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Coronavirus Latest News USA: Republican Governors Push for School Re-Openings

Having told educators that they would be vaccinated soon, the Biden administration started an aggressive push last Wednesday to gather support for reopening schools, putting on a show of unity with the leaders of teachers’ unions and highlighting measures to keep staff and students safe from COVID-19. 

Republican Governors Push for Schools to Reopen

Republican governors are pushing schools to bring children back into classrooms. Their demands are bolstered by declining COVID-19 cases and calls from President Biden and federal health experts to re-open schools. 

On Friday, the Massachusetts school board gave the state’s education commissioner the power to force school districts to bring students back, a step that enables the commissioner to supersede local school boards. Earlier this week, Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona ordered all elementary schools, as well as several middle and high schools, to offer in-classroom instruction by March 15. Further, a law signed by Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa went into effect the previous month, requiring schools to offer full-time classroom instruction. 

As President Biden has embarked on a strong effort to encourage in-person learning, governors have shown that they are increasingly willing to make unilateral decisions about re-opening schools nearly a year after many schools first shut down. Jeffrey C. Riley, the Massachusetts education commissioner, said in a letter to the state board this week, “There is no substitute for in-person learning, especially for younger students, students with disabilities, and English learners.” He adds that around 300,000 students in the state were attending schools that provided only remote instruction.

Arizona, Iowa, and Massachusetts joined at least 4 other states with Republican governors, including Florida and Texas where state officials demanded that schools offer in-classroom instruction for at least some grades. In most cases, orders that schools re-open have come over teachers’ unions’ objections, some of whom have argued that their members must be vaccinated before risking exposure in schools. This week, President Biden said that all teachers should receive at least one shot of a vaccine by the end of the month. 

The CDC has recommended that elementary schools open if they follow precautions, and its guidance says that even where transmission is high, elementary schools can safely reopen by implementing strict safety measures. However, among schoolchildren of all ages, only around 4% reside in counties where transmission is low enough for schools to reopen safely without additional restrictions. 

Last month, a poll from Pew Research discovered that around 59% of adults believe that schools should wait to reopen until teachers have had a chance to get vaccinated. The percentage was even higher among non-white adults, and around 80% of Black adults said that schools should wait until teachers can get vaccinated, the highest of any racial group. Democrats and people who made less money were also more likely to say that schools should wait. 

According to the education commissioner, elementary school students will most likely return to classrooms full-time next month in Massachusetts. He promised to continue working closely with medical experts when making decisions about re-opening. He said that in a “limited set of circumstances”, schools could get waivers allowing them to reopen more slowly, and parents would be able to choose to keep their children home and learning remotely throughout the end of this school year. 

However, Mr. Riley said at the meeting of the state board, whose members are selected by Governor Charlie Baker, that next year, parents will require a medical exemption to keep their children out of classrooms. “At this point, with the robust mitigation strategies we have in place and all the data and evidence we have in hand,” he said, “it is time to begin the process of returning even more students to classrooms.”

Biden Administration Push for School Re-Openings

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 spread the message, the White House sent the first lady, Jill Biden and Miguel Cardona – the newly confirmed education secretary – on a trip to Pennsylvania and Connecticut to accentuate that teachers should no longer fear returning unprotected to the classroom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that teachers don’t have to be vaccinated for schools to safely reopen. 

According to Dr. Cardona, getting shots into the arms of school staff and educators would be his ‘top priority’ as education secretary. “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.”

However, it is not clear how fast educators will be able to get vaccinated. At least 28 states and the District of Columbia are already vaccinating school workers to some extent, according to a New York Times database. However, shortages of the vaccine continue to slow progress in vaccinating those who are eligible. 

President Biden’s decision to vaccinate teachers was also surprising news to some health officials. A memo that circulated last Wednesday among some at the CDC shared guidance to vaccinate teachers, but President Biden’s order was 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 teachers’ unions, parents, and Americans who are desperate for the vaccine, White House officials welcomed Dr. Cardona with a full list of tasks. As Connecticut’s education commissioner, he successfully reopened most of the state’s schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the White House expects Dr. Cardona to push for re-openings on a national scale, even as teachers’ unions around the country voice their concerns about the safety of returning to the classroom, and as questions come up about conflicts with existing health guidelines that vaccinations are not required for teachers to resume in-person learning. 

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

“The program is beyond teachers and includes bus drivers, janitorial workers, child care workers — a work force that is broadly incredibly diverse,” Psaki 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.”

However, while some local teachers’ unions say that 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 6 feet – two measures that have been proven to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The CDC guidelines emphasize 6 feet of distancing only when occurrence of the virus is high. Some union members have also asserted that schools not open until the infection rates in their communities are very low. 

Epidemiological studies have shown that vaccinating teachers could significantly reduce infections in schools. “It should be an absolute priority,” said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. However, requiring that teachers be vaccinated could significantly slow the pace of school re-openings. 

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

Today, many local teachers’ unions remain strongly opposed to restarting in-person learning, saying that school districts don’t have the resources or the inclination to follow CDC guidance on COVID-19 safety. According to the unions, without vaccinations, adults in school remain vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19 because children, while much less prone to illness, can readily carry the virus. After all, studies suggest that children below 10 transmit the virus around half as efficiently as adults do, but older children may be much like adults.

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