Expanded testing part of Biden administration school plans

Pushing forward with its plan to reopen schools this spring, the Biden administration is expanding coronavirus testing for teachers, staff and students and convening a summit for educators to share “best practices” for returning kids to the classroom.

“The time is now, and schools must act immediately to get students safely back into school buildings,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Wednesday.

President Joe Biden, who was inaugurated on Jan. 20, has pledged to have most elementary and middle schools open to instruction by the end of his first 100 days in office. The administration has been promoting the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill recently passed by Congress as a way to accomplish that. As part of that effort, first lady Jill Biden visited a school in New Hampshire on Wednesday.

The states will share $122 billion for K-12 schools, with allocations ranging from $285 million for Vermont schools to $15 billion for California, according to the Education Department.

The money can be used to reduce class sizes and modify classrooms to enhance social distancing, install ventilation systems and purchase personal protective equipment. It also can pay for more nurses, counselors and janitors, and summer school.

Also Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced $10 billion for states to support school COVID-19 testing programs.

Most public schools haven’t been able to afford the robust testing seen as critical to reopening safely, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“With this investment, help truly is on the way to aid school systems in implementing a testing system that will help keep students, educators and staff safe inside school buildings,” she said in a statement.

Cardona said a summit scheduled for next Wednesday will give education leaders, teachers and students an opportunity to share their experiences in reopening schools. The Education Department said first lady Jill Biden will deliver opening remarks. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also will speak.

“We are holding this summit with the goal of sharing best practices and connecting leaders, educators and students from across this country who are navigating this challenge together and finding creative solutions to support our students and bring them back to in-person learning,” Cardona said.

Jill Biden promoted the relief bill and highlighted reopening strategies during a visit to the Christa McAuliffe School in Concord, New Hampshire, attended by one of the Biden grandchildren. The first lady watched a student perform a series of exercises meant to improve emotional well-being and she chatted with students about distance learning.

“I think it’s really hard to learn on Zoom. Don’t you? I think it’s really hard,” she said.

On a call with reporters, Cardona said he expects schools will fully open in the fall if vaccinations continue as expected, and with guidance from health authorities.

“What does normal look like? I wish I had a crystal ball. We don’t know,” he said. “What we do know is that this spring we’re wanting to see schools reopen using the mitigation strategies and giving students an opportunity for that in-person learning.”

School leaders see the flow of new money as a major factor, along with vaccines for teachers, in getting schools open and keeping them open, said Dan Domenech, executive director of a school administrators’ group.

The Education Department will begin making the money available this month.

“There are a lot of districts that were desperately hoping that this would happen to prevent them from going into bankruptcy at the end of the year, which school districts are not allowed to do. They have had to borrow in order to supplement their budgets with dollars that they did not have,” Domenech said.

Schools need money to fill holes blown in their budgets by unanticipated expenses such as the laptops and internet hot spots purchased for remote students, and ventilation systems, PPE and cleaning and distancing protocols for students who have returned to classrooms.

Next come the expenses to get students back on track academically. That could mean paying teachers and other staff to keep school going through the summer or continuing remote learning to supplement school days.

Cardona, appearing at a White House press briefing, said the department would get reports from states on how they are using the money.

“It’s critically important that we use the funds to support our students, especially those students who have had gaps exacerbated as a result of this pandemic. We know achievement and opportunity gaps have widened,” he said.

Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third largest district, has conservatively estimated a $300 million hit in the budget being written now.

The roughly $1.8 billion anticipated from the federal aid package will cover that and allow for new investments in lost learning and students’ emotional needs, the district said last week.

President Biden has ordered states to prioritize teachers in their vaccination plans, and the CDC has released guidelines to help schools reopen. But one of those guidelines — that students be seated 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart — is already being reevaluated because of the challenges of achieving that.

At the White House, Cardona said the department would continue to be guided by health experts, while acknowledging that reducing the distance “will provide more opportunities potentially for students to enter our schools.”

During a congressional hearing Wednesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency is reviewing studies on physical distancing in schools and will update its guidance when it has “concise and consistent evidence.”

Walensky said that studies looking at distancing of 3 feet in schools got under way after it became clear that distancing of 6 feet would be difficult. “Whenever there are challenges, that’s when science emerges,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Candice Choi in New York contributed to this report.

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