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Nation & World

Biden's Plans To Reopen Schools In His First 100 Days

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden has called closed schools a national emergency. He says he wants most K-12 schools in this country open in his first 100 days. And he signed several executive actions aimed at getting that done. Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team has been following this story. Good morning, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Before we get to Biden, let's step back for a minute. And let me ask you, broadly, what is happening with schools right now?

KAMENETZ: Well, it's been a hectic picture. It's been changing week by week. The organization Burbio reports about half of the country's students right now are enrolled in virtual-only, remote-only districts.

KING: Half, OK. Now, the problem is no longer just the virus, right? It's the surge in numbers of cases. How is that complicating things?

KAMENETZ: Well, it complicates things quite a bit because, you know, there are basically two types of districts, right? Districts that have not come back yet are finding it very, very hard to do so now. And so you're seeing debates in D.C. In Chicago, they're taking votes towards a strike. It's really hard to open up a large urban district during a surge. Other places that had opened up are having to close down quite frequently either individual schools or entire districts or even states as they run out of staff. They have to quarantine people. So - and then there's worries about, of course, the new variants, what that might bring in terms of the safety strategies that we have.

KING: So how can a new administration help here?

KAMENETZ: Well, the actions that were signed yesterday instruct federal agencies to get schools more PPE, more masks, gowns, gloves, more testing, vaccines and more data and guidance. So schools can now be fully reimbursed for safety supplies through FEMA. There's a new pandemic testing board. And there's - they're talking about producing and distributing more rapid tests, supporting schools in doing rapid testing. That's something, Noel, that some private schools have been able to do to stay safe, but many public schools have not been able to afford that. We heard about the expansion of federal vaccination sites. And these orders specifically mentioned teachers as a group that should get equitable access to vaccination very soon.

KING: Now, one of the quirks here is that the federal government doesn't much get involved in funding public education. So the Biden administration is going to need to do something other than more money, right?

KAMENETZ: Right. So overall, the federal government's responsible for about 10% of funding to public schools. Most of that is very targeted. Any significant pandemic-based relief to public schools is going to have to come through Congress. It may be through state and local government aid. And so that's - you know, that's to be determined. But with these orders, what Biden is asking his federal agencies to do is do what they do best, which is collect, aggregate, analyze and report the data and the best practices in order to help schools stay open safely. And this is a big deal, Noel, because up until now, there's been no centralized federal data collection of cases or outbreaks or strategies. So we don't even know what's safe or what's not safe in schools very well.

KING: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thanks.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.