Pressed on school reopening, Becerra says it’s a ‘local issue’

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Xavier Becerra, President Biden’s nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday when pressed about school reopenings that they are a “local issue,” declining to answer a specific question about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a likely key centrist vote if Becerra is to receive any Republican support, asked Becerra at his confirmation hearing about CDC guidance that students be spaced 6 feet apart, rather than 3 feet apart as other experts have recommended, saying it could be a barrier to reopening schools. 

“Won’t maintaining this 6-foot recommendation, despite these very credible alternative views by health care experts, prevent many schools from resuming full-time in-person learning this year and possibly even into next year?” Collins asked. “And keep in mind some of these students have not been in school since last March.” 

Becerra did not directly address the issue of 3 feet versus 6 feet in the guidance. 

“Senator, you pose a question that’s on the mind of parents throughout this country every day,” he replied. “The preeminent concern must be the safety of our families.” 

“I will tell you what I believe is the best approach, and that is to let science guide us, and let the experts determine when it is safe, remembering that schools and education are a local issue,” Becerra said. He added that the federal government can provide guidance and resources. 

The ultimate decision on school reopening is a local one. But the federal government provides important guidance. 

The Biden administration has been under heavy pressure on the issue.

Republicans say the administration is not being aggressive enough in pushing for schools to reopen, despite research that it can be done safely with precautions. But reopening measures have faced significant resistance from some teachers unions, a powerful ally to Democrats.

The Biden administration has called for first passing more funding for schools to make safety improvements, as part of the president’s $1.9 trillion relief plan, though Republicans point out Congress already passed billions of dollars for schools in December. 

The CDC also put out guidance earlier this month for school reopenings, but some experts have criticized it for being too cautious.

In addition to questioning the need for 6 feet instead of 3 feet between students, many experts have questioned the CDC cautioning against the full reopening of schools based on the level of virus spread in the surrounding community. Many experts say if schools follow precautions like mask wearing and distancing, they can reopen safely regardless of the conditions in the surrounding community.

Tags CDC confirmation Coronavirus Health and Human Services Hearing Joe Biden school reopenings Social distancing Susan Collins Xavier Becerra

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