In This Episode
This week on Rubicon, Brian and education reporter Rachel Cohen discuss the origins of the contentious debate over school reopening, and how President Biden has navigated it. They then look ahead to how the looming COVID-relief bill will help modernize schools and whether those investments will allow students to resume normal, in-person education in the fall.
Brian Beutler: When did you first begin to grasp how radically COVID-19 would change our lives? For me, there wasn’t a single moment. I remember reading news stories about the Diamond Princess, that cruise ship that had to quarantine in a Japanese port last February, and realizing this wasn’t just another regional flu. Then Italy happened, then New York. And then we were in it.
[News clip] Good evening, everyone. Tonight, we’re becoming crushed under a tidal wave of unfathomable numbers. New York City joining California in urging the general public to wear nonmedical face coverings to stop the—
Brian Beutler: But for many Americans, particularly parents, the wakeup call came on February 26th, thanks to the warnings of a then-unknown CDC respiratory physician named Nancy Messonier.
[clip of Nancy Messonier] I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe. But these are things that people need to start thinking about now. I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning, and I told my children: we as a family need to be preparing for a significant disruption of our lives.
Brian Beutler: For her prescience, the Trump administration rewarded her with exile. Trump was still trying to conceal the truth from the public, and that briefing blew the cover off. But she was right.
[clip of Nancy Messonier] You should ask your children’s school about their plans for school dismissals or school closures. Ask if there are plans for tele-school.
Brian Beutler: And across the country in the days ahead, school closures became the way many of us came to grips with the gravity of the situation.
[clip of Nancy Messonier] You should think about what you would do for childcare if schools or daycare close. Is teleworking an option for you? All of these questions can help you be better prepared for what might happen.
Brian Beutler: If governments had to close schools, things must be really bad. Trump left states to decide for themselves whether to remain closed, and the Republican controlled Senate didn’t come through with money for schools to reopen safely. Eventually, patience were thin in some precincts, pitting those parents who wanted schools back open, against teachers who refused to work in crowded, dangerous conditions. Joe Biden took office long after this pandemic fatigue had set in, promising:
[clip of President Biden] It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school. If Congress provides the funding we need to protect students, educators and staff, if states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow, then my team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.
Brian Beutler: This sounds pretty straightforward, right? Give schools the money they need for safety equipment and ventilation, prioritize vaccinating staff, do it all in 100 days, and at least half of all schools could open without endangering teachers, students or their families. In practice, it’s actually pretty tough, and the goal is more confusing than it sounds. And even if all goes as promised, the 100 day of Biden’s presidency is April 30th, just a couple of weeks before summer vacation. And with that in mind, what are we even fighting about? Isn’t the more important question now: how schools should prepare for the fall, and a potential coronavirus recurrence so that next year is smooth sailing? My guest this week is Rachel Cohen. She’s a reporter who’s tracked the unwieldly debate over schools and teachers and their unions. We’ll look back at this lost year, and head to whether Biden’s promise is made for the headlines, or for the long haul. I’m Brian Beutler. Welcome to Rubicon.
Brian Beutler: Great to have you on the show.
Rachel Cohen: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Brian Beutler: So before we get to Biden and his administration, I think we have to sketch out the intellectual and political climate around school reopening that he inherited after a year, a pandemic, a year of policy failures, because I don’t think we can really understand the cross-pressures he’s faced until we know how this debate evolved. So can you just tell us that story?
Rachel Cohen: Yeah, you know, it started back, you know, back in the spring, schools closed, governors shut down schools basically nationwide. We weren’t testing kids because tests were in short supply, and people were just very understandably focused on seniors at the time that screening. You know, people weren’t wearing masks yet. It seemed like kids, for whatever reason, were not getting very, very sick, although we weren’t really sure what was going on. Over the summer, we started to get a little bit better picture. There were schools, especially in Europe and some Asian countries, that were open. So a big sort of question was like, well, how much, what is the risk, not only to teachers, but to the family members of children who are sending kids back? So, you know, we’re just having this huge problem where, like, the research is lagging, that way we all want data-driven decisions. Everyone thought we would have had this figured out by the fall, by September when parents wanted to send their kids back. Everyone also thought we would have a new stimulus package by like May or June, but Congress didn’t get its act together for the whole summer. And so all of these things are kind of compounding.
[News clip] At some school districts. Virtual learning came to a virtual halt this morning as technical glitches kept thousands from logging in. As schools moved towards in-person learning, new numbers show more than half a million US children have tested positive for the virus since the spring.
[clip of teacher] I wake up crying and I start my day that way. I will take a bullet for my students, but I cannot protect them against COVIDD under these situations.
[clip of teacher] My workload has virtually doubled. So it’s just it’s a very daunting task.
Rachel Cohen: So all that stuff is sort of mounting. And then Biden comes into office at a time when the virus is surging extremely high. He promises to make a return to school a top priority of his administration. And then we started hearing about new variants happening in Europe. By late December, he scaled it back to most kindergarten through eighth grade and back to school. But then he had some of his top advisers, like Anthony Fauci and other people admitting like: OK, you know, if we do have to scale back because of variants and whatever, we will, but like, let’s get the stimulus package passed to make it hopefully more possible to accomplish.
Brian Beutler: So I took from that that a key driver of sort of incomprehension between people who were very adamant about reopening schools quickly and those who had to work in them, is that they were engaged in a discussion where what their positions were and what they were arguing to each other had to change as information—better information—became more widely known. Was this like the main source of why this debate became so disjointed at times for people who were kind of looking in from the outside? Or were there other factors?
Rachel Cohen: So it’s interesting because there was a study that came out yesterday—it hasn’t been peer reviewed yet but it was done by a team of really respected infectious disease epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins and they posted the preprint online—and they found that family members of kids attending school in person are at higher risk of reporting COVID symptoms. They found teachers, teachers working in school in-person are at higher risk than teachers not working in-person. And they also found that schools that implemented a certain number of mitigation measures were basically safe and could reduce the risk, like almost entirely. We know it because there are lots of well-resourced private schools and suburban public schools employing all of these things to make it safe.
Brian Beutler: You heard that right. Proper mitigation efforts like spacing children apart and good ventilation, can control the spread of COVID-19 very well. Affluent schools proved it. But poorer schools don’t have the money for these same mitigation steps, which is why Biden’s COVID relief bill is so important.
Rachel Cohen: I think a lot about how, like how different would this year have gone if back in May, June and July instead of, like instead of gaslighting teachers, which is basically what we’ve done where we’ve said “schools are not risky” based on our bad data, “your fears are unwarranted” and I just sort of think maybe a lot of the arguments would have been less bad if we had just acknowledged the limitations of our knowledge back in the summer and said: let’s just err on the side of caution, because it’s likely it could be high risk, and we can mitigate it if we invest enough into doing that.
Brian Beutler: So as difficult as it is for, for teachers to lose a year, for students to lose a year, for everyone who’s lost a year—or the year that they wanted to have, lost year—how important has the fact that this has gone on for so long been to establishing what all parties view to be like a fair terms for reopening? Right? That, that like, we see this debate play out as unions v. parents or whatever. But in each dispute, there’s a lot of nuance that gets flattened by that. Where teachers are looking out for the interests of particular teachers who are elderly or taking care of elderly parents at home and if if everyone just gets shuttled back into the schools, you can’t really come up with an agreement that makes sure that those special interests are addressed, those unique interests are addressed. Has one of the sort of silver linings about this delay been that it’s kind of created enough space for negotiation for those kind of things to be litigated?
Rachel Cohen: I don’t think everywhere. I think Chicago is a really interesting example because that got so much high-profile national attention. And, you know, one of the, one of the results of the delayed return to school and sort of, their sometimes pretty hostile, like, you know—they had a really intense few months of negotiating and fighting but the final deal like, gave accommodations to hundreds more teachers who are either at high risk of complications or are the primary caregiver for somebody who is. So I think, you know, that is, that’s significant and this has been a really challenging debate because nobody really, it’s really hard to say what is more important? The students return to school, which we know is really important, or the risk to this teacher’s mother who lives with them, who could die if the teacher gets infected at school or her husband. I wouldn’t say that all the negotiations have sort of worked to the benefit of at-risk household members but I think there have definitely been some places that, you know, some districts compromised more and said: OK, we will move you up higher in the vaccination prioritization line, we will try to be more accommodating on these measures. But I’m sure, like, there are a lot of places that didn’t.
Brian Beutler: OK, let’s talk about the Biden view. What has he promised? What has he done? And how do the various factions in the school opening debate view his approach to the issue?
Rachel Cohen: So it’s been really interesting. Biden’s position, he came out from the bat and said, and said: in-person learning/schools are going to be one of my top three priorities for my first 100 days. He put out this proposed stimulus package that had a, would allocate 130 billion dollars for K-12 schools, something like 35 billion for higher ed, but that’s a lot of money on top of the multiple stimulus packages that had already been passed in December and March. But he recognized, and I think correctly, that some of the mitigations, they’re really expensive, and you know, like that has been one of the major complaints that have come, especially from urban underfunded districts, just like: yes, it can be done safely, but we are living in, we’re living in cities where we know these, our school districts don’t follow through, that they always run out of funds on the things that they say they’re going to do, so why should we believe you? So I think from Biden’s perspective, it was like, let’s try to like ease up that distress by giving them more resources, to sort of put more confidence in their mitigation pledges. The House did pass it over the weekend and now the Senate is looking at it, so. Then finally, his CDC put out guidance, and this was like a really big thing people are waiting for, because they felt like throughout the Trump administration there was no federal leadership on school reopenings. Betsy DeVos routinely was like: it’s up to communities, like schools are safe, everyone figure it out. And people had lost trust in Trump’s CDC. So all that said, Biden’s CDC did put out guidance, but it was, ended up sort of being very controversial and people had a lot of opinions about it.
Brian Beutler: The guidance from CDC under Biden has two overarching rules: universal mask wearing, and physical distancing of at least six feet. And one of the reasons this guidance has been controversial as Rachel said, is because it’s impossible to space desks six feet apart in small, crowded schools. In cities where schools are wedged into landlocked parcels, there’s simply no room to space everyone out. This is where a hybrid model comes in: kids split up and come to school on alternate days. Coupled with that, some parents are opting to keep their kids home entirely, which creates space for everyone else who attends in person. That’s why about 65% of schools in the US are currently open for in-person learning right now, which looks pretty good for Biden on paper.
Rachel Cohen: It’s very, very likely that Biden has already like, quote “met his goal.” There is already—most K-8 schools in the country are open to some in-person learning right now. But it won’t feel like mission accomplished because it’s not going to be what I think a lot of parents really want, which is five days a week in person.
Brian Beutler: But in order to get all kids in a classroom five days a week, schools will need to upgrade their ventilation systems and find other ways to space kids out, converting spaces like gymnasiums and libraries into classes. But it’ll take money and at least a bit of time.
Rachel Cohen: I think even if the stimulus passes, I don’t think that it’s going to provide that much change to schools’ decision between now and the end of April. Like there’s always delays in getting the funding out. I think, I think the money will be helpful, but I’m not sure it’s going to make a huge difference on, like, school districts decisions in the next six weeks.
Brian Beutler: So I hear a couple of different things in there. I hear that even a great, the best possible school reopening plan just takes some time to implement and so people who are really eager for schools to reopen the way we remember schools being open, are going to find that things aren’t going to work out right away. Separately, there’s this point that Biden has set a goal for himself, which he kind of did with saying: well, we’re going to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days. That sounds really ambitious but when you kind of do the math on it, it’s just an easy goal to accomplish. And so he’s going to be claiming victory on it, meanwhile people in their communities are going to say: wait, he said most schools are going to be reopened, but my school schools only open three days a week and only for half the students. Or something like that. Is that the sort of disconnect that you’re picking up on?
Rachel Cohen: Yeah, I mean, in his defense, a mild defense, when he committed to 100 million doses a day by April when he was inaugurated, like, you know, a week later, we realized that was too low and he then has since ramped up that vaccination goal, but he hasn’t changed his school reopening goal. But the difference is that the federal government has a lot more control over ramping up distribution for vaccines than reopening schools, which are ultimately a decision made by the local level.
Brian Beutler: Right. And that’s why Tuesday’s announcement that Biden was basically telling states they had to allow teachers to have access to the vaccine.
[clip of President Biden] We want every educator, school staff member, childcare worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March.
Brian Beutler: Seems like it could be the sort of thing that like by the end of his 100 days, he could far, far exceed the goal that he set for himself. And whether or not we then look back and say: well, OK, you’re kind of playing funny business with setting the bar low for yourself. We’ll say that we’ve actually come such, such a long way that that it represents like a genuine victory or just success?
Rachel Cohen: I was really glad to see his announcement yesterday, I think Biden coming out and being like: look, let’s do this, let’s get them at least one dose by the end of March. I think that was the kind of clarity that was helpful. And I also think that, like, there are some people who are eager to play gotcha with Biden being like: you made this goal but there are still schools that are not open five days a week, or you don’t actually have the power to do it. And that’s all fair but at the same time, I think it is really helpful to, that the president has decided to make one of his top three bully-pulpit issues this schools and like education. And he could have easily done something else and he, like he did it knowing that was a limitation. And personally, as someone who follows public school, public education a lot, I just think it’s really useful to have the president always talking about the importance of it and why we need to be funding it. And like even with all of the limitations he faces, I just don’t think it’s I think, it I think it helps more than it hurts.
Brian Beutler: Coming up, we look at the latest scientific research on reopening schools safely and we look ahead to next school year when many people expect schools to be officially back to normal, when we return.
Brian Beutler: Welcome back to Rubicon. My guest is Rachel Cohen. She covers education for The Intercept and other outlets, and she’s been tracking the debate over reopening schools and the latest scientific data.
Brian Beutler: So before we had all this good news about vaccines, which I think—something that stuck out to me as significant, was when Ron Klain, who’s Biden’s Chief of Staff, back in January, tweeted in reference to like a pilot project in Wisconsin that allowed schools to reopen, and basically he said: this can be done nationally. We can take the lessons we think we’ve learned from Wisconsin and provide schools elsewhere with the resources they need to do something similar. So what happened in Wisconsin, and how scalable are the various things that have worked out in different parts of the country where they’ve worked out?
Rachel Cohen: Yeah, so Wisc—the study that Ron Klain was citing, they used pretty rigorous contact tracing to just sort of track in-school transmission. Their takeaway at that time was, you know, with universal masking, we’re not seeing evidence of much in-school spread, and that is a good thing. And the Wisconsin one was particularly encouraging because the Wisconsin area did have high community spread at that time. The big caution to that: none of those studies were doing any asymptomatic testing, they weren’t doing what we call, what they call surveillance testing or universal testing. So that is sort of a, not to sort of, the big caution of that is that these contact tracers were not detecting a lot of the spread that may or may not have been happening. Because we know the CDC says upwards of 50% of infections show no symptoms and for kids, that’s likely even higher. The other sort of qualification to the Wisconsin study was that some of the Wisconsin schools were hybrid. So that’s important to note because oftentimes we’re talking about a return to school but it’s like, are we talking about at 25% capacity in the classroom or are we talking about 100%? Are we talking about overcrowded classrooms where kids are like a foot apart from each other? And so sometimes that also makes interpreting some of these studies difficult.
Brian Beutler: And do you have a sense—and maybe the answer is we just don’t know—but presumably the teachers in those districts or the parents of students in those districts would know if people were coming home from school and their elders were getting sick and people were dying as a result of an infection chain that began at school. Are these studies that the White House is kind of looking at to create a template to scale up nationally—do we have a sense of like just what the on the ground feeling in those places is about how, about how successful things really were?
Rachel Cohen: So this is like a good example where you have some people saying: look, if this were really unsafe, we would know by now. Right? Like we would, there are schools that are open, if it were really having all this spread like, we would, we would know, we should be able to trust what we’re seeing with our own eyes. Kind of like what you’re asking, like and we want to believe like everything is known. But actually, there was like tons of research happening all the time. There was a study that came out last week on Cobb County, Georgia, which is a suburb of Atlanta. And they did a really interesting sort of study that no other place has done where they looked at elementary schools in Cobb County in December and January. And anyone who was quarantining from an in-school exposure, they invited to test between days five and 10 of their quarantine—which is like when you’re most likely to sort of, you know, show the virus or whatever. And then after that, anyone who tested positive from that group, then they tested their household members. And so of all those people, they found, 26% of the family members were positive. And so that was sort of like, that was a study where they were trying to be more intentional about seeing how does this virus spread from known in-school case to family members. And it does sort of lend credence to people who think: you know, if we don’t test it, we’re not going to find it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
Brian Beutler: Got it. OK, so how does Biden’s approach to schools map onto his views on labor issues generally? So, like, on the one hand, I see him kind of acting like a referee in the school reopening debate, but it’s against the backdrop of him intervening effectively in support of Amazon’s unionization drive.
[clip of President Biden] Unions put power in the hands of workers. The choice to join a union is up to the workers, full stop. Full stop. Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting . . .
Brian Beutler: And he’s just generally, rhetorically, at least been a, like a fairly pro-labor Democratic politician. Does that, does that affect the way stakeholders in these debates have viewed his role as arbiter?
Rachel Cohen: I’ve been kind of surprised, it’s kind of been refreshing to hear how we sort of found a middle ground on a lot of these issues, in my opinion. He, you know, there were a lot of reporters who tried to get him and his press secretary to criticize the Chicago Teachers Union when they were in their heated negotiations and they just didn’t do it. They just sort of said, you know: we can figure out a way to get this done safely. They didn’t take the bait of bashing teachers unions that, like many reporters tried to give them. I think it’s been valuable the way he’s prioritized education in all of his rhetoric and done so without throwing teacher unions under the bus.
Brian Beutler: OK, so let’s talk about kind of like the elephant in the room of this whole situation. There’s a lot of effort being put into getting things ready for reopening right now, even though when they’re all kind of together and accomplished or whatever, it’ll be two weeks until summer break and then some whether schools reopen or not, we’re already looking ahead to to the next school year. Is it crazy to think that we’re wasting a lot of today resources when this school year is pretty much already a loss and the real, the real reopening questions are going to arise like in the fall?
Rachel Cohen: I mean, I think on the question of the stimulus funding, that won’t be an issue because they’ll be able to use it next year. But the thing that we know—and we haven’t touched on this yet in this call—but like, there are a lot of families that will not be sending their kids back this school year, even if they have the option.
Brian Beutler: In a recent CDC survey, racial- and ethnic-minority parents were more concerned about school reopening than their white counterparts. 62% of white parents agreed that schools should reopen in the fall, compared with 46% of black and 50% percent of Hispanic parents. This is likely because black and Hispanic families have been disproportionately hurt by the COVID pandemic, with higher rates of death and hospitalization and infection. But for all kids doing school online, the downside is learning loss, especially for families with limited access to computers and the Internet.
Rachel Cohen: This has been a problem the entire pandemic, where we have had a lot of focus on reopening schools and just a very minuscule amount on virtual learning, where most kids have been—and their parents made clear that their kids will be—until the pandemic is over.
Brian Beutler: I’m glad you raised the fact that these stimulus resources aren’t just going to, poof, be gone in the next six to eight weeks. Do you have a sense of how much of the 100 plus billion dollars in the COVID bill that’s for schools, is to permanently retrofit schools for aerosol virus being endemic? And to what extent is it expendable resources like masks that we’re going to have to re-up over and over again if the COVID risk never kind of fully goes away?
Rachel Cohen: That’s a good question. I don’t know, I know that there’s a lot of flexibility in the funding. And this, with interviews I’ve had with ventilation experts its sort of been an interesting thing. This potential silver lining of this pandemic is that America’s public schools have been in desperate need of upgrades and repairs for decades. There was like a new GAO report that came out this past June that sort of detailed the horrible state of repair and condition—this is before the pandemic happened, because their data collection was, you know, 2019—and there’s been a lot of research that shows kids learn less well in poorly ventilated buildings. Like it makes sense, if it’s hot and stuffy you can’t concentrate. If it’s freezing because the boilers don’t work, you’re not paying attention. So there is a sense that, like while these are emergency measures, schools that do upgrade their HVAC systems and do get better ventilation in place, like they’re going to have those then after the pandemic. And that’s a good thing. And that’s sort of like a repair we’ve needed to make. It might also be funded through a potential infrastructure bill if that happens over the summer, like more money for school upgrades. But I guess my point is, while some of the things like—I don’t know, masking is probably something would need refunding—like some of these measures, like school ventilation could be just going through things schools have long had to do and haven’t had the will and money to get done.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, I mean, it’s true that, like every politician in my lifetime has talked about needing to repair America’s crumbling schools or whatever, and I guess like it just took a pandemic for the importance of doing that to kind of dawn on people and to actually get the money out the door needed to do those things. And a 100 dollars—I don’t know if it’s the right number, but it’s not a small number. So you can, you know, you can imagine it making a huge difference for a lot of districts and a lot of actual schools. OK, so one last thing that Ron Klain tweeted, and I think this is a good place to close. He tweeted: schools closed under President Trump and they will reopen under President Biden. When we look back at next re-election season or in the midterms or whenever, this becomes a hot-button issue in politics during a campaign, is the administration’s confidence that they’re going to get schools to reopen and the public is going to like what they see, grounded in reality or are they setting themselves up to be claiming credit for something that people are actually unhappy with?
Rachel Cohen: Um, so I might eat my words on this but I think people are going to be unhappy in April, and I think that a lot of people are going to be happy in September, in the fall. I think the fall is looking really good. Now that we had this announcement yesterday—.
[clip of President Biden] This country will have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May. By the end of May.
Rachel Cohen: That also bodes really well for high schoolers to get vaccinated over the summer. And I think that—I’ve read a lot of you know, as you have I’m sure—I’ve seen Republicans sort of drooling at the thought of rallying all these angry suburban parents to punish the Democrats for not opening a schools faster. But I’m not convinced that the party that really offers nothing to families, like does not support universal child care, does not want to give generous child support subsidies, or like fund public education is then going to suddenly get all these new suburban voters who are so mad. There are, and I’m not saying that to diminish—I know there are lots of parents that are really upset and mad right now, but I just think nobody knows how long that sort of resentment is going to last once the pandemic ends. And that’s not to say we should not take it seriously but I, I don’t think Republicans are marshaled like very convincing evidence yet.
Brian Beutler: All right. Why don’t we leave it there? Rachel Cohen, thank you for joining us.
Rachel Cohen: Thank you.
Brian Beutler: Keep sending us your questions. Our email address is Rubicon@Crooked.com. After last week’s episode, we got a lot of letters about loan forgiveness. Many people pointed out that they owed more than $10,000 in student debt, yet weren’t in lucrative careers. Listener Amy asks: Why is the government making money off of struggling students? In other words, can Biden offer 0% interest to all borrowers with no penalties? To answer her question, I spoke with Toby Merrill of Harvard Law School, who directs the Project on Predatory Student Lending. She told me that the same law that allows Biden to forgive accumulated student debt, the Higher Education Act, also allows him to alter the terms and conditions of loans, including interest. So if he were to set rates to zero in addition to wiping out $10,000 in debt, those who are more than $10,000 would at least no longer see their debt to the government grow with interest.
Brian Beutler: Rubicon is written and hosted by me, Brian Beutler. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein. Veronica Simonetti is our audio engineer. Production support from Brian Semel. Thanks for listening and we’ll be back next week.