Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, cautioned Thursday that President Joe Biden’s push to reopen most schools within 100 days “may not happen” as the US continues to grapple with high Covid-19 transmission.
“The President is taking very seriously the issue … both from the student standpoint and from the teacher standpoint,” Fauci said during a virtual event sponsored by the National Education Association.
“He really wants to and believes that the schools need to reopen in the next 100 days, essentially all the K to 8 schools, within 100 days. That’s the goal. That may not happen because there may be mitigating circumstances, but what he really wants to do is everything within his power to help get to that.”
Biden is pushing Congress to approve another $170 billion for K-12 schools, colleges and universities to help them operate safely in person or facilitate remote learning. Congress approved $82 billion in aid for schools in December, which Biden has said he views as a “down payment.”
The new funding would be part of a broad $1.9 trillion relief package that would also include expanding unemployment benefits and direct stimulus checks.
“I’ll give you a word: Money,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain told CNN’s Erin Burnett this week when asked why he thought some public schools across the country are still closed in places where private schools are open. “That’s why the President of the United States sent a plan into Congress, even before he took office, to make the investments you need to make the schools safe.”
Klain referenced a study published Tuesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in which researchers looked at data on 17 K-12 schools in rural Wood County, Wisconsin, which conducted in-person learning last fall. They found lower Covid-19 case rates than in the community at large, and few cases of in-school transmission. Cohorts of 11 to 20 students from the same grade level met for classes and lunch indoors, where students were often seated next to the same person.
“Students in very small pods, classes of about 11 or 12, distanced, in a rural area — they can go to school safely,” Klain said, adding that “in other states, we haven’t seen those kinds of investments.”
Biden has also signed several executive actions to help support the reopening goal and establish a national strategy to get the coronavirus pandemic under control, but the measures stop short of requiring schools to reopen within any set time frame.
One executive order directs the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide reopening guidance to schools with a focus on masking, testing and cleaning. A separate presidential memorandum offers reimbursement to schools for purchases of personal protective equipment through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund.
“The educational community, the teachers and the teams associated with education are such an absolutely critical part of society in general,” Fauci said Thursday. “But also a very critical part of our response to this outbreak — because we’re not going to get back to normal until we get the children back in school.”