Image via Shutterstock Jill Biden
Image via Shutterstock

“We know that nobody wants to be in the classroom more than educators and students, but we need to do that safely.”

If he were in the White House, Joe Biden would have implemented a safe, strategic plan for reopening schools this fall, the candidate’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden told a group of Pittsburgh educators earlier this week.  

Appearing in a virtual campaign stop, Dr. Biden said that unlike President Donald Trump, her husband would have prioritized emergency funding for schools and ensured comprehensive guidance for how to reopen safely. 

“He would have given emergency funding to schools,” said Dr. Biden, a community college professor and educator for more than three decades. “We would have a secretary of education who can give us direction and help guide us back into the classrooms. He would keep our students and teachers safe.”

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, recently called for $34 billion new funding to help schools safely reopen, on top of the $58 billion already included in the HEROES Act, a bill passed by House Democrats in May. 

Dr. Biden’s campaign stop comes after weeks of tension between educators and local, state, and federal leaders. Teachers, parents, and staff across the country have raised concerns about the safety of reopening schools and the feasibility of social distancing measures, mask requirements, and enhanced ventilation systems. 

During the virtual meeting, Dr. Biden heard from three local teachers and the leader of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT). Laura O’Rorke, a high school history and government teacher in Pittsburgh, said that while she loves teaching, she doesn’t want to return to the classroom without a concrete plan.

“I want to be at my classroom door waving to my students on the first day of school and I want to get my own children off the bus, but safety and a sense of security has to come first,” O’Rorke said. “No learning can take place without those things.”

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Nina Esposito-Visgitis, head of the PFT, agreed and said that Trump has not created safe conditions for a reopening. She also called his threat to cut off federal funding to districts that don’t reopen “disrespectful to teachers.”

“We know that nobody wants to be in the classroom more than educators and students, but we need to do that safely,” said Dr. Biden.

Her husband recently unveiled a plan for how to address these issues and safely reopen the nation’s schools amid the spiraling coronavirus pandemic—one that stands in stark contrast to President Trump’s strong-arm tactics to pressure schools to reopen. 

Biden’s plan would first and foremost establish a nationwide testing-and-tracing program and sustainable supply chain for personal protective equipment in order to get the virus under control. He would also leave decisions about reopening to local school and health officials, ensure access to masks for students and staff, provide accommodations for at-risk educators, and work to rectify the systemic racial and socioeconomic disparities in education that have only grown due to COVID-19. 

“This pandemic has really shone a light on the inequities within the U.S.,” Dr. Biden said. “We have to bring all schools up and create equality among them.”

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Biden’s plan received praise from local teachers on Tuesday. “I can’t help but think that if Donald Trump had just adopted Joe Biden’s plan to reopen schools all of those months ago, what a different place that we’d be in,” Pittsburgh Classical Academy Spanish teacher Rob Mitchell said.

The issue of reopening is a contentious one in Pennsylvania, where the decision has been left up to the state’s 500 school districts. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has provided guidance and local school boards must sign off reopening plans, but school leaders have complained that the information from the state lacks specifics. 

Many school boards across Pennsylvania plan to vote on their reopening plans in the next few weeks. In Philadelphia, school administrators announced this week that they plan to begin the year with an entirely online curriculum, reversing course from an initial hybrid model that would have had students coming into school buildings two days per week. Pittsburgh Public Schools board members, meanwhile, are contemplating a plan to delay in-person classes for nine weeks and instead begin classes online.

Esposito-Visgitis and a large contingent of Pittsburgh teachers and parents expressed support for the proposal during a virtual meeting on Wednesday, in part due to the surge of COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County. 

“If it’s not safe, we can’t go back,” Esposito-Visgitis told the Tribune-Review. “Absolutely not.”

The School Board will hold a vote on the resolution on Friday. Esposito-Visgitis expects it to pass.