safe way,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday. But she said more funding is needed “for getting schools the equipment, the testing, the ventilation, in some cases, that they need.”
“Nobody wants to be having a conversation in May or June about why schools are not reopened,” she added.  

The CDC article in question, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday, stated that “the preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring,” about limited coronavirus transmission in schools.

The article also stated that precautions like universal mask-wearing, spreading people out and not over-crowding classrooms, as well as improving ventilation, can all help.

Klain pointed out that a CDC study of schools in Wisconsin that effectively prevented transmission involved students in small “cohorts” of less than 20 students to help limit the spread. 

The CDC researchers did not say that vaccinating teachers is needed to return in-person, contrary to the position taken by some teachers unions. 

“If schools are willing to strongly adhere to mitigation strategies they can open safely,” said Daniel Benjamin, a researcher at Duke University studying school reopening. “If you don’t have the mitigation strategies it’s going to be a dumpster fire.”

He recommended that schools begin with hybrid models, where half the students are in school in-person some days of the week, and half other days, to prevent overcrowding. 

He said a step as simple as universal mask-wearing is most key, and that potentially expensive widespread testing is not a necessity. Administrators should do random, unannounced checks to ensure mask compliance in classrooms, he said. 

“If the schools are not fully committed to providing mitigation measures and strictly enforce them, I don’t want to send adults there,” he said. 

Some teachers unions have drawn criticism for what are seen as unrealistic demands. 

The teachers union in Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, tweeted earlier this month that “a safe return to schools includes 14 days of no community spread,” which would mean coronavirus has been all but eliminated in the area, as well as “staff & student vaccinations.”

Kimberly Adams, the president of the union, said Wednesday when asked about the tweet that it was “just the safest way to return” but that the union is still holding out for all staff who return to be vaccinated and wants community spread to fall below 200 cases per 100,000 residents, the level above which the CDC has found to be “highest risk” for schools. 

In Chicago, a teachers strike is possible as the union voted to oppose the district’s plan for returning to school in person.  

Researchers point out, though, that not only is education at risk without in-person schooling, but broader factors like mental health can also be damaged. 

Clark County, Nevada, is accelerating the return of in-person schooling after a string of suicides by students, The New York Times reported.  

Republicans think a widespread desire of Americans to get back to in-person school is a potent political issue for them against Democrats. 

“If Republicans can turn the page on the last three months and begin a unified message against this they will have majorities in both chambers after midterms,” tweeted Josh Holmes, a McConnell adviser, responding to Klain’s interview defending the teachers unions. 

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, stressed in a statement that teachers do want to go back to school, but have safety concerns.

“Teachers know how important in-person instruction is, but we have to make it safe,” she said. “Testing and vaccination, as well as masking and distancing, are crucial, as are accommodations for educators at risk.”

Schools should also be viewed in a broader context of what other establishments are open in a community, experts say. Some local leaders have taken criticism for allowing bars and indoor dining to remain open while schools are closed. 

Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said at the end of November on ABC that his mantra is: “Close the bars and keep the schools open.”

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 Jen Psaki Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Ron Klain
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