President Joe Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain touted Democrats’ $1.9 COVID-19 relief plan as the long-awaited solution that will result in school reopenings, but data has shown that schools are not concerning vectors of the spread and students have been suffering academic and mental consequences of prolonged remote learning.
During an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Burnett told Klain that “study after study showed it is safe to open schools” and cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that found that there was little evidence schools were spreading COVID-19.
The CDC reported Jan. 26 that studies in the U.S. and abroad found little evidence that schools contributed to increased community transmission of COVID-19. The CDC study included rural Wisconsin schools, where student mask-wearing was reported at more than 92% and students were placed in cohorts. No COVID-19 screening was conducted in the schools.
The researchers found that although community transmission in the community was high, only 3.7% of 191 cases that were identified among the 5,530 students and staff members in the schools were associated with in-school transmission. Burnett asked Klain why private schools have been able to open, but public schools have remained closed.
“I will give you a word: money,” Klain responded. He added that Biden had sent a plan to Congress to “make the investments to make the school safe,” and said that the schools reviewed in the study Burnett cited were only able to open safely because they got a “sizable grant” from a private foundation, which allowed them to implement the safety measures necessary to reopen.
“President Biden sent a plan to Congress to make sure the majority of schools can be open within 100 days,” Klain said. “We need Congress to pass that plan to do the kinds of things you need to do so that schools can be safe, teachers can be safe, students can be safe. Sadly, it costs money.”
The COVID-19 relief package Klain is referring to would dedicate an additional most of $170 billion for K-12 schools and higher education, while Republican senators have advanced a $600 billion plan that would include roughly $20 billion for education. Previously, $82 billion was approved for schools as part of the December 2020 package.
Many of the nation’s school districts have not opened in nearly one year and have remained virtual or in limbo because of teachers union demands. Some have called for alterations to building ventilation systems before returning, presumably linking ventilation to how the virus may circulate throughout schools. Biden also mentions that funding should go toward helping schools implement new ventilation.
The Chicago Teachers Union claimed the district had not addressed its ventilation system as of early January. Roughly a week before the school district , which is the nation’s third largest, was planning to welcome back roughly 70,000 students for part-time, in-person instruction, the union voted to defy the school’s reopening plans, refusing to return to classrooms until teachers are vaccinated. (RELATED: Chicago Teachers Union Votes To Defy School Reopening Plans, Demands Vaccinations Before Returning To Classrooms)
However, according to the CDC, the risk of spreading the COVID-19 through ventilation systems is not well-known, and the recommendation to schools on the matter is to follow state and local building codes and other applicable guidelines when it comes to ventilation.
“While airflows within a particular space may help spread disease among people in that space, there is no evidence to date that viable virus has been transmitted through an HVAC system to result in disease transmission to people in other spaces served by the same system.”
Data accumulated globally has shown that infections did not surge when schools reopened. Even when community transmission was high, coronavirus outbreaks in schools were still uncommon especially if precautions were in place, according to Nature. Infectious disease expert and White House coronavirus senior adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has also recommended that schools should reopen and bars close as part of an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus while mitigating the impact of keeping children from the classroom.
Despite the data, teachers unions and Democrats have pushed for the increased funding, which gives schools latitude on how to spend it. Biden has pledged to reopen a majority of the nation’s schools within the first 100 days of his presidency if Congress provides the funding he’s calling for. But 100 days means more than 3 additional months that students are kept from in-person instruction. For millions of children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the damage is already done.
Critics of unions have also accused the unions of “seizing the moment” to push a broader political agenda, leveraging the upper-hand that Democrats have to achieve their own goals, NPR reported. Klain pushed back when Burnett asked him why unions are “overruling what studies show.”
”I don’t think unions are overruling studies. You’re seeing schools that haven’t made the investments to keep students safe.” He added that the CDC study of Wisconsin schools included small, 12-person classrooms, and more funding is needed to open “a lot more classrooms, a lot more teachers, or other kinds of arrangement to get them small.”
Aside from the data showing schools are not major sources of transmission, prolonging remote learning also has long-term academic consequences for many students, and may cause unions to lose favor with parents whose children remain out of classrooms due to negotiations that don’t materialize or fail.
School districts across the country are reporting an increase in the number of students failing classes, often from missing assignments or skipped classes. The Fairfax County Public Schools released a report in November showing that the number of middle and high school students failing two or more classes increased by 83%.
Parents have also described deteriorating mental health among students that have been learning remotely.