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Biden Administration Steps Up Push for School Reopenings

A day after President Biden said teachers should be prioritized for vaccination, the first lady and the education secretary hit the road to urge communities to return to in-person learning.

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The first lady, Jill Biden, and the education secretary, Miguel Cardona, advocated a return to in-person learning during the first of two visits they made on Wednesday to reopened schools.CreditCredit…Pool photo by Mandel Ngan
  • March 3, 2021

MERIDEN, Conn. — Having told educators that they would soon be vaccinated, the Biden administration began an aggressive push on Wednesday to drum up support for reopening schools, putting on a show of unity with the leaders of teachers unions and highlighting measures to keep students and staff safe from the coronavirus.

A day after President Biden announced a new federal program to give teachers nationwide access to at least a first dose of the vaccine by the end of March, the administration sought to position itself as intent on opening schools as soon as possible while also addressing the concerns of teachers that their fears were being ignored.

To carry the message, the White House dispatched the first lady, Jill Biden, and the newly confirmed education secretary, Miguel Cardona, on a trip to Connecticut and Pennsylvania to emphasize that teachers should no longer fear returning unprotected to the classroom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that teachers do not have to be vaccinated for schools to reopen safely.

Getting shots into the arms of educators and school staff would be his “top priority” as education secretary, Dr. Cardona said in Connecticut, where he and the first lady were joined by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“We must continue to reopen America’s schools for in-person learning as quickly and as safely as possible,” Dr. Cardona said during a stop at a school district in Meriden, his hometown. “The president recognizes this, which is why he took bold action yesterday to get teachers and school staff vaccinated quickly.”

But it is not clear how quickly educators will be able to get vaccinated. At least 38 states and the District of Columbia are already vaccinating school workers to some extent, according to a New York Times database. But shortages of the vaccine continue to slow progress in inoculating those who are eligible.

On Tuesday, the White House coronavirus response team held a call with governors and told them not to expect any extra vaccine allotment until later in the spring. An extra boost of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they were told, would not be arriving until the first week of April.

Participants on the call were confused later in the day when Mr. Biden announced that teachers would be prioritized for the vaccine, even though the available amount of vaccine would not be increased, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.

“We were on the phone with the Biden administration for an hour yesterday, and this didn’t come up at all,” Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, told reporters on Wednesday at a news conference.

The president’s decision to vaccinate teachers was also unexpected news to some health officials. A memo that circulated on Wednesday among some at the C.D.C. shared guidance to vaccinate teachers, but Mr. Biden’s order was characterized as a surprise. “We learned when you did about the executive order put forth by President Biden yesterday,” read the memo, which was obtained by The New York Times and had been sent to officials in several states. “The pharmacies will be told to update the eligibility to this population; there is not choice.”

Caught between the priorities of parents, teachers unions and Americans who are desperate for the vaccine, White House officials greeted Dr. Cardona’s confirmation with a full list of tasks for him. As Connecticut’s education commissioner, he successfully reopened most of the state’s schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The White House now expects Dr. Cardona to push for reopenings on a national scale, even as teachers unions around the country raise concerns about the safety of returning to the classroom, and as questions arise about conflicts with existing health guidelines that vaccinations should not be required for teachers to resume in-person learning.

White House officials said Mr. Biden’s move to increase vaccinations for educators is based on the president’s view that teachers are essential workers who are crucial to getting the country back to normal. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that inoculating teachers was “not a prerequisite,” but that Mr. Biden believed they should be “prioritized.”

Ms. Psaki defended the decision to prioritize teachers against some critics who said doing so was undermining the effort to distribute the vaccine more equitably to minority communities.

“The program is beyond teachers and includes bus drivers, janitorial workers, child care workers — a work force that is broadly incredibly diverse,” she said. “Second, getting kids back to school is one of the most equitable steps we can take because what we’ve seen statistically is that Black and Latino students are disproportionately experiencing learning loss.”

On Tuesday, after Mr. Biden announced his plan, Washington State added educators and licensed child care workers to its top tier for priority “immediately,” accelerating its plan by a few weeks.

The purpose of the first lady’s trip on Wednesday, the White House said, was for Dr. Biden, an English professor who has a doctorate in educational leadership, and Dr. Cardona to review safety and mitigation measures schools have put in place for in-person learning.

Yet the political dynamics of the trip were on display: The presidents of two of the country’s largest teachers unions, whose members helped get Mr. Biden elected and who have protested in-person learning over fears that reopening cannot be done safely, joined Dr. Biden for the tours.

After Ms. Weingarten met Dr. Biden in Connecticut, Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, or N.E.A., met her in Pennsylvania. Dr. Biden is a longtime association member.

The unions have provided feedback to the White House and the C.D.C., such as detailing the realities that their members — including those who have been teaching in buildings since the beginning of the school year — are facing.

The most pressing concern the administration has heard from teachers, several officials said, was that teachers would not be prioritized in the vaccination process.

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“Since the vaccines were released, N.E.A. and educators across the country have been advocating for educator priority to keep students, educators and families safe,” Ms. Pringle said in a statement. “President Biden heard us — and we applaud his work.”

Ms. Weingarten, who leads the country’s second-largest teachers union and has supported the C.D.C.’s recent position on teacher vaccinations, in particular is said to have a direct line to the president’s inner circle. She praised Mr. Biden’s announcement, saying that with the new federal guidelines and vaccination push, her union was “confident that within the next weeks and months, we’ll be able to be back in classrooms.”

Still, while some local teachers unions say vaccinations are enough to allow for safe in-person learning, others are calling for districts to improve ventilation and ensure social distancing of at least six feet — two measures that have been shown to reduce the spread of the virus. The C.D.C. guidelines emphasize six feet of distancing only when prevalence of the virus is high, and nodded only briefly to the need for ventilation. Some union members have also insisted that schools not open until the infection rates in their communities are very low.

For Caitlin Hickey, a prekindergarten teacher in New York City, the opportunity to get vaccinated in January through her local union was a relief. Her father died of Covid-19 last April, and her mother, who lives with her, has an underlying health condition and she was afraid to take the virus home. She is teaching remotely because the families of her students chose virtual learning, but she is in a building with other children and adults.

“I was dying to get the vaccine,” Ms. Hickey said. “It was a weight off my shoulders. It’s the only way we’re really going to get back to some type of normalcy. The pandemic is not going to go away on its own.”

Epidemiological models have shown that vaccinating teachers could greatly reduce infections in schools. “It should be an absolute priority,” said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Still, requiring that teachers be vaccinated could greatly slow the pace of school reopenings, he and other experts acknowledged.

In guidelines issued last month, the C.D.C. urged that elementary and secondary schools be reopened as soon as possible, and offered a step-by-step plan to get students back in classrooms. While the agency recommended giving teachers priority, it said that vaccination should “nevertheless not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.”

Days later, the C.D.C. released a study that concluded that “educators might play a central role in in-school transmission” and that “school mitigation measures and Covid-19 vaccination of educators is a critical component of preventing in-school transmission.”

Many local teachers unions remain adamantly opposed to restarting in-person learning now, saying that school districts do not have the resources or the inclination to follow C.D.C. guidance on coronavirus safety.

Without vaccinations, the unions say, adults in schools would remain vulnerable to serious illness or death from Covid-19 because children, while much less prone to illness, can nevertheless readily carry the virus. Studies suggest that children under 10 transmit the virus about half as efficiently as adults do, but older children may be much like adults.

Katie Rogers reported from Meriden, and Erica L. Green from Washington. Apoorva Mandavilli contributed reporting from New York.