WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is in a political firestorm over how and when to get more schools open amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Republicans seizing on confusion surrounding Biden's goal to reopen a majority of schools within his first 100 days to paint the president as beholden to teachers' unions at the expense of American families.
His administration in recent weeks has sent muddled and at times contradictory messages about Biden's goal. On Tuesday night, the president said his 100-day goal was to have most elementary schools open five days a week, seeming to conflict with his own press secretary, who had said last week that schools would be considered "open" if they held in-person classes even one day a week.
Biden's aides dismiss the controversy as a flareup that will disappear once the coronavirus is better under control and more school districts reopen, pointing to recent polls suggesting the public so far believes Biden is doing a good job in handling the issue.
But there could be lingering damage if Biden is seen to break an early promise on an issue so important to so many Americans.
Teachers' unions have said they support reopening schools once officials are able to make the buildings safer, but they need the $130 billion included in Biden's proposed American Rescue Plan to make it happen. And even if the bill passes Congress by the Democrats' mid-March deadline, it's unclear whether districts would be able to make changes in time to hasten school openings before the end of Biden's first 100 days.
Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said teachers are willing to go back to in-person learning "only if this bill is passed, only if the dollars get to the school districts in time for them to be able to do the work that they need to do in terms of spacing, in terms of sanitizing, and only if we get the majority of our teachers vaccinated."
"It's possible. But at this stage, at this point, it's not probable," he said.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in an interview she hopes Biden will meet his goal, and has said teachers should return to school when COVID-19 mitigation strategies are in place. But she noted that with social distancing, school still won't feel normal.
"You're not going to be able to have every single child in every single school in the normal way that we think about normal school," she said.
Until the nation reaches herd immunity with the widespread distribution of the vaccine, Weingarten said, "we're not going to be normal."
This leaves Biden caught between teachers' unions expressing caution towards his expanded goal on reopening, and critics who say just one day of classroom time a week for a majority of schools is far too little. Data from Burbio, a service that tracks school opening plans, recently reported that 66% of K-12 students already are learning in-person to some degree.
Republicans have been using the issue to hit at Democrats for weeks, pointing to data suggesting that many schools are safe to open now and charging that the Biden administration is siding with teachers' unions over science and the needs of American families.
"In places across America where public education depends on the whims of a powerful public sector union, the best interests of children have often come dead last," Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said during a floor speech earlier this month. "As the months have rolled by and the data have poured in, it's become clear that schools can open safely."
"An administration that puts facts and science first would be conducting a full-court press to open schools," McConnell said.
Republicans see the issue as one that has an urgent and immediate impact on nearly every American family, and one that's particularly salient for the kinds of suburban swing voters who can be decisive in tough House districts and statewide races.
Republican strategist Rory Cooper said the issue is particularly relevant in "collar counties around major urban areas." He and other parents are "enraged with the state of schooling right now," he said.
Children face "mental health issues, academic issues, physical and social issues. And the priority seems to be on the adults who worked in the school system, rather than the children who are supposed to benefit from it," Cooper said.
Democrats believe they can turn the issue back on any Republicans who vote against the COVID-19 aid bill, and plan to hammer those lawmakers for blocking funding to get kids back to school.
But Republicans are already using the issue against Democrats in races this year. One of California Gov. Gavin Newsom's Republican opponents, Kevin Faulconer, launched his campaign hammering Newsom on the issue after stepping off a yellow school bus, a symbol of the frustration of parents whose kids remain locked out of classrooms because of the pandemic.
While teachers' unions have embraced what they say was much-needed leadership from the president after the Trump administration left educators worried about their heath and without adequate protection, they also acknowledge that Biden's goal has put pressure on the unions to deliver.
"Has it made it harder, you know, on everyone to have an ambitious, bold goal for the American people? Of course," Weingarten said, adding that she gives Biden "credit for wanting to help families get to a sense of hope."
Part of what's contributing to the confusion, according to National Education Association President Becky Pringle, is that there's no one-size-fits-all program that schools can implement to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on how to safely reopen. She said she felt that's what was guiding the Biden administration's now-discarded one-day-a-week standard for reopening.
"It was an acknowledgment that every school has different challenges in meeting those guidelines," Pringle said, noting that implementing social distancing guidelines, for example, would be a different challenge in crowded urban schools than it would be in more sparsely attended rural schools."
Another challenge for Biden in getting teachers and students fully back to in-person learning is the question of vaccinations for teachers, where the administration's message has been muddled.
While Biden said Tuesday that teachers should move up in priority for getting vaccinated, White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified his stance on Wednesday, saying that while teachers should be a priority, vaccinating teachers was just a recommendation and not required for schools to reopen. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration's top infectious disease expert, said it would be "non-workable" for every teacher to get vaccinated before schools reopen.
Domenech said the comments from the administration are certain to be met with frustration from teachers.
"To say that vaccination should not be a prerequisite, I think that sets up an unnecessary issue," he said.
And with his 100-day goal for schools, Biden is taking responsibility for something that he cannot ultimately control.
Even if school districts receive the money they need to quickly implement changes, the decision on whether to reopen is left up to teachers' unions and local officials, and is made on an individual basis across the nation's more than 13,500 school districts.
Psaki acknowledged that during a briefing Wednesday, declaring that while the federal government can help with money and guidelines on how to safely reopen, "this is going to be up to local schools and school districts."