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Schools face new pressures to reopen for in-person learning

Schools across the country are facing new pressure to open for in-person learning this fall given the authorization of a vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 and new federal guidance that vaccinated people do not need to wear face masks indoors or outdoors.

Education Secretary Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaHouse lawmakers roll out legislation to protect schools against hackers Education Department says anti-trans discrimination prohibited by Title IX Education Department erasing debt of students defrauded at for-profit college MORE in an interview with The Hill reiterated that he expects all schools to fully reopen in the fall and said the vaccine and mask guidance updates this week will likely adjust how schools plan for the next school year.  

“I'm hopeful that with another month under our belt and continued lowered transmission rates, whatever fears some may have about fall are going to dissipate, and we're going to be able to return to school every day, all day for all children,” Cardona said. 

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At the same time, he sought to ease any political pressure on schools, saying whether to open and how to open shouldn’t become a political battle.

“I do believe that this isn't a partisan issue,” Cardona said. “It's a student issue. We need to get our students in school as quickly as possible. But I also know that we can't compromise safety to do that. “

Questions over when and how to reopen schools have been a politically divisive issue for months, as Republicans have criticized President BidenJoe BidenBaltimore police chief calls for more 'boots on the ground' to handle crime wave Biden to deliver remarks at Sen. John Warner's funeral Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump MORE’s administration for moving too slowly on reopening schools. 

The Education Department has not issued new guidance to schools at this point, but on Saturday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended the continued use of masks and social distancing in schools

The Pfizer-BioNTech authorization was granted for most high school-aged students after the administration said it achieved getting a majority of K-8 schools fully reopened by Biden’s 100th day in office. Cardona said the administration needs to “aim higher” beyond the original goal and give high schoolers the same opportunity to return. 

More officials have joined in the appeals to reopen for the upcoming school year in recent days, including Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony FauciAnthony FauciWhite House admits July 4 vaccine marker will be missed Overnight Health Care: White House acknowledges it will fall short of July 4 vaccine goal | Fauci warns of 'localized surges' in areas with low vaccination rates | Senate Finance leader releases principles for lowering prescription drug prices Poll: 58 percent say Fauci should not resign MORE, who said Thursday that school should be open “full blast” by the fall. 

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Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) — the second largest teachers union in the U.S. — announced her support Thursday as well as a $5 million campaign to get educators to meet with parents about returning strategies and safety precautions.

She told The Hill that vaccines became the “real game changer” in the effort to get children back in schools, saying it’s ramped up in the last few weeks amid a downturn in cases and emerging data on the vaccines’ effectiveness. 

“As a result, we felt that it was time to be unequivocal and unambiguous about reopening schools full time, and having the resources to recover and to reimagine,” she said. 

Republican lawmakers pointed to the Pfizer-BioNTech emergency authorization for 12 to 15-year-olds as a reason for schools to reopen fully in person after criticizing the administration for delaying sure a return.

While the Biden administration can provide guidance and recommendations, ultimately local and state officials determine when and how to reopen schools for in-person instruction. 

House Education and Labor Committee ranking member Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxGOP's Gohmert, Clyde file lawsuit over metal detector fines House GOP fights back against mask, metal detector fines Sixth House member issued ,000 security screening fine MORE (R-N.C.) and Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) both pressed Cardona in a letter last week to answer questions on how the department came up with its recommendations on reopening schools and whether that guidance was influenced by teachers unions.  

Foxx responded to the authorization by calling on Biden to “come out with an equally clear statement in support of reopening schools.”

“For months, the science has shown children could return to the classroom without posing a risk to themselves or others,” she said in a statement. “This latest update should give parents even more comfort about their students returning, but this also affirms what was already known – schools can and should immediately reopen for full-time, in-person instruction.”

Most parents have expressed support for their children to return to school in recent weeks, with a Hart Research study finding almost three in four parents backed a fully in-person school year starting in the fall, putting additional pressure on schools.

The pandemic and the related school closures have pushed millions of women out of the workforce, as many had to end their employment in order to take care of their children as schools operated remotely.

Odis Johnson Jr., the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said pressure to get schools running normally has been mounting since CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden support, gas tax questions remain on infrastructure Overnight Health Care: Biden touts 300 million vaccine doses in 150 days | Biden warns of 'potentially deadlier' delta variant | Public option fades with little outcry from progressives Biden warns of 'potentially deadlier' delta variant, urges public to get vaccine MORE in February said that teachers didn’t need to be vaccinated to reopen. 

“I would say that is going to be political pressure, and it might be a little bit different from the standpoint of families and kids,” he said. 

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Some parents still are worried, as the vaccine is not approved for any children younger than 12 and changing guidance for schools over the past year has confused many.

Averi Pakulis, the vice president of early childhood and public health policy at First Focus on Children, said people may need clarification about the CDC’s initial announcement on vaccinated people not needing masks and what that means for children, who either cannot or have yet to get their shots.

“I do think that's confusing frankly, for families,” she said. “And then of course, that leads into what does yesterday's announcement mean for schools, and that I think remains to be seen.”