Feb 1, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden's 100-day school goal smacks into reality

Joe Biden is seen during a candidate forum with school teachers in Iowa in January 2020.

Joe Biden appears before the Iowa State Educators Association in January 2020. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Some White House political advisers are privately concerned President Biden may not be able to meet his goal to reopen schools within his first 100 days, yet the president himself remains committed to it, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: The Republican Party has long struggled to maintain support from suburban voters, and it's betting parents fed up with homeschooling their kids because of COVID-19 will be turned off if Biden is seen as ignoring science or coddling unions. The GOP would portray any backtracking as a political win.

The big picture: Biden's team is grappling with some reopening challenges advisers didn't foresee in December, when Biden made his explicit 100-day promise. They include delays in vaccine rollouts and the emergence of new virus strains.

  • Some White House political advisers fear that if they push schools to reopen and the new variants run rampant, they may be forced to shutter classrooms again, as happened in Europe.

The intrigue: Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has already tried to publicly walk back Biden's 100-day goal.

  • “That may not happen because there may be mitigating circumstances,” he told teachers unions last Thursday.

Biden's initial goal, articulated in early December, was “that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”

  • On his first full day in office, Biden changed his marker, suggesting it only applied to grades K-8 and not high school.
  • The president has always made his goal contingent on Congress passing enough funds to ensure teachers could instruct students safely.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is planning to focus on schools during floor remarks this week, according to a source familiar with his plans.

  • Many Republicans have already begun attacking Biden for "ignoring the science," pointing to a report from CDC researchers last week stating there is "reassuring" evidence there hasn't been widespread coronavirus transmissions in schools.
  • Republicans also have been fuming since White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain appeared to side with the teachers unions demanding that schools remain closed for the time being.

With Chicago public school teachers threatening to go strike, the White House wants to avoid getting caught between the unions and big-city mayors.

  • White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki today tried to sidestep the fight: "He trusts the mayor and the unions to work this out."

By the numbers: The Republicans' alternate $618 billion COVID-relief proposal only appropriates $20 billion for schools. Biden's $1.9 trillion relief package includes $170 billion for schools.

  • An analysis from the CDC in December estimated that schools would have to spend from $55 to $442 per student on average to implement bare-minimum COVID-19 safety precautions for in-person classes. That could total as much as $22 billion, Axios' Marisa Fernandez points out.
  • Still, education groups predict the costs to be much higher for testing — about $22 billion for spring alone — as well as PPE and hiring sufficient staff.
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