President Joe Biden’s administration threw the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under the bus after she suggested that teachers could return to classrooms before being vaccinated.
“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a Feb. 3 press briefing. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded to Walensky’s statements later that same day, telling reporters that the CDC Director’s comments were not official guidance and that she was speaking in her “personal capacity.”
Press secretary Jen Psaki contradicts this. She says at press briefing she saw @CDCDirector Walensky’s comment, but CDC “has not released their official guidance yet” on vaccinations of teachers and safe reopening of schools. Prioritizing teachers is important to Biden, she says. pic.twitter.com/HJHdv9JZ0t
— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) February 3, 2021
“The President — let me be crystal clear — wants schools to open,” Psaki said during the Feb. 4 press briefing. “He wants them to stay open. And he wants to do that safely. And he wants health and medical experts to be the guides for how we should do exactly that.”
“Dr. Walensky spoke to this in her personal capacity,” Psaki continued. “Obviously, she’s the head of the CDC, but we’re going to wait for the final guidance to come out so we can use that as a guide for schools around the country.”
Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told The Hill that Psaki’s statement was “alarming.”
“I don’t know if there is a split, but it was alarming last week when the White House implied that the CDC director was speaking in her personal capacity, because when it comes to safety and what is required to reduce or mitigate the spread, that’s a CDC question that should only be answered by the CDC,” Nuzzo told the outlet.
“I found that worrisome because we have to affirm and assert CDC’s expertise here,” she added. “It’s a particularly tricky issue and it’s important to be clear that there is no political interference and that there is no agency more qualified to weigh in on this than the CDC.”
President Biden has said that school reopenings would be a priority for his administration, promising that students would return to in-person learning within the first 100 days of his presidency. Psaki clarified during a Tuesday press briefing that the administration’s goal was to have “most” schools open “at least” one day a week by Biden’s 100th day in office.
Despite scientific evidence showing that there is little risk to reopening schools for in-person learning, teachers’ unions have advocated for schools to remain closed. The unions argue that it is unsafe for teachers to return to the classroom without first getting the coronavirus vaccine – a statement that Walensky directly contradicted. (RELATED: We Asked Teachers Unions Nationwide Why They Oppose Reopening Schools. Here’s What They Said)
Biden appears to be on the same page as the teachers’ unions despite promising to side with science. While he was running for president, then-candidate Biden slammed former President Donald Trump after his travel bans were announced, accusing Trump of “hysterical xenophobia and fear-mongering” and not listening to science. During an interview with ABC News, Biden said that he “would listen to the scientists” if they said it was necessary to shut the country down. And when he introduced his scientific advisors, Biden promised that they would fight the pandemic with “science and truth.”
“This is a team that is going to help restore your faith in America’s place in the frontier of science and discovery,” Biden said, according to the Associated Press. “The science behind climate change is not a hoax. The science behind the virus is not partisan.”
“Science is discovery. It’s not fiction,” he added. “It’s also about hope.”
The CDC told The Hill that Walensky’s comments were “based on” the CDC director’s “review of the science.”
Joseph Allen, a professor at Harvard, said in a tweet on Feb. 5, that “undermining the new CDC Director 3 weeks in is not a good look.”
?? Dr. Walensky is head of CDC, doing intvw and introduced as such, but ‘personal capacity’??
Also: Biden said wouldn’t interfere with scientists, but that’s what this walk back is. Undermining new CDC Director 3 weeks in is not a good look… https://t.co/CIuRPkSw1s
— Joseph Allen (@j_g_allen) February 5, 2021
Scientific evidence overwhelmingly suggests that in-school transmission of the coronavirus is rare, and reopening is safe when certain precautions are taken. In a Jan. 26 article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, three CDC researchers concluded that “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” and urged schools to reopen with proper precautions. Another study found that schools in rural Wisconsin that were taking precautions such as mask-wearing had lower rates of transmission than in the community.
Still, reopening has dragged on slowly at the expense of students.
The gap between students from low-income and high-income families has widened due to virtual learning, which has left some families with insufficient resources for their children’s education. The impact of virtual learning on children’s mental health has been devastating.
Families described how their children have fallen into depression, lost their sense of drive, and grown increasingly fatigued from staring at a computer screen all day without any social contact. The situation became so dire that schools in Clark County, Nevada – the fifth-largest school district in the country – began monitoring students’ devices for mental health warning signs after the number of suicides doubled.