President Joe Biden promised that his administration would lead with “science and truth,” a continuation of a campaign message that he’d prioritize and elevate government scientists, in a sharp break from the Trump administration's pandemic response.
But nearly a month into Biden’s presidency, the push to reopen schools is laying bare the thorny balancing act between science and politics. After promising to reopen schools by his 100th day in office, Biden's already walked back the pledge to just elementary and middle schools, and then, as White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week, "the majority of schools — so more than 50 percent."
The shifts reflect the challenges the White House faces in restoring a sense of normalcy. Blanket vows to “follow the science” create expectations of a fixed path toward defeating the coronavirus, without factoring in the inherent politics.
“You can take science and reach a number of different policy conclusions and policy directions that are different, but are still true to the science,” said Rich Besser, a former acting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The CDC on Friday released guidance for reopening schools, outlining strategies to safely bring students and teachers back while mitigating the spread of the virus. The CDC was clear, though, that it was not mandating schools reopen. That, for the moment, circumvented the bitter fight that's pitted teachers seeking strong safeguards as a precondition for returning to schools against some parents eager to release their kids from virtual learning.
“The science has been evolving,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a Biden ally. “It’s not a political calculation, it’s based on trying to make the science work.”
Biden administration officials insist that the White House is grounding all of its policy decisions firmly in the best available evidence. They say the president receives a daily state of pandemic update from his Covid response team in his daily briefing book. And indeed, the Biden administration has taken care to give health experts like Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky leading roles in managing the response, and solicited constant input from its health agencies and outside public health groups.
This has especially been the case in areas like school reopenings and travel restrictions, where the administration has had to navigate a maze of interests, from unions insisting on zero risk strategies including vaccinations to financially battered airlines leery about a domestic Covid testing requirement.
“There are always tricky politics when you’re dealing with hard issues,” Kevin Munoz, a White House spokesperson, said in a statement. “But this moment transcends politics — Americans' lives are at stake. We are focused on instilling trust from the American people in our pandemic response — and that means following the science and letting the experts be our guide. It’s not going to make everyone 100 percent happy all of that time, and that’s okay because the goal at the end of the day is doing what’s best for public health.”
The debate over the science has complicated the White House’s school reopening push in particular, which has centered on CDC assurances that teachers don’t need to be vaccinated to return to the classroom — even as the agency warns the broader public that a series of emerging Covid variants could mean the virus is more contagious than ever before.
“The fact that we’re advising double masking and minimizing having your neighbors over for Super Bowl parties — all things that are sensible — in some ways conflict with guidance to teachers, especially high-risk teachers,” said Vin Gupta, a professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation who served as an early adviser to the Biden team. “This is a matter of, how do you ensure public policy is consistent enough that it doesn’t erode public trust.”
Compounding the on-the-ground anxiety is that the Biden administration has no clear power to compel states to open schools responsibly no matter what recommendations it issues. Already, many states are openly defying CDC guidelines by loosening a range of other public health restrictions governing everyday life.
“People are smart, and they’re recognizing that,” Gupta said. “They’re not going to feel reassured just because you told them so, or because the data suggests it.”
Biden transition officials spent weeks crafting plans for safely reopening schools based on public health best practices, including proposing a massive new Covid testing regime and hundreds of billions of dollars in funding to help retrofit classrooms and overhaul ventilation systems.
The vision, outlined in Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief proposal, included modifying classrooms to allow for more distance between students and purchasing personal protective equipment, and even went as far as to suggest boosting transportation capacity to reduce the number of people riding the bus together to and from school.
But despite its efforts, the team underestimated how hard it would be to sell the plan to the teachers unions that had largely backed Biden’s presidential campaign — especially without the promise of a vaccine, an adviser involved in the planning said.
“We didn’t think teachers unions would be so reluctant,” the adviser said, adding that Psaki’s statement this week that reopening meant returning kids to class one day a week was far from the team’s original vision.
The mixed signals have opened the administration up to criticism from multiple sides and put the White House on the defensive for one of the first times during the carefully choreographed rollout of its Covid response.
“The science could not be more straightforward: schools must safely reopen their doors to students now,” Rep. Steve Scalise, the top Republican on the House’s coronavirus subcommittee said Friday, echoing a view that has gained increasing traction throughout the GOP over the past week. “President Biden pledged to reopen schools in 100 days and follow the science, but instead he has broken this promise and followed the radical unions’ lead.”
Meanwhile, a contingent of Biden allies has questioned why the White House has been so adamant that states reopen schools — without being equally as vocal about getting teachers to the front of vaccination lines. Though Walensky on Friday said educators should be prioritized, she downplayed the shots as just "an additional layer of protection."
Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert who served on Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board, predicted that Biden would soon face an even more critical crossroads in his quest to reopen schools, warning that the emergence of fast-spreading variants could drive the nation’s worst pandemic surge yet.
“I think this discussion’s going to be all for naught soon,” he said, pointing to the variant that's already forced European countries to close their schools. “When B117 takes over in six weeks or so, I think our whole country is going to be approaching its darkest days with this virus.”
Osterholm has long been a proponent of resuming in-class learning. But the U.S. is not vaccinating people at nearly the pace it needs to head off the variant’s spread, he argued, likely forcing the administration to abandon its most ambitious reopening goals.
“The administration is going to have to understand that, and start to temper their message accordingly,” Osterholm said.
Asked whether the White House recognizes the seriousness of the threat to its political goals, he demurred: “There are some that clearly do. And I think they’re trying,” he said.