With the 2020 presidential election now in the books (well, for most people), President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s Roadmap for Reopening Schools Safely plan is receiving renewed attention. Developed prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year, the plan establishes controlling the spread of the virus—through testing, contact tracing, and the availability of personal protective equipment, among other things—as an essential criterion for schools to reopen.
Biden transition team officials are actively making this point. Vivek Murthy, a co-chair of Biden’s COVID-19 task force and a former U.S. surgeon general, took to Twitter to draw the connection between controlling the virus and school reopenings: “3 keys to open schools: low community prevalence of virus (critical), safety precautions…and resources for implementation.”
This approach stands in marked contrast to the strategy adopted by the Trump administration. Against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the president has threatened districts with loss of federal funds if they don’t fully reopen for in-person learning, even in areas where the virus is resurgent. While Trump signed the CARES Act that provided $13 billion for K-12 schools, the administration has been hesitant to consider additional funding that is not tied to in-person learning.
In a debate with Biden last month, Trump linked his support for school reopening to a larger strategy for economic reopening. “I want to open the schools,” the president said. “The transmittal rate to the teachers is very small, but I want to open the schools. We have to open our country.”
Biden’s five-point plan aims to empower state and local leaders to decide on attendance structures that are responsive to local health conditions—without fear of punitive action by the federal government. The plan also aims to increase the funding available for K-12 schools to address budget shortfalls, retain jobs, implement safety measures, and improve technology and broadband access.
Other funding priorities include Title I and Indian schools, as the plan aims to address concerns about a “COVID-19 educational equity gap.” It also calls for challenge grants to states and tribal governments to develop evidence-based approaches to promote equity, and increased support for mental health services. Investments in teacher professional development around hybrid and remote instruction, resources for parents, and vetted recommendations for protocols and tools supporting effective teaching and learning during the pandemic are also on the roadmap.
These efforts call for an estimated $30 billion for reopening and $4 billion for technology, in addition to the $58 billion in the stalled HEROES Act, according to the plan. In a debate with Trump last month, Biden explained the need for significant funding for schools and contrasted his approach with Trump’s. “[Schools] need a lot of money to open. They need to deal with ventilation systems, they need to deal with smaller classes, more teachers, more pods, and [Trump has] refused to support that money.”
Biden’s team hopes that with clearer guidance and more funding, school leaders will have what they need to craft their own reopening policies. In an on-record interview with the Education Writers Association last month, Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s national policy director, said: “A lot of groups have said that schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. And that is certainly something that Vice President Biden agrees with. So the big federal role here is providing our local decision-makers with the resources and the information they need to make smart decisions.”
If implemented, Biden’s plan could have a profound impact on districts around the country. The EdSurge/Social Context Labs database shows that half of districts in the 375 district sample are now offering fully in-person learning, typically with a remote option as well. In a recent analysis of districts’ attendance structures, EdSurge found that districts in states with higher COVID-19 positivity rates were more likely to have attendance structures with some in-person component.
Education leaders like Susan Enfield look forward to getting more clarity and specifics from a new administration. “My first short-term hope is that we finally get some federal guidance on how to reopen our schools in a safe and consistent manner,” the superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington said during a recent virtual event. “Leaving these decisions up to individual school districts is just unconscionable, and the abdication of leadership at the federal and the state level over the last several months has been stunning—and I don’t mean stunning in a good way.”