Biden’s plan, announced a day earlier, would require vaccination of up to 100 million Americans and ramping up virus testing. With those measures, he said, schools should present little risk for transmission of the coronavirus.
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“I want people to know we’re going to be okay,” Biden said during an appearance at Brookland Middle School, a short drive from the White House. “We know what it takes to keep our kids safe and our schools open.” But as uncertainty looms over the start of a new school year in the Covid-19 delta version – in some cases prompting schools to close after a few days – it’s not clear what Biden’s plan is to prevent massive disruption. Will the plan go far enough? Biden has little direct authority over most schools, which are usually governed at the local level, and his plan faces intense resistance from Republicans.
Under their expanded vaccine mandate, all employers with more than 100 workers will require them to receive shots or tests for the virus weekly. A separate provision requires vaccines for workers in Head Start programs and federal government-run schools, affecting about 300,000 workers.
The plan does not explicitly require vaccines for teachers in locally governed schools, but some education leaders believe the employer rule would effectively replace the teacher vaccine requirement in many states.
That part of the plan is being implemented through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s upcoming rule. And in states with OSHA plans, teachers will be required to take vaccines or face tests, according to the interpretation of the AASA, an association of school superintendents.
It is expected to go into effect in 26 states, including several Republican governors who opposed Biden’s plan, such as South Carolina, Tennessee and Arizona.
Biden did not address that aspect of his plan on Friday. Instead, he urged states to issue their own vaccine requirements for school workers.
“About 90% of school staff and teachers are vaccinated – we should have 100% of it,” Biden said. “I’m calling on all governors to require vaccinations for all teachers and staff.”
The governors of some states have already ordered teachers to get vaccinated, including California, Oregon, New Jersey and New York. But most leave it up to school districts, and some Republican-led states have balked at vaccine mandates.
Biden on Friday rebuked Republican governors who vowed to fight his new rules.
“I am deeply disappointed that, in particular, some Republican governors are so careless about the health of these children, so careless with the health of their communities,” he said. “We’re playing for real here. It’s not a game.”
But most of his comments struck a tone more conciliatory than Thursday’s speech, with Biden expressing his frustration with those who remain unconvinced. He returned on Friday to a message of unity, insisting that “we have to come together” to defeat the virus.
Speaking to students in Brookland, Biden lauded those who had already been vaccinated. If they all get shots, Biden promises to invite them for a special visit to the White House.
He also kept Washington, DC as a model. The city has hosted vaccine clinics in its public schools, and 65% of children aged 12 to 17 have received at least their first shot, a rate Joe Biden said is among the highest in the country.
In a petition to America’s families, Biden urged parents to vaccinate teens and other eligible children as soon as possible. He argued that it is no different from standard vaccinations for measles, mumps, rubella and other diseases.
However, the biggest threat to his plan is the large population of children who are still too young to get the shot. Most primary and secondary schools have children under the age of 12 who have not been approved to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
Talking about those concerns, Biden said he supports an “independent” scientific process to review the shots, but he also promised to make them available to young children as soon as it is safe. Will go
“I will do everything within my power to support the Food and Drug Administration in its efforts to get science done safely and as quickly as possible,” he said.
The expanded vaccine mandate does not apply to students, but some districts require shots for students. The Los Angeles District this week became the first major district to implement a mandate for students ages 12 and older.
In addition to vaccines, Biden’s plan aims to accelerate virus testing in schools.
Testing policies vary widely by school and state. Some districts routinely test all students, including the Los Angeles district, while some omit any tests. And for many, it is becoming harder to find testing supplies amid a nationwide shortage in rapid tests.
As part of the White House plan, the government is working to increase the supply of virus tests and make them available at retailers including Walmart and Amazon. Biden said it would lead to 300 million more coronavirus tests, including some for schools.
“I want all schools to set up regular testing programs to make sure we can detect and isolate cases,” Biden said.
The plan received support from the country’s two largest teacher unions, the National Federation of Education and the American Federation of Teachers. Both groups have also supported a vaccine mandate for all teachers and school staff.
Other education groups supporting the plan include the National School Boards Association, which said it comes at an “extremely important time”. The group said it welcomes Biden’s support, even as education leaders face “intimidation, abuse and harassment” over his public health measures.
Speaking with Biden on Friday, First Lady Jill Biden praised teachers as “heroes” for their work over the past year. A longtime community college professor, the first lady said Americans have a duty to protect students as they return to class.
“We promise them to keep their schools as safe as possible,” she said. “We give them a commitment to follow the science – we give them unity so that we can fight the virus, not each other.”