White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre raised eyebrows Thursday by suggesting that Republicans prevented schools from reopening sooner amid the rollback of government lockdowns.
When a reporter questioned Jean-Pierre about dismal test results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — which showed average scores for nine-year-olds declining five points in reading and seven points in mathematics — she lauded President Joe Biden for purportedly spearheading a return to in-person instruction.
“Not too long ago when this President walked into this administration: how mismanaged the pandemic — the response to the pandemic was; how 47 percent of schools were — in less than six months, our schools went from 40 per- — 46 percent to — open — to nearly all of them being open to full time,” she said.
“That was the work of this President. And that was the work of Democrats, in spite of Republicans not voting for the American Rescue Plan,” she explained, referring to $130 billion in funding for schools greenlit by the $1.9 trillion legislation. “Every Republican in Congress voted against that money. That is the reality. We had to do this on our own.”
In response, independent journalist Tom Elliott compiled a thread of nearly two dozen union officials, lawmakers, and other members of the Democratic Party advocating for a delay to normal instruction. Virtual learning contributed to declines in enrollment, a rise in violent behavior, and poor mental health among students, among other issues.
White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield, for instance, responded to a question about opening schools during a February 2021 interview by pushing for “mitigation measures” such as vaccinations and social distancing.
“He’s listening to the science,” she said of the commander-in-chief, “and there are a number of important steps that we need to take to ensure that schools can open safely.”
When asked about the role of teachers unions in delaying a return to normalcy, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in May 2021 that “reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic is not as easy as some may think” given the quality of their ventilation systems. “It is complicated, and I tip my hat to educators who have been working really hard to try to get it done as quickly and as safely as possible.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said during a July 2021 interview with MSNBC that increasing vaccination rates was necessary to “keep kids safe” and “keep our members safe” and “try to open up schools.”
In the summer of 2020, many Democratic officials were far more dogmatic about refusing to open schools — though data was beginning to find that Sweden was successfully avoiding a cancelation of normal instruction.
In July 2020, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) said during a CNN interview that “we should not rush to reopen schools” after she was pressed by anchor Jake Tapper about the possible costs of remote learning. One month later, former Texas Democrat Rep. Beto O’Rourke condemned an executive order from Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX) that barred schools from delaying their start date and told officials to “not reopen schools.”
Many parents turned to homeschooling and private schools as their local districts continued with virtual instruction. One report from the Census Bureau found that homeschooling rates across the country grew from 5.4% to 11% between March 2020 and September 2020 alone.
More recently, teachers unions have called for more funding as labor shortages impact the education sector. However, a report from the National Center for Education Statistics indicated that the inflation-adjusted yearly expenditure per American pupil rose from $4,060 to $15,424 between 1960 and 2017, while another study from the Department of Education revealed that schools increased the number of non-teaching staff by 702% between 1950 to 2009 despite hiring 252% more teachers over the same period.