Biden administration sends conflicting signals on school reopenings

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The Biden administration has sent conflicting signals about when and how to expect schools to reopen, with the White House at times appearing to downplay messaging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has sought to minimize the scope of a CDC study that identified schools as low-transmission zones for the coronavirus and has brushed back CDC Director Rochelle Walensky for saying that the science supports the notion that teachers can return to classrooms before they’ve been vaccinated.

At one point, Psaki said Walensky was speaking in her “personal capacity” when she said that teachers being vaccinated should not be a prerequisite for returning to in-person learning.

The mixed messaging underscores the tricky politics Biden faces as elected officials clash with teachers unions in Democratic strongholds over how quickly to reopen classrooms.                                                                                                 

Some public health experts are chiding the White House for downplaying analysis from CDC leaders, warning that the apparent tension could undermine the agency’s authority at a pivotal moment for the virus.

“I don’t know if there is a split, but it was alarming last week when the White House implied that the CDC director was speaking in her personal capacity, because when it comes to safety and what is required to reduce or mitigate the spread, that’s a CDC question that should only be answered by the CDC,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“I found that worrisome because we have to affirm and assert CDC’s expertise here. It’s a particularly tricky issue and it’s important to be clear that there is no political interference and that there is no agency more qualified to weigh in on this than the CDC,” she added. 

The Biden administration has made it a point of pride to have science drive their pandemic response after the Trump administration sought to downplay the virus and clashed with its own health experts.

The White House position is that they’re waiting for official CDC guidance on school reopenings, rather than relying on CDC studies or remarks from agency leaders about what the science says.

A White House aide said “there is zero daylight between the CDC and WH on reopening” and that as soon as CDC guidance is released, the White House will “lift it up.” Walensky says the CDC guidance on school reopenings should be out in the next few days.

Democrats insist that they’re united behind the Biden plan to reopen schools once Congress passes a COVID-19 relief bill that includes an additional $130 billion for schools to implement additional safeguards aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus.

But Democratic divisions are spilling into public view as tensions boil over between elected officials and unions in states and cities run by Democrats.

Democratic governors and mayors from Chicago to San Francisco feel enormous pressure to reopen schools as data shows children are falling behind in their studies, delinquency rates are rising and many young people are suffering isolation trauma.

Most private schools for wealthy children are open, while most public schools remain closed, raising concerns about equity in education for low-income students and racial minorities.

At the same time, unions, which have enormous sway in the Democratic Party, are expressing concern about reopening public schools too quickly as new viral strains emerge. 

Some unions are saying their teachers won’t return to the classroom until they’ve been vaccinated, putting them at odds with the CDC. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfood (D) have criticized the unions for what they describe as unrealistic demands. Republicans have been hammering Democrats on school reopenings, viewing it as a potent wedge issue heading into the midterm elections. 

“The administration seems to be trying to balance providing consistency for students by opening schools — a relief to some parents — and the valid concerns from teachers and their unions to make sure their safety is a priority before returning to the classroom,” said Basil Smikle, who served as the executive director of the New York Democratic Party. 

Biden has set a goal of reopening schools in his first 100 days, but data released by the CDC has put pressure on the administration to move quickly.

CDC researchers wrote in a study last month that there is “little evidence” that the coronavirus can be widely transmitted in schools when precautions like masking and social distancing are in place.

Psaki at the time questioned whether that study should apply to public schools in cities, saying it was conducted in “an area that was more rural in Wisconsin.”

At a recent CNN town hall, Walensky acknowledged that in an urban “high-prevalence community, you’re going to still have high transmission in the schools,” although it will be less than it is in the broader community.

Walensky said Monday that the threat of transmission in all schools is low when appropriate precautions are taken.

“There’s very little transmission happening within the schools, especially when there’s masking and social distancing occurring,” she said.

A spokesperson for the CDC told The Hill that Walensky’s comments about teachers not needing to be vaccinated before returning to school was “based on [Walensky’s] review of the science.”

The White House has said it will not take a position on that issue until the CDC releases official guidance, separate from the CDC’s studies or Walensky’s personal review.  

But public health experts have bristled at Psaki downplaying Walensky’s remarks on teacher vaccinations, saying it undermines the CDC to claim that her statements do not represent official guidance.

“Biden said [he] wouldn’t interfere with scientists, but that’s what this walk back is,” Joseph Allen, associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said over Twitter. “Undermining new CDC Director 3 weeks in is not a good look.”

One Democratic strategist said the White House is “walking a tightrope on the issue.”

“This is all new for everyone and I don’t think anyone has the answers if we’re being real,” the strategist said. “I think they’re trying to figure things out as they happen and that’s why there’s no real consistency happening. I think it’s a question of the White House finding their footing.”  

Democratic strategist Joel Payne said that while there may be disagreements over how far to go in ensuring schools reopen safely, that the public understands the Biden administration’s core view is to move to reopen as quickly and as safely as possible once a relief package is passed.

“The president has set some aggressive goals for getting students back to school and I’m sure there will be some tough conversations among the president’s advisers about how best to do that,” he said. “But I still think the public understands the overall position and objective of the Biden administration is to reopen schools as soon and as safely as possible.”

Tags biden administration Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Gavin Newsom Jen Psaki Pandemic Reopening schools Rochelle Walensky

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