President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 plan aims to quiet the political storms that have made it difficult for school leaders to know how to reopen buildings and left teachers and families unsure who to trust about their safety.
But a national public health crisis requires tremendous cooperation and collective action from the public. Ten months since the first virus case emerged in the United States, polls show that Americans’ response can often be traced back to who they voted for, what media they consume, which federal officials they trust, and where they live. And those divisions have been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s contradictory, and at times hostile messaging on the issue.
Is it too late for Biden to stand up a more consistent and unified federal response? In a situation where small actions like mask wearing seem irreversibly politicized, can a new administration put the messaging toothpaste back in the tube?
Those questions are high-stakes ones for school and district leaders, many of whom have turned to local authorities to help build credibility in their communities about their responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Even as an effective vaccine appears imminent, schools will have to steer students, parents, and teachers through months more of uncertainty about continued precautions, reopening decisions, and, in some cases, fear of receiving the vaccine.
“People are frustrated. Who is the definitive source on these really tough decisions?” said Cindy Marten, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, which has largely operated in remote learning for the fall semester. “From the day we decided to close, there were people who wanted us to close sooner and there were people who said you can’t open fast enough. There’s the public opinion on this and there is a scientific path forward on this.”
Biden’s plan to help schools address COVID-19 calls for “listening to the scientists” about public health decisions that may be politically divisive. He’s pledged additional relief aid for education, and “basic, objective criteria to guide state, tribal, and local officials” in reopening decisions that are sensitive to the “level of risk and degree of viral spread in the community.”
In a Dec. 3 CNN interview, Biden said it would be safe to open elementary schools, where children are considered at the lowest risk for severe illness, if they have the resources for appropriate safety precautions, which may take additional federal relief aid.
Biden has also promised to work with state and local officials to promote mask mandates in communities that have resisted them. Without the authority to issue a broad national order, he will have to rely on his ability to persuade sometimes-resistant leaders to go along with his plans.
But epidemiologists and communications experts say he will face strong headwinds in shifting the federal response, especially after a contentious presidential race that highlighted the nation’s divisions.
‘A Confusing Situation’
Public trust has been frayed because of a lack of consistent messaging, which is a key to epidemic response, said Kumi Smith, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Minnesota.
In April, for example, the White House Coronavirus Task Force released reopening guidelines for schools and businesses. Leaving decisions up to states and localities, the guidance included “gating criteria” like declining virus rates, hospital capacity, and testing capabilities before a region could move into a new phase of reopening.
But shortly after announcing the guidance, President Donald Trump began pushing governors to reopen their economies in a far less nuanced fashion, and he later threatened to cut education funding for schools that didn’t reopen for in-person instruction.
“He frequently contradicted himself or didn’t follow the advice he put out even hours earlier,” Smith said. “It made a confusing situation even more confusing.”
Another missed opportunity: At the outset of a public health crisis, leaders need to prepare the public for uncertainty, said Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia. That preparation is necessary to preserve credibility when circumstances, like the scientific understanding of the virus, change.
Instead, Trump and some state leaders sought to project certainty. That led to distrust in changing conditions.
For example, federal officials first discouraged mask wearing to preserve medical supplies early in the pandemic, but later encouraged universal face covering, a shift that is still highlighted by some vocal critics of mitigation efforts. And, after deferring to state and local officials on school reopening decisions, some Americans didn’t trust Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield when he said recently that it’s safe for children to return to in-person learning with appropriate precautions, like social distancing, in place.
Biden, federal health officials, and state leaders can still set the expectation that recommendations for schools may continue to shift until the end of the pandemic, epidemiologists said. Even as the general population receives the vaccine during a lengthy 2021 rollout, there will be months of gauging whether communities have reached the level of collective immunity to ease policies like school mask mandates and social distancing.
The president-elect can also build credibility through what he doesn’t do, Smith said. For one, he can stay away from press conferences about health data and restrictions once he takes office.
“You never have these messages delivered by a politician because you might absorb that information differently based on whether or not you voted for that person,” she said, adding that it may be difficult for some to decouple the federal response from which party is in the White House.
One of the biggest frustrations for school administrators has been shifting federal virus guidance that left much of the decision-making in their hands.
The CDC amended its guidance after criticism from Trump, leading to some suspicion of political influence at the agency. Much later, it released color-coded metrics to show the risk of spreading the virus in a school building, but that came months after states had already set dramatically varying requirements for school operations.
Twenty-three states plus the District of Columbia “provide no clear public health criteria to guide reopening decisions,” according to a September analysis from Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research center at the University of Washington, Bothell.
“We are educators,” said Marten, the San Diego superintendent. “We are not epidemiologists and virologists who understand the nature of this disease and who understand public health policy.”
San Diego follows color-coded state guidance that relies on virus rates to determine when to close its schools; district leaders have planned a gradual reopening when the region emerges from the high-risk tier. But the school system didn’t rely on federal guidance to plan exactly what reopening those buildings should look like.
Rather, Marten turned to a team of scientists at the University of California San Diego, including specialists in airborne illness, to guide an overhaul of air filtration systems, cleaning, and other protocols. Working with local experts helped San Diego to tailor its plan to its specific needs, and it also has helped build the credibility needed for public buy-in, she said.
The plan calls for working with the university to test up to 10,000 students and staff members a day, using frequent testing to significantly drive down the likelihood of transmission.
In November, Marten wrote to the Biden transition team, calling on the incoming president to work with Congress to fund a school testing plan nationwide.
“Unfortunately, school districts face the challenges of reopening during a pandemic without any meaningful support from the state and federal government on testing in schools,” she wrote.
The Trump administration announced plans in September to ship 100 million rapid COVID-19 tests to states with the aim of supporting school and business reopenings, but it left it to governors to decide how to use those tests. Biden’s plans call for stepped up federal efforts to produce and distribute tests, and use of the Defense Production Act to produce additional supplies.
‘Schools Over Bars’
Beyond guidance for schools themselves, a renewed federal response could also help tackle community conditions, like super-spreading activities, that make it difficult for schools to open.
Members of Biden’s coronavirus task force, made up of scientists from around the country, have said their approach will prioritize “schools over bars” in response to realities in many areas where it is possible to drink a beer with friends but not send a child to a school building. But different governing bodies often set such restrictions, and the political will for tough rules may be waning months into the crisis.
“You cannot single-handedly reshape the behaviors of 300 million Americans all at once. There is no magic wand to do that,” said Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “There has to be collaboration and coordination across all levels of government.”
Biden’s administration may not be able to fully erase the “lines in the sand” that have been drawn to separate Americans’ perceptions of risk and response to mitigation efforts, she said. But it can “regain some ground” by taking an “all hands on deck” approach, Schoch-Spana said.
That could include enlisting celebrities and nonpolitical figures to spread public health messages and providing incentives that make it easier for people to make hard choices, like small business aid for bars that have to close temporarily and economic stimulus payments for people whose jobs are affected.
Another huge community problem? Receptiveness to mask wearing.
In Nebraska, for example, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has rejected calls for a mask mandate, even after the state’s board of education encouraged school districts to adopt them. Trump has mocked his political opponents for wearing masks and questioned their effectiveness.
“The number one mistake was the politicization of wearing masks,” said Bob Rauner, a family doctor and public health advocate who serves as vice president of the Lincoln, Neb., school board. “That should never have been a political argument. That should have been a scientific argument.”
The 42,000-student district started discussing a mask requirement in June, Rauner said. Around the same time, public health officials gathered signatures from 123 pediatricians and local physicians around the state in support of mask wearing.
“It made it a really easy decision for our school board,” Rauner said. “A lot of other school boards used that to back them up.”
Rauner lamented the lack of federal data on schools that did open and on the risk of viral spread when schools adopt mitigation strategies, like social distancing. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said it is not her role to collect such data. And Redfield, of the CDC, recently cited privately collected data from a coalition of education groups on school virus cases.
In largely rural Nebraska, calls for full shutdowns may have seemed too extreme for many people in the first wave of the pandemic, when there were few cases in the state, Rauner said.
Without more credible, centralized guidance on the issue, some Americans have passionately resisted calls for schools to open while others have insisted with equal passion that they never should have closed. Some epidemiologists have argued that schools are relatively safe, but they have lacked federal data to support their claim.
Chris Eide, the interim director of Turquoise Trail Charter School in Albuquerque, N.M., believes it’s safe for teachers to return to classrooms with appropriate interventions. He hopes that Biden’s willingness to show more empathy and consistency in personal habits, like mask wearing, will help build his credibility with educators who may be nervous about in-person learning.
The prekindergarten through 8th grade charter school has started a phased reopening of classrooms. And the teachers who have returned have made the case to their peers that they have felt safe with precautions like increased cleaning and sealed off classrooms, said Eide, who is also the former director of Teach Plus, a national education policy organization.
“I think it has to come from the teachers who have been here and have felt safe and experienced it themselves,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any top-down way for that message to be effective.”