Following this week's announcement that the COVID-19 relief package has allocated $122 billion to K-12 schools nationwide, the prospect of President Joe Biden making good on his promise to reopen the majority of schools within his first 100 days in office feels more feasible.
In a White House press briefing on Wednesday, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said he notified officials in every state of how much of the American Rescue Plan's funds they would receive starting this month, with the goal of getting schools open "safely and quickly."
On the list of what stands to be addressed with this rollout are avoiding devastating layoffs, investing in resources to implement safety protocols recommended by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, funding crucial extending learning programs, sourcing WiFi hotspots and devices for students without connectivity for remote learning, and implementing strategies to meet the needs of students hit hardest by the pandemic.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has been asked hundreds of questions about the status of schools amid the pandemic in her short tenure with the Biden administration. And as a mom to two young children, the questions this latest phase of the American Rescue Plan raise are ones she herself shares. In fact, with a 5-year-old daughter set to enroll in kindergarten this fall, she told POPSUGAR she was "very eager to get our kids back in school, just like everybody else's." With that in mind, Psaki spoke to us about this far-reaching rollout and what families can expect for their children come fall and beyond.
POPSUGAR: With such a big round of federal funding, what do you see as the biggest challenge in executing a return-to-school plan on the national level, on the state level, all the way down to the individual district and school?
"The president's goal is to reopen schools full time, five days a week. And have kids being in the classroom, being with peers, and playing on the playgrounds and learning from practice. That's his goal, and that's what we're committed to working towards."
Jen Psaki: Our eyes are wide open to the fact that every school district has different challenges and hindrances to reopen schools. And that one size does not fit all. We are encouraged by the number of schools that have already reopened and are on track to reopen soon. And our secretary of education, who just joined me in the briefing room yesterday, has experience reopening schools and is confident about the path we're on and about the benefits of the funding. So now they're working on getting this funding out and working with school districts and schools to share best practices and figure out the most effective and efficient ways to get schools open, while fully recognising that every school district, every school, is different, has different needs.
And the package is written in a way where there's flexibility, because we know that different school districts and schools need different things. Some need to upgrade their ventilation system. Some need to hire more teachers or bus drivers. Some may need to have summer school or a robust tutoring program.
PS: The plan obviously addresses urgent educational and logistical needs related directly to COVID-19, but how has the administration thought about ways to fund the underlying issues – inequity across racial and socioeconomic lines, primarily – that have always been an issue but the pandemic merely uncovered?
JP: We're still learning more about that every day. The Education Department has been conducting a study so we can get more data on the impact of the loss of learning from the last year. One of the areas of focus that many parents like myself would like to know more about is the impact on mental health. And how does being out of the classroom impact not just socialisation, but kids' self-confidence and self-worth and adaptability? Those are questions that are so vital to the development of our kids, but we probably won't know an answer to them immediately.
PS: The concept of a "return to school" means so many different things these days, with some kids going in part-time and others on a staggered hybrid schedule. Considering this year is winding down, parents are zeroing in on the fall and what it will look like. What do you specifically mean by a return to school come September?
JP: The president's goal is to reopen schools full time, five days a week. And have kids being in the classroom, being with peers, and playing on the playgrounds and learning from practice. That's his goal, and that's what we're committed to working towards.
PS: What we knew about COVID a year ago is very different than what we know now, but still a lot of parents and teachers around the nation feel aversion to the idea of putting their unvaccinated children back in school. How do you respond to those fears?
"One of the areas of focus that many parents like myself would like to know more about is the impact on mental health. Those questions are so vital to the development of our kids, but we probably won't know an answer to them immediately."
JP: As a mom, I would say this has been a really scary period of time over the last year because there was so much uncertainty. And I remember, at the beginning of the pandemic, like many parents, my then-4-year-old was in preschool, and they were going to close the school for a couple of weeks. And then they ended up closing it for the rest of the year. And obviously, her safety was my first priority. And there was so much we didn't know – I was scared about her going to playgrounds. There's a lot we've learned over the last year. And the reason that we're so focussed on relying on the CDC guidelines is because we want parents and teachers and people across the country who have been living in fear and lack of knowledge – about the pandemic and the impact and what's safe and not safe – to know and understand that the guidelines that are being given to the schools are based on the recommendations of medical experts. Right? It's not a political decision.
PS: And what about the safety concerns about teachers being unvaccinated?
JP: That's why we waited for the release of those guidelines. We've learned so much, and we know that there are a lot of different steps that can be taken to reopen schools safely. We obviously are prioritising vaccinating teachers, and there's a whole program we're implementing around the country on that. But that's just one of the steps.
PS: The $122 billion in funds is in addition to $10 billion from the Department of Health and Human Services to go toward COVID-19 testing of staff and students. But even money from past relief plans hasn't yet been spent. What should be expected in terms of the rollout of this support?
JP: There are going to be some requirements for schools that get funding where they're going to have to post a plan for reopening, within 30 days. Not to reopen within 30 days, but a plan, right? So there will be some requirements like that, but our intent is to get it out the door as quickly as possible.
"I would hope that there are lessons taken from the last year – about what the impact has been on kids, on families, on working moms in the workforce."
Part of the objective now is to also address some of the longer-term needs. You know, there's a fair amount of the funding that will be used to ensure that there's certainty over the longer term. Schools are like many organisations where they want to plan ahead to ensure they can keep teachers employed and bus drivers employed and do the facility upgrades – not having to fire teachers in the future. So it does allow for that, which I think is advantageous to school communities around the country.
PS: The losses incurred to these students will have far-reaching effects for years to come. Fast-forward to the end of this pandemic. What do you hope we'll have learned from this?
JP: I would hope that there are lessons taken from the last year – about what the impact has been on kids, on families, on working moms in the workforce – and that we are still continuing to strive to prepare for not just how to address, from the health standpoint, a future pandemic, but also how we think about how our school systems are prepared for that. And how families are going to be prepared for that. And I have no doubt that's going to be on the minds of people in this administration, given we all lived through this as human beings.