Biden Executive Order Vows Support for Quality, In-person Learning to Resume

January 22, 2021 by Sara Wilkerson
President Joe Biden signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Biden has signed an executive order detailing his administration’s policy plans to reopen schools safely for quality, in-person instruction. The order also details how the administration will begin tackling long-term effects that were created and exacerbated by the pandemic, such as learning loss and educational disparities. 

“Every student in America deserves a high-quality education in a safe environment,” stated section one of Biden’s order. “This promise, which was already out of reach for too many, has been further threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“School and higher education administrators, educators, faculty, child care providers, custodians and other staff, and families have gone above and beyond to support children’s and students’ learning and meet their needs during this crisis,” states the order. 

The directive continues further stating, “Students and teachers alike have found new ways to teach and learn. Many child care providers continue to provide care and learning opportunities to children in homes and centers across the country. 

“However, leadership and support from the Federal Government is needed.” 

As part of his plan to reopen America’s schools, the president outlined the federal government’s two guiding principles in following his executive order. 

The first is the prioritization of the health and safety of families and educators. The second principle is the assurance that every student in the country has, “the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, during and beyond the pandemic.” 

In section two of the order, the president directed the secretary of Education and the secretary of Health and Human Services to take on responsibilities within their respective department’s authority, as well as collaborate jointly on several policy fronts. 

For the Department of Education, the president asked that the DoED provide advice to education stakeholders and authorities on methods of instruction (i.e., remote, blended and in-person learning), as well as stressing the importance of promoting mental health and social-emotional well-being and communication with parents and families. 

The order asked the DoED to develop a Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse in order to, “enable schools and institutions of higher education to share lessons learned and best practices for operating safely during the pandemic.” 

To fully understand the impact of the pandemic on students and schools across America, the executive office directed the DoED’s assistant secretary for Civil Rights to prepare a report on, “the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on students in elementary, secondary, and higher education, including those attending historically black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions.” 

In conjunction with investigating how America’s schools are doing amid the pandemic, the order directs the DoED to work jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services to provide guidance on two fronts: 

  • Whether and how states and elementary and secondary schools decide on reopening, and how to stay open, for in-person learning; as well as how to safely conduct in-person learning, including by implementing mitigation measures such as cleaning, masking, proper ventilation, and testing 
  • Reopenings of higher education institutions safely for in-person learning, while taking special consideration into each institution’s, “setting, resources, and the population it serves” 

Aside from collaborating on these guidelines, the DoED and DoHHS are each required to conduct data collections in their respective departments to understand COVID-19’s impact on students and educators. The requested data will include the following: 

  • The status of in-person learning 
  • Student demographics; including race, ethnicity, disability, English-language-learner status 
  • Free or reduced lunch status; other appropriate indicators of family income 

The data collected will be turned over to state, local, Tribal, territorial leaders and the public in order to help these entities make decisions on school reopenings in their communities. 

Alongside its individual data collection, the DoHHS will also help develop and coordinate initiatives that will provide COVID-19 testing materials, contact tracing programs, technical assistance, and mitigation measures for various educational stakeholders. 

To ensure that these directives properly serve the interests of students, educators and other educational and governmental stakeholders, the order directs the DoED and DoHHS to consult with these entities to understand how the executive order’s actions will impact them. 

The executive order has been praised by education leaders such as Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, who released a statement shortly after the order was signed. 

“From day one of his administration, President Joe Biden is demonstrating he is listening to educators and proving that he understands the complexities of providing students with safe and equitable learning environments during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“No one wants to return to in-person learning more than the educators who have dedicated their lives to helping their students succeed, but reopening school buildings must be done safely and equitably. 

“Educators are encouraged not only by President Biden’s leadership, but also by knowing that there is finally a true partner in the White House who will prioritize students by working with educators in the decision-making process. 

“This Executive Order is an important first step to ensure the protections and significant resources are in place to support the safe and just return to in-person instruction in school buildings and on campuses,” stated Pringle. 

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