Biden announces executive actions meant to help reopen schools

Nathan Grebil (right) takes the temperature of fourth-grade student Hyla during a health screening at Bel Aire Elementary School in Tiburon, Calif., in October.

Nathan Grebil (right) takes the temperature of fourth-grade student Hyla during a health screening at Bel Aire Elementary School in Tiburon, Calif., in October. (Lea Suzuki/Getty Images)

President Biden has called reopening schools a “national emergency” and said that he wants to see most K-12 schools in the United States open during his first 100 days in office, which would be between now and April.

On Thursday he announced he would sign several executive actions, including measures meant to push the process along.

These come after actions signed on Wednesday geared toward improving college access and providing relief for student loan borrowers.

Here are the details of Thursday’s actions, as announced by the White House:

More PPE: Schools will be eligible for full reimbursement for supplies such as masks, gowns and gloves through the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund.

More testing: A Pandemic Testing Board will use the Defense Production Act and other means to produce and distribute more tests, including for schools. Workplaces with the resources, such as movie sets, have relied on frequent and rapid testing to operate safely during the pandemic, but access to tests for teachers and students has been limited by budgets.

Vaccines for teachers: The actions expand vaccine capacity in several ways; equitable distribution to teachers in particular is mentioned.

Better data: Up until now, there has been no centralized, national data collection of coronavirus cases or outbreaks in schools. “I’m not sure there’s a role at the department to collect and compile that research,” former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in October. This makes it difficult to appropriately trace, isolate or to even understand the impact of school opening on the course of the pandemic, or the efficacy of various safety protocols. Many states and districts have their own reporting and dashboards, and there are some decentralized volunteer efforts. Among Thursday’s actions is a call for the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to take a more aggressive role in collecting, aggregating, analyzing and reporting data and best practices in order to help schools and businesses reopen safely. That includes collecting data on the equity impacts of prolonged school closures.

These moves come as the organization Burbio reports more than half of the country’s students are learning from home. Large districts, including in Chicago and Fairfax County, Va., are struggling to bring large numbers of students back for the first time this school year, while others are closing because of staffing shortages brought on by waves of quarantines. And there are worries over whether new variants of the coronavirus might spread even more quickly, overwhelming the safety precautions currently in place in schools.

In addition to the actions announced Thursday, which focused on K-12 school reopenings amid the pandemic, Biden signed several executive actions on his first day in office relating to education.

He affirmed the rights of children to access school restrooms, locker rooms and other facilities regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, an issue that made news when DeVos rescinded similar Obama-era guidance.

On the higher ed front, Biden took actions that would make it easier for certain students to go to college, and provide relief to student loan borrowers during the pandemic:

College access: Biden issued a proclamation ending the so called “Muslim travel ban,” which barred entry to the U.S. of citizens from some majority-Muslim countries. The president also ordered the state department to begin processing visas. Both moves should help colleges attract more international students after a massive decline in enrollment during the Trump administration.

A new action strengthening the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, gives legal protections to people who came to the U.S. as children. Colleges have long supported the program, which has helped many Dreamers enrolled in college.

Student loans: Following an executive action signed Wednesday, the Education Department extended pandemic relief from payments for about 41 million federal student loan borrowers through Sept. 30. “Too many Americans are struggling to pay for basic necessities and to provide for their families. They should not be forced to choose between paying their student loans and putting food on the table,” the Education Department said in a statement.

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