President Biden on Tuesday night distanced himself from previous comments by White House press secretary Jen Psaki that the administration’s goal for its first 100 days was to have more than 50% of schools open at least one day per week.
That goal was criticized as unambitious as it had essentially already been met by school districts partially opening on their own before Biden’s time in office. There was also speculation that the White House was trying to avoid upsetting teachers unions, which are a major force in the Democratic Party and have in many cases strongly opposed school reopening efforts.
But Biden at a CNN town hall Tuesday night said that Psaki was not correct in saying that having half of schools open one day per week — essentially getting schools 10% open overall — is the White House’s goal for the end of its first 100 days.
“No, that’s not true. That’s what was reported; that’s not true. There was a mistake in the communication,” he said. “But what I — what I’m talking about is I said opening the majority of schools in K-through-eighth grade because they’re the easiest to open, the most needed to be opened, in terms of the impact on children and families having to stay home.”
“I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first hundred days,” Biden said of elementary and middle schools.
Biden did not specifically say what his definition of an open K-8 school at the end of his first 100 days would be. But he did say that schools may be open over the summer to help make up for lost learning for students — a comment that also contradicted Psaki.
“My guess is they’re probably going to be pushing to open all summer to continue like it’s a different semester,” Biden said.
Psaki said in a White House briefing last week: “And you’re right: Schools won’t be in session for the summer, but this is a pandemic we’re working to get under control, making progress every month. And we’re certainly hopeful that things will be — more kids will be back in school five days a week as quickly as it can safely happen.”
Asked by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper Tuesday if over the summer schools may be open in-person five days per week, Biden said, “I think many of them five days a week. The goal would be five days a week.”
Psaki last week clarified that the Biden administration wants all schools 100% open as soon as possible and said the 100-day goal — now retracted by her boss — was “not the ceiling, that is the bar we are trying to leap over.”
She reemphasized that Tuesday night in a tweet.
“Last week I said @POTUS goal was to open schools five days a week as quickly as possible. And that we are going to rely on science. Which is exactly what we are doing,” Psaki said.
But the reopening guidelines the administration put out last week place more than 90% of American K-12 students in coronavirus “red zones,” with the most stringent reopening guidelines for schools.
Under those guidelines, elementary schools in red zones should be “in hybrid learning mode or reduced attendance” while middle and high schools should be doing “virtual-only instruction unless they can strictly implement all mitigation strategies, and have few cases.”
In red zones, the guidelines say sports and other activities should be “virtual only.”
Biden, nevertheless, admitted Tuesday that the current lack of in-person learning is harming not only the education and mental health of children, but is placing heavier demands on parents.
“The loss of being able to be in school is having significant impact on children and parents as well,” Biden said.
The president also said “there are certain things that make it rational and easy to go back to the brick-and-mortar building” like personal protective equipment (PPE), smaller class sizes and a focus on children in eighth grade or younger.
“It’s harder to get [high] schools open without having everything from ventilation systems,” and many more precautions, Biden said. He also said that “the contagion factor in colleges is much higher.”
Fox News’ Audrey Conklin contributed to this report.