It’s an old political trick to make an easily achievable goal sound vauntingly ambitious in order to brag about it when it’s inevitably met.
It takes another level of chutzpah, though, to set out as a target something that has already happened.
The press has portrayed President Joe Biden’s goal of reopening the majority of K-12 schools in his first 100 days as so far-reaching that the timeline might have to be extended.
Enter White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who explained that the administration defines a school as open if it holds in-classroom instruction at least once a week. By this metric, the goal isn’t really having more than half of schools open — it’s having more than half of schools still 80% closed.
Not only is this a ridiculous standard, schools have already cleared the bar. According to Burbio, which runs a school-opening tracker, about two-thirds of K-12 students are attending in-person or hybrid schools.
This goalpost moving exemplifies how the Biden team isn’t pushing nearly hard enough on school reopening.
The issue has gone from being something of a red vs. blue battle line last year to a cross-partisan area of consensus. In intellectual and moral terms, the debate over reopening schools has been won, but political progress has been slow, mainly because powerful teachers unions are standing in the way.
If Biden wanted to add a touch of unity to his governing agenda, he’d call out the unions for being an obstacle to educational and economic progress at a challenging time for the country.
The science is clear enough, if that matters.
Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”
This makes the costs of school closures and remote learning all the harder to bear.
A McKinsey estimate from June concluded that students may have lost three months to a year of learning, depending on the exact circumstances. Then, there are the social costs for children, among them higher rates of depression and anxiety.
School closures have pulled women out of the labor force to bear the brunt of all the juggling that has to go on at home.
Nonetheless, teacher unions have fought reopening and helped stymie reopening in cities and blue states. Most schools in California have been remote. Elementary schools reopened in New York, but not middle schools or high schools.
School districts in the Washington, D.C., region are floating a parodic solution to reopening — have kids return to the classroom so they can gather to watch remote teachers on computer screens.
Somehow private schools have largely managed to stay open, in part, because if they don’t, no one gets paid.
In contrast, public school teachers are in a position to make demands even to consider coming back and doing their jobs.
After intense lobbying by the unions, most states have put teachers near the front of the line for vaccines (even though Biden’s CDC director has said teacher vaccination isn’t necessary for reopening).
As David Zweig points out in a piece at Wired, many union officials still insist that even vaccination won’t guarantee a return to the classroom. This would be like surgeons demanding to be vaccinated, then not showing up for operations anyway.
The Biden team contends that more spending is necessary for reopening. Biden is proposing another $130 billion in education funding in his COVID-19 bill, but as Dan Lips of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity notes, states still have tens of billions in unspent funds from last year’s relief packages.
No, this is a question of political will. Biden’s goal should be to exert every ounce of influence that he has to get kids back in the classroom — for their own good and that of the country’s parents.