Biden Administration Leverages Reopening Schools in Pitch for GOP to Back COVID-19 Relief

President Joe Biden's leaning on an issue particularly attractive to Republicans as he tries to build support for his $1.9 billion COVID-19 relief package: Reopening schools that shuttered months ago to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

At the same time, he's trying to calm fears from educators and others worried about safety as virus cases continue to surge.

Biden's massive stimulus plan includes $130 billion for K-12 schools that the administration says will help them safely reopen—the funds are meant for ventilation upgrades and protective equipment, and would allow for smaller class head counts and increased bus fleets for easier social distancing, among other possibilities. The proposal also includes billions more to ramp up COVID-19 testing capacity that could help benefit school safety.

"I believe we should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers, and for the help that's in those schools maintaining the facilities," Biden told reporters last week. "It'll have the added advantage, I might add, of putting millions of people back to work—all those mothers and fathers that are home taking care of their children, rather than go to work."

Biden has set a goal of having most K-8 classrooms open for in-person classes in his first 100 days in office—a goal that ultimately could be difficult to measure or prove but that touches on a key pandemic issue that's touched millions of families.

"I'm confident [Republicans] know we have to do something about figuring out how to get children back in school," Biden said, noting a top issue cited among Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Reopening schools has emerged as one of the loudest messages in a massive lobbying effort from the Biden administration. It's been at the forefront in several of the president's public appearances, White House and COVID-19 press briefings as well as his private meetings with lawmakers.

"The president talked about his commitment and his goal of reopening most K-8 schools within 100 days," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. "There are obviously a number of steps that will need to be taken in order for that to be possible."

Biden COVID-19 czar Jeff Zients again hammered the message—and need for money—on Wednesday, telling reporters during a briefing that Biden "has been very clear that he wants schools to reopen and actually to stay open."

"That means every school has the equipment and the resources to open safely," he said. "Congress has to do its part in order to make sure that we can safely reopen schools and keep them open."

Biden's held meetings with Republican and Democratic members of Congress this week, lobbying for his relief plan, even as Democratic leaders have worked to build a path for passage without help from their GOP colleagues.

"I think we'll get some Republicans," Biden told reporters after a meeting with top Democratic senators in the Oval Office on Wednesday.

Republicans, who have argued for a less-costly relief plan, have been some of the most vocal proponents for sending students back to in-person learning as a way to give relief to families struggling to keep kids on educational paths during the pandemic that has killed nearly 450,000 people in the United States. House Democrats blocked a GOP proposal this week that would only give full federal funding to schools that reopen, while penalizing schools that stay shuttered.

Democratic leaders argued that they favor a more comprehensive approach, as backed by Biden.

"There's agreement, universal agreement we must go big and bold," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters after meeting with Biden and other senators Wednesday. "We want to do it bipartisan, but we must be strong—we cannot dawdle, delay or dilute, because the troubles that this nation has and the opportunities that we can bring them are so large."

Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden makes brief remarks before signing several executive orders in the Oval Office at the White House on February 02, 2021 in Washington, DC. Doug Mills-Pool/Getty