RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Biden has said repeatedly that opening America's schools for in-person learning is one of his top priorities. On Tuesday, he told states to prioritize educators for vaccines to accelerate school reopening.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My challenge to all states, territories and the District of Columbia is this - we want every educator, school staff member, child care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March.
MARTIN: The move comes even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made clear vaccinating teachers should not be a prerequisite for reopening. The person tasked with guiding the country's schools through this process is newly confirmed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
What's a strategy for getting teachers, districts and the federal government all on the same page about how best to safely reopen? We're going to walk through all this with NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Good morning, Cory.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So the new education secretary put out a list of things the federal government can do to get schools open. A big part of it is this new push to make teachers a priority in getting vaccinated, right?
TURNER: Yeah. He - President Biden is basically telling states to treat teachers like essential workers and give them vaccine priority. Now, they're already a priority in two-thirds of states, but this would bump them up nationwide. And President Biden said he'd help logistically make that happen through the federal government's vaccination program with local pharmacies. Then yesterday, we saw something new with Secretary Cardona coming in. Along with first lady Dr. Jill Biden, they did this school tour, kicking off what really felt to me like a charm offensive, which was meant to reassure teachers and parents. Here's Cardona speaking at a Pennsylvania middle school.
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MIGUEL CARDONA: What I've seen here, what I heard here really symbolizes America. We come together. We solve problems together. We don't always agree. But we put our students at the center of the conversation, and we listen to parents.
TURNER: Cardona and President Biden have also been talking up Democrats' COVID relief bill because that would send $130 billion to help K-12 schools. Cardona also announced he'll be convening a nationwide school reopening summit.
MARTIN: So let's talk about the vaccine tension, though, because didn't the guidance released not long ago by the CDC say teacher vaccination doesn't have to happen in order for schools to reopen?
TURNER: Yeah, it sure did. It said teacher vaccination should not be a prerequisite. And you know, Rachel, this has been a really painful political wedge for Democrats because some teachers have made clear, no matter what CDC says, they don't feel safe going back without a vaccine. And the big teachers unions have been key political allies of Biden. So again, the administration is trying to reassure teachers. It's no coincidence that yesterday when Cardona and Dr. Biden toured schools, they were joined by the heads of the two largest teachers unions.
We also need to say, though, that this vaccination question has driven a wedge through school communities, too. You know, the push to reopen seems to be driven by wealthier white parents. You know, a recent Pew Research poll found that lower-income adults were much more likely than upper-income adults to say schools should wait to reopen until teachers are vaccinated. Also, half of white adults in the Pew poll said schools should wait for teachers to be vaccinated, but Black, Hispanic and Asian adults all overwhelmingly favored waiting.
MARTIN: I'd love if you could give us a sense personally of Secretary Cardona. He started out in the classroom, right?
TURNER: He sure did. He he grew up in Meriden, Conn., a factory town. Later, he became a fourth-grade teacher, a principal, and most recently, he was Connecticut's education commissioner. As commissioner, he pushed pretty hard over the summer for schools to reopen in Connecticut, and most have. Also, in Meriden, he has this reputation for being a great listener and a peacemaker. Here's Erin Benham. She worked with Cardona when she was head of the Meriden teachers union.
ERIN BENHAM: He has a very calming personality. Like, you're not going to get someone screaming and yelling. That's not Miguel. I don't think I've ever, ever seen him scream or yell (laughter).
TURNER: Benham told me about this time Cardona was assigned to work with her to get the teachers there behind a new state-mandated teacher evaluation system. It was hugely controversial with teachers. But she says, you know, Cardona listened, he compromised, and together they found consensus.
MARTIN: I mean, he's going to need to tap into those skills again, clearly, in this moment.
TURNER: He sure is.
MARTIN: I mean, it's a huge challenge for him. With all this talk of getting schools open to in-person learning, Cory, do we even know how many schools are still closed to any kind of in-person education?
TURNER: The short answer is not really, though Cardona promised after his swearing-in that the Ed Department would be keeping track. The count I've been using comes from a website called Burbio. They say that as of last week, nearly half of the districts that they track - about 45% - were offering kids in-person learning every day. The rest of the districts were an even split between virtual only and hybrid.
MARTIN: So what about schools that are open or opening to in-person learning? It is still up to students and families to decide if they want to go back, right? I mean, do they want to go back?
TURNER: To me, this is maybe the most interesting question in the whole school reopening story because, you know, we hear so much about rushing to reopen schools and not very much about why many kids might not rush to come back. You know, this seems especially true in lower-income communities. Part of that is because a year is a long time, and some kids, especially older high school students, have become really disconnected. You know, I've heard this from many teachers. Lots of kids have simply turned off their cameras and stopped turning in homework. You know, I was talking with a high school counselor the other day in Chicago, Brian Coleman. He told me about 10 or so students in his caseload have basically disappeared. He just can't reach them.
BRIAN COLEMAN: I can't. I can't. I don't know where such-and-such student is right now. And we're currently, like, going through our next round of, how do we, like, partner to potentially have wellness checks done for students who we have not been able to find through traditional means?
TURNER: Also, Rachel, you know, in many places offering in-person learning, I've seen student return rates below 50%. And this this goes back to the polling that I mentioned earlier from Pew. You know, there are a lot of families with adults who are immunocompromised. Maybe the kids are living in big, multigenerational households, and their fears of COVID are still very real. And if they can figure out a way to do it, they're going to keep their kids still home.
MARTIN: Yeah. So there are still a lot of families who are still anxious to get their kids in school in person. What does all this mean for the fall?
TURNER: Yeah. So looking forward, I think things are going to get even more complicated. Obviously, the rush right now is to get teachers vaccinated and for the administration to really win over the trust of teachers and families. But if you think about where we're going to be in the next four, five, six months, it is doubtful the kids will be vaccinated by September. And imagine, by September, a crush of families deciding it's time. We need our kids back. That's going to create real tension with CDC guidelines because in many schools, the only way they're able to accommodate kids right now is because half of their kids aren't coming back. So, like, 6-foot social distancing is going to be a huge challenge in the fall. And schools may have to choose between following those guidelines and accommodating all their kids.
MARTIN: NPR education correspondent and senior editor Cory Turner.
Cory, thank you. We appreciate it.
TURNER: You're welcome, Rachel.
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