Biden orders plans for reopening schools safely

Office of Civil Rights will report on the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on K-12 students
By: | January 22, 2021

President Joe Biden set new planning in motion Thursday to reopen U.S. schools to in-person learning.

Biden, by executive order, directed the secretary of education to work with the Department of Health and Human Services to provide states and school districts with “evidence-based guidance” in reopening and remaining open for in-person learning.

This guidance will cover mitigation measures such as cleaning, masking, proper ventilation, and testing.

“It is the policy of my administration to provide support to help create the conditions for safe, in-person learning as quickly as possible,” Biden’s order says.

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Biden also directed the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights to report on the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on K-12 students.

Ultimately, two principles will guide the federal government’s response to the COVID’s impacts on schools and child care providers, the order says.

“First, the health and safety of children, students, educators, families, and communities is paramount,” the order says. “Second, every student in the United States should have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, during and beyond the pandemic.

Crunching COVID data

President Biden wants federal agencies to analyze a range of COVID’s impacts on schools, including by:

  • Identifying strategies to address the impact of COVID-19 on educational outcomes, especially along racial and socioeconomic lines.
  • Collecting data on the status of in-person learning, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, disability, English-language-learner status, and free or reduced lunch status.
  • Ensuring COVID testing supplies are equitably allocated to elementary and secondary schools.

The agencies also will provide more guidance and technical assistance on distance and online learning, and the promotion of students mental health and social-emotional well-being.

Also, a new Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse will enable schools and colleges to share lessons learned and best practices for operating safely during the pandemic.

Biden also asked The Federal Communications Commission to increase connectivity options for students lacking reliable home broadband.

Educators encouraged by Biden’s plans

Biden’s order is a “much-needed step forward” in developing a coordinated response to COVID for education, said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Biden’s order includes many items promoted by AASA, including a focus on K-12 education funding, FEMA reimbursement for schools, expanded screening and testing in schools, and increasing connectivity, Domenech said in a statement

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“This direct responsiveness to practitioner feedback is critical and demonstrates that the Biden administration, serious in its priority of opening schools in its first 100 days, recognizes that the ultimate work and responsibility of opening schools lies with local school system leaders and that, as such, their voice, insights and recommendations should be reflected in any nationwide plan,” he said.

The executive order shows the Biden administration understands the complexities of providing safe and equitable learning environments during the COVID pandemic, NEA President Becky Pringle said in a statement.

Her union also now feels it has a partner in the White House who sees students and teachers as a priority, Pringle said.

“President Biden’s plan provides great reason for sorely-needed optimism, but we cannot forget that, right now, the reality in far too many schools and institutions of higher education is that effective distancing, mask-wearing, ventilation, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and other crucial mitigation strategies are not in place,” she said.