Editorial: Which way schools? America needs a straight answer

Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks into a microphone
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says teachers do not need to be vaccinated before schools can reopen safely.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

The Biden administration set an ambitious and clear goal for vaccine distribution, stuck to it, made it reality and then set the goal higher. If only the same thing were happening with the president’s vow on reopening schools during the pandemic.

Instead, the public has received conflicting and waffling messages from both the White House and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even as the government claims that the top priority has to be getting most students back on campus as soon as possible, under the best possible scenario right now that won’t happen at most schools for two months or so, when the traditional school year is almost over.

The message has been downright labyrinthine. In December, a newly elected Biden declared that he would return most students to in-person classrooms within 100 days of his presidency. Before he took office, though, the goal had already been watered down to a majority of K-8 schools, with high schools left out of the equation — a reasonable change, given that the virus is more easily caught and passed along by teenagers than by younger children. Still, the overall goal seemed to take a major step forward Feb. 3, when CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” based on an ever-larger body of data.

But two days later, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pulled back from that statement, saying that Walensky had been giving her personal opinion, not an official one. That sure wasn’t how it sounded when Walensky spoke at an official White House briefing.


The following week, Psaki also redefined the goal, saying that schools would be considered open if they did some in-person teaching at least one day a week. Hybrid education — a mix of in-person and remote — might be necessary in many areas, but one day a week is not what most people would consider a reopening.

And last Friday, the CDC released its official guidance for reopening based on coronavirus infection rates. It showed that in 90% of the nation, rates are considered too high for grades above elementary to bring students back on campus; elementary schools were considered safe for hybrid reopening if they followed strict safety protocols. Yet in many of these same areas, schools already are open and operating safely.

At the same time, the guidance followed Walensky’s statement that schools could reopen before teachers had been vaccinated. Yet in an interview this week, Vice President Kamala Harris would say only that vaccinating teachers should be a priority, without backing the CDC’s science-based decision that vaccination was not necessary for safe reopening.

Are we confused yet? Add to this Biden’s statement this week that Psaki’s statements were “a mistake in the communication.“ He went back to his earlier pledge of reopening most K-8 schools five days a week by the 100th day of his term. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical advisor, said this week that it is simply not workable to expect every teacher to be vaccinated before schools can reopen.

Saying isn’t doing, though, and a month into the new administration, there still is no concrete plan for achieving broad-based reopening. Even if it occurred, the academic year would be nearly over by then, which means that the reopening needs to be accompanied by a concerted effort to provide true academic summer school, not merely a menu of enrichment options, for struggling students.

In its way, reopening schools is tougher and more complicated than rolling out vaccines. With immunization, it’s simply a matter of more doses, more needles and more arms. School reopening involves a delicate calculus of risk versus safety measures, and the data are constantly changing.

Some studies have cast doubt on whether six-foot separation actually reduces risk at schools; with effective mask-wearing — which means using the right masks, fitted well — three feet is enough, several scientists have said. Ventilation appears to be more important than cleaning surfaces, which have not emerged as a serious source of transmission.

The federal government isn’t in a position to order schools reopened, but it can provide clear, consistent guidelines, updated to reflect new findings as we go along. In his statement this week, Biden pledged to adhere to the science, not the politics, of when and how to reopen schools. That would be a good place to start.