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White House: Schools can safely reopen without all teachers vaccinated

President Joe Biden believes that school districts "need

President Joe Biden believes that school districts "need to make a determination about what works best for them" based on CDC guidelines, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

WASHINGTON — Schools can safely reopen without getting all teachers vaccinated first as a prerequisite, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Sunday, reaffirming the position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Psaki, asked about President Joe Biden’s response to growing pressure to reopen schools, told ABC’s "This Week" that Biden believes school districts "need to make a determination about what works best for them based on" guidelines released by the CDC earlier this month and updated last week.

"The CDC is saying, in order to be safe, there are a number of steps that can be taken," Psaki said. "Vaccinating teachers is one of them, but having smaller class sizes, having kids more separated on buses, more PPE, more testing, facilities upgrades, those are additional steps that can be taken, and our Secretary of Education will work with school districts to implement that."

The issue of school reopenings dominated the discussion on the Sunday morning political talk show circuit.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s "State of the Union" he believed teacher vaccines should be a priority but not a requirement for reopening schools.

"Teachers clearly should be prioritized among those essential personnel to get vaccinated," Fauci said, adding "I don't believe that it should be [essential] that, if they're not vaccinated, they should not go back. I believe we should prioritize them and get as many vaccinated as we can."

The pressure to reopen schools comes as national infection rates drop and the United States works to expand the number of vaccines to the public. Biden has pledged to reopen the majority of K-8 schools during his first 100 days in office.

His nominee for Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, is awaiting Senate confirmation but told a Senate panel two weeks ago that he believed it was urgent to reopen schools.

"There is no substitute for a classroom experience for our students," he told the panel.

Psaki, when asked if it was realistic to expect the majority of grade schools nationwide to open five days a week for in-person instruction by April, said, "that's our goal, that's our objective, that's our plan," before calling on Congress to pass Biden’s proposed $1.9-trillion stimulus package. She noted that it would provide $130 billion in funding to help schools reopen.

"Many of them need funding because they don’t have additional funding in their budgets to be able to do that and plan for the school years ahead," Psaki said of the money districts need to implement some CDC recommendations.

Decisions on Long Island school reopenings — whether to hold classes in person or remotely — vary at the local level and are based on virus transmission rates in the district and local communities, as well as guidance from New York State.

Some Long Island districts have expanded the number of in-person learning days as the caseload drops, but plans have had to change. For example, last week the Manhasset district opted for remote-only learning after 38 students tested positive for the virus.

Education officials predict that once widespread vaccinations are in place, districts will be able to lessen restrictions.

Psaki repeated the Biden administration’s position that teachers should be "prioritized" in receiving vaccinations. At least half of all states have categorized teachers as essential workers eligible to receive vaccinations before other groups become eligible.

Fauci, who also appeared on NBC’s "Meet the Press" and "Fox News Sunday," said the Biden administration was working to make sure students were back to school by the spring.

"It’s a very difficult situation to get an absolute definitive answer," he said on CNN as teacher unions and administrators in some cities negotiate over how to proceed.

"The default position is to do whatever you can, as best as you can, to get the children back to school with safety concerns for the children and for the teachers and the educational personnel," he said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest labor unions in the country, told NBC’s "Meet the Press" that she wanted to "debunk this myth that teacher unions — at least our union — doesn’t want to reopen schools."

She added: "if the NFL could figure out how to do this, in terms of testing and the protocols, if schools are that important, let's do it. And my members want it, they just want to be safe."

Also Sunday, Fauci noted that virus transmission was on the way down, despite the country approaching the grim milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 related deaths.

"If you look at the number of infections in the community, they're coming down at a very, very rapid, steep decline, which means, very quickly, as we get into the next week or so … you're going to see more areas getting into the yellow, and then the blue zone, as that continuation goes down, which I think will add to the solution to the problem, together with the CDC guidelines," Fauci said.

Fauci said on CNN: "[Y]ou’re going to see a lot more vaccines going into people’s arms in a much broader way," adding that it’s the United States' goal to get more than 2 million doses to the public each day by April "and then some."

"You will be seeing relaxation of some of the stringencies as more and more people get vaccinated," he said.

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