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Biden to request funding to reopen schools

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WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden will ask Congress for tens of billions of dollars to help schools safely open doors, aiming to have a majority open for in-person classes within 100 days of his inauguration. But it’s unclear how he will measure success.

The Trump administration has not kept track of how many schools or districts are open for in-person classes. Researchers have studied samples of districts, but no one has a definitive national picture of how many schools are open. With districts open throughout Texas and Florida and in many other communities, it’s possible the Biden goal has already been reached.

“It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school,” Biden said in December. “My team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”

Several experts in education policy said they had no idea how the incoming Biden administration plans to measure the number of schools that are open.

Khalilah Harris, managing director for K-12 Education Policy at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said Biden’s call was more of “a values statement” than an explicit measurement.

“I think it is a good goal, but I do not know how they plan to measure or track it,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents urban school systems.

A transition spokesman noted that the federal government does not have tools to measure school reopenings and said the incoming administration is “working to enhance the federal government’s ability to effectively capture this data and assess progress toward safely reopening America’s schools.”

Some people familiar with the transition planning said Biden will confine the goal to K-8 schools. Younger students have more trouble with remote learning and are less likely to become infected with the novel coronavirus, which can cause the illness covid-19. The people familiar with the planning said hybrid systems, in which students learn part time from home and part time from school, probably would count as open.

With the virus surging, it appears that districts are moving in the opposite direction. Many districts that were open have closed, according to a new analysis from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which tracks a national sample of 477 school districts.

It found that in early November, 21% of school districts were operating remotely. By December, that had risen to 32%.

Still, the center’s data suggests that three-quarters of districts had some form of in-person learning – well over a majority.

The Council of the Great City Schools keeps a tally of its members and found 18 districts closed after having reopened this fall. Another 28 school systems are open now, the group said, including Chicago Public Schools, which opened this week even as many teachers refused to return to their classrooms, citing safety concerns.

Biden is hoping to help, partly with a hefty federal aid package. The K-12 schools piece of his proposal is expected to reach $100 billion, people familiar with the planning said. That’s more for schools than two previous relief packages combined.

The proposal, which would require congressional approval, is expected to include funding for rapid testing of students and teachers in schools, and for mitigation of virus transmission. That includes the cost of cleaning, personal protective equipment and upgrades to ventilation systems.

The administration is expected to request funding for mitigation of damage caused by the pandemic, such as mental health support for students and tutoring programs to help recover lost time in the classroom and learning.

“It is absolutely imperative to have a package that focuses on both rescue and recovery,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “I’m glad that the president-elect is putting forward a comprehensive package and someone is acting like a president.”

Once Biden takes office, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to issue a new set of guidelines for schools that better helps administrators safely operate in-person classes. Districts have been asking for guidance on quarantining – who needs to do so after an exposure to someone who tests positive, and for how long.

Another key to reopening will be in getting vaccinations to teachers. The CDC has recommended that states include educators in the second-highest priority group, but the vaccine rollout has been inconsistent across the country.

A top priority will be to send resources to states and communities to help them vaccinate large numbers of people, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota and a member of Biden’s covid-19 advisory board. “The one thing that’s going to help teachers more than anything is getting this vaccine out.”

– Washington Post