Video above: US schools weigh whether to seat students closer
Pushing forward with its plan to reopen schools, the Biden administration is expanding coronavirus testing for teachers, staff and students and convening a summit for educators to share "best practices" for returning kids to the classroom.
"The time is now, and schools must act immediately to get students safely back into school buildings," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Wednesday.
President Joe Biden, who was inaugurated on Jan. 20, has pledged to have most elementary and middle schools open to instruction by the end of his first 100 days in office. The administration has been promoting the $1.9 billion COVID-19 relief bill recently passed by Congress as a way to accomplish that.
The states will share $122 billion, with allocations ranging from $285 million for Vermont schools to $15 billion for California, according to the Education Department.
The money can be used to reduce class sizes and modify classrooms to enhance social distancing, install ventilation systems and purchase personal protective equipment. It also can pay for more nurses, counselors and janitors, and summer school.
Also Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced $10 billion for states to conduct COVID-19 testing for teachers, staff and students. Cardona said that would accelerate reopenings.
"Safe school reopening is the goal. Doing it quickly is the goal," Cardona said on a call with reporters. "But let's not forget, there are so many students who are wondering right now, am I going to be able to walk the stage for graduation?"
Cardona said a summit scheduled for next Wednesday will give education leaders, teachers and students an opportunity to share their experiences in reopening schools. The Education Department said first lady Jill Biden will deliver opening remarks. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also will speak.
"We are holding this summit with the goal of sharing best practices and connecting leaders, educators and students from across this country who are navigating this challenge together and finding creative solutions to support our students and bring them back to in-person learning," Cardona said.
Cardona was asked about his expectations for the fall.
"Health and safety is the primary responsibility of our school to make sure that it's a safe learning environment, safe working environment. So what does normal look like? I wish I had a crystal ball. We don't know," he said.
"What we do know is that this spring we're wanting to see schools reopen using the mitigation strategies and giving students an opportunity for that in-person learning. In the fall. I would anticipate — if the continuation of vaccination happens and we have every reason to believe that we're going to be able to do that — by the fall, that schools can reopen in person for all students and they have that opportunity to engage."
Biden has ordered states to prioritize teachers in their vaccination plans, and the CDC has released guidelines to help schools reopen. But one of those guidelines — that students be seated 6 feet apart — is already being reevaluated because of the challenges of achieving that.
During a congressional hearing Wednesday, Walensky said the agency is looking to update the guidance on physical distancing in schools "soon." The remarks came after Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., urged Walensky to act quickly, given the toll on children's mental health of school closures.
Walensky said there has only been one published study so far indicating students can be seated as close as 3 feet apart without increased risk of infection. She said other studies are in progress.