Biden plan calls for vaccine mandate for teachers, more COVID testing
President Biden on Thursday announced a new six-part plan to combat COVID-19, including a vaccine mandate for federal employees and contractors, including all employees in Head Start programs and Department of Defense and Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools; a requirement that businesses with more than 100 employees mandate vaccines or weekly testing for employees; and supports for students and staff in K-12 education, including additional funding for reopening schools and recommending vaccination mandates for public school employees.
The Biden administration plan also includes support for K-12 teachers and school leaders who are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for mitigation, including universal masking in schools, despite the threat of sanctions from their state leaders.
“We know that if schools follow the science and implement the safety measures — like testing, masking, adequate ventilation systems that we provided the money for, social distancing, and vaccinations — then children can be safe from COVID-19 in schools,” Biden said. “The Department of Education has already begun to take legal action against states undermining protection that local school officials have ordered. Any teacher or school official whose pay is withheld for doing the right thing, we will have that pay restored by the federal government 100 percent.”
To that end, the Education Department announced that a new grant program, Project SAFE (Supporting America’s Families and Educators), would provide funding from the ESEA Title IV, Part F School Safety National Activities program to local educational agencies that experience funding reductions from state leaders after following CDC recommended guidance.
“Every student across the country deserves the opportunity to return to school in-person safely this fall, and every family should be confident that their school is implementing policies that keep their children safe,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a statement announcing the new grants. “We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them. We stand with the dedicated educators doing the right thing to protect their school communities, and this program will allow them to continue that critical work of keeping students safe.”
Biden also cited the administration’s legal efforts to ensure schools are able to follow CDC recommended measures, including ED OCR investigations in five states with mandates limiting local school officials from undertaking universal masking. “Right now, local school officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic while their governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their salaries or their jobs. Talk about bullying in schools. If they’ll not help — if these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my power as president to get them out of the way.”
Biden also urged schools to conduct regular testing using $10 billion in funding provided to the Department of Health and Human Services for such purposes under the ARP Act and urged children over the age of 12 to be vaccinated, saying “Vaccination requirements in schools are nothing new. They work.”
Reaction to the vaccine mandate from lawmakers was mixed.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said the “Biden administration has led on vaccine deployment, and this action is another important step to protecting our communities and ensuring continuity of operations across the federal workforce.”
However, Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., said “federal employees and contractors, members of our military, health care workers, and everyone else in our nation should be able to choose whether to get vaccinated. Period.”
Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., added that “efforts to take away personal freedoms are the wrong way to go about getting more people vaccinated and moving out of the ongoing COVID crisis. Instead, we need to look at what’s behind many Americans’ concerns.”
Education groups welcomed the new action by the administration.
“The Biden administration is using every lever of government to keep people in America safe from the latest COVID-19 surge, prevent further mutations, and help every American get their lives back to some semblance of normalcy,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “If we truly want to put COVID-19 behind us — for our economy to stay open and grow, our hospitals not to be overrun by COVID-19 cases, and our kids to go to school, and remain in school, full time, in person — we need to embrace the scientifically proven methods to keep this virus at bay: masking, testing, vaccinations and ventilation.”
“While this new guidance and support from the federal government is promising, it is just a start,” said National Association of Secondary School Principals CEO Ronn Nozoe. “The added pressures and responsibilities of carrying out more robust testing and screening programs will fall on the shoulders of principals, assistant principals, and other administrators. This is intensified by a growing number of threats being made against school leaders for simply implementing safety measures to protect their communities.”
—Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for LRP Publications. Julie Davidson covers federal issues for LRP Publications.
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