Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said President Biden’s goal to open the majority of K-8 schools by April 30 falls way short of what school children need, and the Republican Whip urged Biden to choose science over teacher unions.
Scalise, fresh off a call with concerned parents who want their schools reopened, said Biden’s goal should be 100% of schools opened within his first 100 days. Anything short of that is a disservice to the children who are suffering, Scalise told Fox News in an interview Thursday.
“Either you are going commit to opening up all schools safely, or you’re going to be leaving millions of kids behind for no reason other than you’re afraid of standing up to the teachers unions. Because the science is very clear: You can open up every school safely today and the money is there to do it,” Scalise told Fox News.
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“The only thing lacking by some of these leaders, including the president, is the will to get kids back in the classroom now.”
School reopening has been a top priority for the new Biden administration, though the White House has been squishy with its goals.
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Biden on Tuesday night distanced himself from previous comments by White House press secretary Jen Psaki that the administration’s goal for its first 100 days was to have more than 50% of schools open at least one day per week. That low bar was widely panned, especially since the U.S. has already surpassed it.
Biden called Psaki’s explanation a communication “mistake” and told a CNN town hall Tuesday the actual goal is opening the majority of K-8 schools at the end of his first 100 days, which falls on April 30.
“I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days,” Biden said of elementary and middle schools.
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A challenge to school reopenings has been teachers unions that want assurances they can return to work safely, with the California Teachers Association in January asking for vaccines before heading back to school.
But CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said her agency’s newly released guidance states that it is possible for schools “even in areas of the highest community spread” to reopen safely — at least in a hybrid fashion — without teachers getting vaccinated first.
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Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have both said the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion coronavirus package is needed to help more schools reopen. About $130 billion of that package is for K-12 public schools.
“We want as many kids to be back in school as possible. For that to happen, it takes some money,” Pelosi said on Thursday, citing the need for better ventilation systems, more teachers, and more buses to accommodate social distancing standards.
But Scalise called Pelosi’s suggestion that money is the reason why some schools have remained closed “ludicrous.” He said money for school reopenings has still gone unspent from the original $150 billion allocated to states last March under the CARES Act.
“When we put $150 billion out there for states to cover COVID expenses that included the ability to reopen schools safely,” Scalise said.
He continued, “You’ve got some large systems who have the will to do what was right for the kids and some that chose not to. And they’re doing devastating, long-term damage to these kids by not reopening. And it’s a national disgrace.”
Republicans have criticized Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus proposal as not incentivizing schools to reopen now. They point to a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that estimated just $6 billion of the $128 billion in the package for education would flow to schools in 2021.
“According to the Congressional Budget Office, 95% of that school money won’t even be spent until 2022,” said Scalise, who will be urging his colleagues to vote “no” on Biden’s coronavirus bill next week. “So this Pelosi-Biden bill actually would delay schools reopening until 2022, which is creating even more anger when you think about the fact that the science now says you can put them back in the classroom today.”
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Scalise organized a phone call Thursday with 900 parents from across the country through grassroots groups working to reopen their local schools.
He was joined by GOP Reps. Virginia Foxx, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee; Brad Wenstrup, co-chair of the Doctor’s Caucus; and Ashley Hinson, who authored legislation to give full federal funding to schools that physically reopen and penalize districts that remain closed.
Wenstrup, a medical doctor from Ohio, said keeping kids home from school is having far graver consequences than the potential risks of sending them back. It’s time for local districts and the Biden administration to follow the science that says it’s safe to reopen schools now, he said.
“Like the thousands of other Americans who have worked throughout the pandemic, most teachers can return to in-person schooling without being fully vaccinated,” Wenstrup said.
Foxx and Republicans on the Education Committee last week tried to pass numerous amendments to Biden’s coronavirus relief bill to give students the opportunity for in-person learning as a condition for the money. But all the amendments were blocked by Democrats.
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“Democrats have repeatedly chosen to back left-wing special interests instead of protecting vulnerable students,” Foxx, R-N.C., said in a statement to Fox News.
Hinson earlier this month tried to force immediate consideration on the House floor of her Reopen Schools Act, which provides new conditions on the $54 billion that Congress allocated to K-12 schools in December to help them safely reopen. Hinson’s bill would dock schools that aren’t open for in-person learning by reducing the amount of federal money they receive. Democrats blocked the GOP floor effort.
Hinson said parents on the call Thursday parents are understandably frustrated with state and local officials who keep on delaying school reopenings.
“It seems that there’s a lack of political willpower to actually move forward,” Hinson, R-Iowa, told Fox News. “So I think we need this accountability because … it’s a complete disservice to our students for people to keep passing the buck. They’re playing politics with our kids’ future at this point.”
As of Saturday, the Burbio.com school reopening tracker found that just 40.8% of K-12 public school students in the U.S. were attending in-person school every day. About a third of U.S. students were in virtual-only schools, while the remainder were in a hybrid program of both virtual and in-person.
Fox News’ Tyler Olson, Peter Aitken and Audrey Conklin contributed to this report.