White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the administration’s school reopening goals on Wednesday in the wake of criticism from parents, teachers, students and local officials who say the goals are insufficient.
Psaki said the bar set by the administration was “not the ceiling” as she fielded multiple questions on the matter during Wednesday’s news briefing.
On Tuesday, when asked for President Joe Biden’s definition of open schools, Psaki said the administration’s goal is to have in-person “teaching at least one day a week in the majority of schools by day 100.”
The issue of in-person learning has become a flashpoint and an early test for the administration’s pandemic response, balancing the concerns of some parents eager to get their children back to school with some teachers worried about the possibility of Covid-19 exposure.
Many schools across the country are already hitting that benchmark. Pressed on concerns that just one day of in-person learning wouldn’t do much to help working parents seeking childcare, Psaki said Wednesday that this was a first step to get a majority of schools on track.
“Our objective – the President’s objective – is for all schools to reopen, to stay open, to be open five days a week for kids to be learning. That’s what our focus is on,” she said, later adding: “That is not the ceiling. That is the bar we’re trying to leap over and exceed.”
Biden's First 100 Days
After a reporter noted that the end of Biden’s first 100 days in office nearly coincides with the end of the academic year, Psaki suggested that 100 days was “a measurable period of time where we could set a goal, measure ourselves against, hopefully, leap way past that goal … and then build from there.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release guidance this week on how schools can safely reopen.
Last week, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a Covid-19 briefing that “there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen” and noted that “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” comments Psaki later walked back, stating that Walensky was speaking “in her personal capacity.”
As of this week, 26 states plus the District of Columbia are allowing some or all of their teachers and school staff to receive vaccines.
Psaki was also asked for the administration’s message to teachers who are nervous about going back to the classroom without being fully vaccinated in many states.
“Well, we say to teachers, we want you to be able to go back to school and go back to school safely,” she said, adding that first lady Jill Biden is a teacher and the administration has engaged with a range of groups about their concerns.
She continued, “Most teachers will tell you they want to be in the classroom, and they want to be there with their students, especially the younger kids and do that in-person learning. They want that too. They want to do it safely,” looking ahead to the forthcoming CDC guidelines that “will give a sense to school districts across the country on the steps that they can take to increase the safety in their schools.” But those are decisions that, she said, will ultimately be up to school districts to implement.
While some states, such as Texas and Florida, have ordered publicly-funded schools to be open, others like California and Illinois are locked in heated negotiations with teachers unions over the issue, with the Chicago Teachers Union voting to return to in-person learning overnight Wednesday.
CNN’s Holmes Lybrand, Tara Subramaniam and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.