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Biden's School Reopening Plan: National Guidelines, Local Decisions, More Funding

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Schools need more funding and clear federal guidelines to reopen safely in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdowns, former Vice President Joe Biden said Friday, but the decision of when and how to open their buildings should be made at the local level.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee released a school reopening plan Friday, reupping previous calls for additional coronavirus relief aid and calling for new grant programs to help schools weather an unprecedented fiscal and public health crisis.

His recommendations came as President Donald Trump continued his calls to open their buildings for in-person learning. Trump has floated the idea of pulling federal funding for schools that don't do so, even though he has no clear authority to carry out that threat.

"Everyone wants our schools to reopen," Biden said in a video Friday. "The question is how to make it safe, how to make it stick. Forcing educators and students back into the classroom in areas where the infection rate is going up or remaining very high is just plain dangerous."

Federal Guidelines:  Federal agencies, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, should establish "basic, objective criteria to guide state, tribal, and local officials" in reopening decisions that are sensitive to the "level of risk and degree of viral spread in the community," Biden's plan says. That guidance should answer questions like when it's safe to reopen classrooms, what should cause schools to close buildings again, how to accommodate vulnerable students and employees, and who should return to classrooms first, the plan says.

Trump officials have also framed school openings as a local decision, even as they criticized districts that have opted to start the school year in remote learning or under hybrid plans that bring rotating cohorts of of students on campus a few days a week. They've deferred to local leaders for decisions about the specifics of virus precautions, and they've suggested that the feasibility of CDC guidelines about issues like spacing of desks and wearing masks shouldn't prevent schools from opening their buildings.

More School Funding: Biden's plan calls for a few streams of new relief funding for schools:

  • Biden calls on the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by the Democratically controlled House in May. The Republican-controlled Senate has not taken up the bill, which would direct about $58 billion in additional relief funding to local school districts. 
  • Biden also calls for a separate emergency relief package for schools and child-care providers, citing estimated costs of as much as $30 billion to reopen buildings.
  • Biden would also create a federal "COVID-19 Educational Equity Gap Challenge Grant" program to help state and local governments develop solutions to support students affected by school closures.

Trump also supports additional funding for schools in the next relief package, White House officials have said, but they've suggested that funding should include "incentives" for schools to reopen buildings and that some of it should be directed to tax-credit scholarship programs that allow students to attend private schools.

White House Initiative: Biden's plan proposes a task force of experts that would "identify evidence-based policy solutions" to supporting students' mental health and social-emotional well-being and to addressing "systemic racial and socioeconomic disparities" that have been widened by the pandemic.

Photo: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the National Education Association's presidential forum in July 2019, in Houston. --David J. Phillip/AP


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