In his first 48 hours in office, President Biden sought to project an optimistic message about returning the nation’s many homebound students to classrooms. “We can teach our children in safe schools,” he vowed in his inaugural address.
The following day, Mr. Biden signed an executive order promising to throw the strength of the federal government behind an effort to “reopen school doors as quickly as possible.”
But with about half of American students still learning virtually as the pandemic nears its first anniversary, the president’s push is far from certain to succeed. His plan is rolling out just as local battles over reopening have, if anything, become more pitched in recent weeks.
Teachers are uncertain about when they will be vaccinated and fearful of contagion. With alarming case counts across the country and new variants of the coronavirus emerging, unions are fighting efforts to return their members to crowded hallways. Their reluctance comes even as school administrators, mayors and some parents feel increased urgency to restore educational business-as-usual for the millions of students who are struggling academically and emotionally.
Given the seemingly intractable health and labor challenges, some district officials have begun to say out loud what was previously unthinkable: that schools may not be operating normally for the 2021-2022 school year. And some labor leaders are seeking to tamp down the expectations Mr. Biden’s words have raised.
“We don’t know whether a vaccine stops transmissibility,” said Randi Weingarten, the powerful president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union.
Some virus experts, however, have said there is reason to be optimistic on this question.
Ms. Weingarten said a key to returning teachers to classrooms in the coming months would be promises to allow those with health conditions, or whose family members have compromised immune systems, to continue to work remotely; the collection of centralized data on the number of Covid-19 cases in specific schools; and assurances from districts that they would shut down schools when cases occur.
Fights over those very demands have slowed and complicated reopenings across the country. But Ms. Weingarten also indicated that Mr. Biden’s efforts to fill classrooms would be greeted more favorably than those of Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who were largely reviled by public school educators.
“Don’t underestimate the bully pulpit,” she said. “Truth and trust are so important.”
Mr. Biden’s executive order directs federal agencies to create national school reopening guidelines, to support virus contact tracing in schools and to collect data measuring the impact of the pandemic on students. The White House is also pushing a stimulus package that would provide $130 billion to schools for costs such as virus testing, upgrading ventilation systems and hiring staff.
School leaders are eagerly awaiting additional cash from Washington, which could amount to several thousand dollars per pupil. But they emphasize that it will be equally important for federal officials to directly address the anxiety about in-person work that has swept the teacher corps and that has been given an influential voice in places where teachers unions are powerful.
The Trump administration fed that anxiety by demanding schools open while issuing vague and conflicting guidelines about how to do so safely.
Robert Runcie, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools in South Florida, the nation’s sixth-largest district, said he would like to see Dr. Anthony Fauci hold a news conference to discuss schools and “alleviate the fear people have.”
Broward is not doing surveillance testing, but has published a dashboard tracking known virus cases in its schools — about 2,000 among students and staff since the system reopened in October, serving about a third of its 260,000 students in person. Contact tracing suggested that just 10 percent of those cases could have been caused by transmission in schools, Mr. Runcie said, and that the majority of those transmissions were likely connected to athletics.
The district required some teachers with health concerns to return to school buildings earlier this month, in order to avoid a situation in which some students were learning online even within school buildings. In response, the local union sued; the case is currently in arbitration. The district’s bus drivers, food service workers, custodians and clerks are working full time without complaint, Mr. Runcie said.
The system lost 9,000 students this year as parents sought alternatives to virtual education. If some families choose to stay permanently in private and charter schools, district funding could plummet, forcing layoffs, Mr. Runcie warned. He argued that the union’s fight was shortsighted.
Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said most county teachers are willing to be vaccinated and to work in person following that with safety precautions in place. Florida, like the majority of states, has not yet made teachers eligible for the vaccine.
Disputes over teacher health exemptions are also central in Chicago, where the union has threatened to refuse to work in person because of what it says are unsanitary conditions in school buildings, which the district is currently reopening in phases.
Kenzo Shibata, a high school civics and English teacher, was denied a request to continue working remotely. His wife has breast cancer and is about to restart chemotherapy. He is also managing remote learning for his second-grade son, a student in the district.
Mr. Shibata, an official with the Chicago Teachers Union, said he would be open to returning to the classroom after he is vaccinated, even if his students were not yet vaccinated. The district has promised to directly disperse vaccines to educators beginning in February.
But Mr. Shibata suggested that a safer course of action would be to put off in-person learning until the fall, especially given the reluctance of Black and Latino parents in Chicago to return their children to schools. He was skeptical, he added, of President Biden’s push to reopen schools within 100 days.
“I think that’s arbitrary and a political statement, not a pedagogical statement or a science or health statement,” he said. “It doesn’t inspire a lot of faith in me.”
Under the Trump administration, unions and public school advocates argued that schools could only reopen with an enormous infusion of federal funding to purchase sanitation equipment, lower class sizes to maintain social distancing and hire nurses and psychologists.
Money is beginning to flow, but Marguerite Roza, a school finance expert at Georgetown University, said it was perhaps even more important for the federal government to shore up districts’ abilities to negotiate forcefully with their unions.
The Biden administration could establish a clear threshold for community virus transmission, below which it would advise schools to stay open, Dr. Roza said, or even require them to do so in order to access federal dollars.
Research has pointed to the potential to operate schools safely before teachers and students are vaccinated, as long as practices like mask wearing are adhered to, and especially when community transmission and hospitalization rates are controlled.
Tying stimulus money to opening schools might be a heavier handed strategy than the new Democratic administration is comfortable with, especially given union reluctance. On Friday, a White House spokesman said partnership and cooperation with teachers’ unions would be central to reopening schools successfully.
But Mr. Biden could also work to combat teachers’ anxiety by speaking to the rank and file directly.
“The offer of money? I don’t know if that will really be the thing that gets people to go back right now,” Dr. Roza said. “The fear is real.”