Six minutes into his inauguration speech on Wednesday, newly sworn-in President Joe Biden highlighted the importance of schools and keeping educators and students safe from the coronavirus.
“We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus,” said the President as part of his call for the country’s citizens to embrace unity and combat Covid-19 together.
Wednesday evening’s televised celebration of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ nomination included an appearance by Mackenzie Adams, a Washington kindergarten teacher whose enthusiastic virtual lessons went viral. Adams introduced a musical tribute to teachers performed by Dave Grohl.
Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is a longtime educator and advocate for the profession, and his new administration is expected to begin pursuing an ambitious education plan.
Pending congressional approval, in the coming days and months the administration hopes to:
Reopen Most Schools to In-Person Learning
Biden’s goal is to have K-8 school children return to in-person classes within 100 days and all K-12 students be back in-person soon afterward. To accomplish this, he’ll ask Congress for $170 billion in funds. “We can do it, if we give school districts, communities, and states the clear guidance they need as well as the resources they will need that they cannot afford right now because of the economic crisis we are in,” Biden said while announcing a Covid relief plan on January 14. Biden added his plan will support “more testing and transportation, additional cleaning and sanitizing services, protective equipment, and ventilation systems in the schools.” On his second day in office Biden signed an executive order aimed at achieving these goals.
Key to resuming in-person classes is getting teachers vaccinated as well as testing every student, teacher and staff member at schools on a weekly basis.
Address the Digital Divide
The new administration is likely to lend more assistance to the millions of students who lack reliable internet access. Biden is expected to name a new director for the Office of Educational Technology, which develops national edtech policy. Under former Education Secretary Betsy Devos the office was downsized by at least half, and many educators wanted more leadership and guidance throughout the pandemic crises. Biden will also name an acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees E-Rate, a program that helps get schools and libraries discounted internet access.
Dr. Miguel Cardona, Biden’s nomination for Secretary of Education, made digital access for all students a priority as the commissioner of education in Connecticut. In December, Cardona and other Connecticut officials announced the state was the first in the nation to close the digital divide. Less than a year after the pandemic began, Connecticut had successfully provided a laptop and high-speed internet access to every public school student who needed either.
Help Some Students Pay for College
On the campaign trail, Biden promised to address the $1.6 trillion student debt crisis. “A good education should be a reliable pathway to the middle class,” he tweeted on Oct. 8. “But for too many, earning a credential or degree after high school comes with a mountain of debt or is out of reach altogether.”
Biden hopes to pursue legislation that will allow students to go to community college for two years for free. Additionally, he adopted a plan from Sen. Bernie Sanders to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for every student whose family makes less than $125,000 annually and to forgive $10,000 per person in student debt.
In one of Biden’s first actions as president, he indicated how serious he is about these initiatives by directing the Department of Education to extend a freeze on student loan payments through Sept. 30.
Long Term Investment in Teachers, Diversity, and Mental Health Support
The Biden administration has announced an ambitious funding program for education. His campaign website states he wants to, “Make sure teachers receive a competitive wage and benefits. In 2018, public school teachers made 21.4 percent less than workers with similar education and experience. And public school teachers’ average weekly wage hasn’t increased since 1996.”
Biden also noted the importance of teacher diversity. “Research shows us the substantial and unique impact that teachers of color have on students of color,” the website says. Finally, Biden said he will work to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white school districts and he said he wants to double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in schools.