In his first 48 hours in office, President Joe Biden sought to project an optimistic message about returning the nation's many homebound students to classrooms. "We can teach our children in safe schools," he vowed in his inaugural address.
The next day, Biden signed an executive order promising to throw the strength of the federal government behind an effort to "reopen school doors as quickly as possible."
But with about half of American students still learning virtually as the pandemic nears the one-year mark, the president's push is far from certain to succeed. His plan is rolling out just as local battles over reopening have become more pitched in recent weeks.
Teachers are uncertain about when they will be vaccinated and fearful of contagion. With alarming case counts across the country and new variants of the coronavirus emerging, unions are fighting efforts to return their members to crowded hallways. Their reluctance comes even as school administrators, mayors and some parents feel increased urgency to restore educational business as usual for the millions of students who are struggling academically and emotionally.
Given the seemingly intractable health and labor challenges, some district officials have begun to say out loud what was previously unthinkable: Schools may not be operating normally for the 2021-22 school year. And some labor leaders are seeking to tamp down the expectations that Biden's words have raised.
"We don't know whether a vaccine stops transmissibility," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union.
Some virus experts, however, have said there is reason to be optimistic.
Weingarten said that key to returning teachers to classrooms in the coming months, even before widespread vaccinations, would be promises to allow those with health conditions, or whose family members have compromised immune systems, to continue to work remotely; in-school virus testing; the collection of centralized data on the number of covid-19 cases in specific schools; and assurances from districts that they would shut down schools when cases occur.
Fights over those very demands have slowed and complicated reopenings across the country. But Weingarten also indicated that Biden's efforts to fill classrooms would be greeted favorably.
"Don't underestimate the bully pulpit," Weingarten said. "Truth and trust are so important."
Biden's executive order directs federal agencies to create national school reopening guidelines, to support virus contact tracing in schools and to collect data measuring the impact of the pandemic on students. The White House is also pushing a stimulus package that would provide $130 billion to schools for costs such as virus testing, upgrading ventilation systems and hiring staff.
School leaders are eagerly awaiting additional cash from Washington, which could amount to several thousand dollars per pupil. But they emphasize that it will be equally important for federal officials to directly address the anxiety about in-person work that has swept the teacher corps and that has been given an influential voice in places where teachers unions are powerful.
Money is beginning to flow, but Marguerite Roza, a school finance expert at Georgetown University, said it was perhaps even more important for the federal government to shore up districts' abilities to negotiate forcefully with their unions.
The Biden administration could establish a clear threshold for community virus transmission, below which it would advise schools to stay open, Roza said, or even require them to do so in order to access federal dollars.
Research has pointed to the potential to operate schools safely before teachers and students are vaccinated, as long as practices like mask wearing are adhered to and especially when community transmission and hospitalization rates are controlled.
Tying stimulus money to opening schools might be a heavier-handed strategy than the new administration is comfortable with. On Friday, a White House spokesperson said partnership and cooperation with teachers unions would be central to reopening schools successfully.