One of President Biden’s goals for his first 100 days in office is to see to it that most schools are reopened for in-person learning, but after previewing one of the 10 coronavirus-related executive orders, the administration’s testing czar conceded the timeline may be adjusted as needed.
“The health and safety of students, educators, staff and families is paramount,” Carole Johnson, who was picked by Biden to lead the nationwide testing program, said during a call on Wednesday. “The administration will always be honest about the challenges we face, including addressing how and whether changes in the pandemic may impact the reopening of schools or the ability of schools to reopen.”
Biden is ordering the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide clear guidance for reopening schools and is enabling states to tap FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to help get the doors reopened. Administration officials have said that it will also require a better approach to vaccinations and an increase in testing, which has been a trouble point for the country since the outbreak began.
“We do not have nearly enough testing capacity in this country,” Jeff Zients, the White House official charged with directing the nation’s COVID-19 repose, told the Associated Press. “We need the money in order to really ramp up testing, which is so important to reopen schools and businesses.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has previously called for schools to remain open even as the coronavirus numbers spike.
“Our default position – there will always be exceptions … there is never one-size-fits-all – our default position should be to try to keep the schools open and get children who are not in school back in school as best as we possibly can,” Fauci said during a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health forum in December.
He cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data and studies that show the level of transmission in schools remains low, and that the real risk remains to be community spread.
“When you take into consideration the safety and the health of the children as well as the teachers, in general, it looks like we can keep the children in school and get them back to school safely,” he said.
Fauci, similar to Zients, has also said that speeding the vaccination process would make it easier to keep schools open as the level of transmission in communities is lowered. However, vaccinating children has not yet begun, and there is not enough data to evaluate the safety and effectiveness in either of the currently approved jabs for younger students.
Under the Trump administration, states were tasked with coming up with their own distribution plans, which saw teachers included among essential workers but potentially placed in a lower tier in some regions rather than other. In New Jersey for instance, smoking was considered a chronic health condition which saw smokers become eligible for the vaccine ahead of teachers.
States are also reporting shortages in vaccine supply, which Biden’s new CDC director said will be addressed by working through manufacturing bottleneck issues and plans to invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up supply.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.