Executive Order Sets Out Goal for Re-Opening Schools

As a new administration takes shape in Washington, D.C., we are witnessing numerous Executive Orders being issued by the President that affect many aspects of American life outside the beltway.  Among the Executive Orders issued on January 21st is one entitled “Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools & Early Childhood Education Providers.”

With all the information that is currently in the news, we thought it would be helpful to share with you a few of our thoughts about the Executive Order. 

First, it is important to understand what an Executive Order is and does.  A U.S. President may issue an executive order that directs federal agencies and agents to take actions or to prioritize certain functions.  Such orders usually draw on powers and authority that the President has been given under the Constitution and through various laws and regulations.  Generally, they cannot be used to take actions that are not legally allowed; they cannot and do not give the President powers and authority not otherwise included in statute or in the Constitution.

In the case of the Executive Order “Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools & Early Childhood Education Providers”, President Biden is directing the Education Department (ED) as well as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take necessary steps consistent with these two guiding principles:

(1) "the health and safety of children, students, educators, families and communities is paramount”; and (2) “every student in the United States should have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, during and beyond the pandemic.”
In other words, the order begins with a desire for all children to be in their schools learning but requires that those schools be safe and healthy spaces as a pre-condition.  The order then moves on to the methods that the Federal government will follow to help districts and providers attain this critical objective.

For its part, the Education Department will, in consultation with HHS, carry out the following (partial list):
  • Provide evidence-based guidance to states and schools in deciding whether and how to reopen for in-person learning, as well as in safety procedures including distancing, masking, cleaning, ventilation and testing;
  • Provide advice and guidance regarding distance and on-line learning, blended learning in ways that promote mental health and social-emotional well-being for students;
  • Develop a ‘Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse' to enable schools to share lessons and best practices for operating safely during a pandemic; and
  • Prepare a report on the disparate impacts of the pandemic on students of color and students from families living in poverty and students with disabilities.
The Department of Health & Human Services will focus on:
  • Facilitating the collection of data needed to inform schools on safe reopening and continued operations of their facilities and programs;
  • Ensuring that COVID-related supplies within HHS jurisdiction are equitably allocated to elementary and secondary schools and other education providers;
  • Providing technical support to schools and states related to contract tracing that will facilitate the safe reopening of schools and allow them to remain operational; and
  • Providing guidance to schools and childcare providers on mitigation measures such as cleaning, masking, proper ventilation and testing to meet their objectives related to reopening and remaining open.
Lastly, and importantly, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was encouraged to find ways to increase connectivity options for students lacking reliable home-based broadband to allow them to continue to learn if their schools must operate remotely. Keep in mind as well that there are on-going negotiations related to a bill to provide additional federal relief assistance that includes $170 billion in funding for schools to manage their COVID responses.  These funds would be in addition to the $82 billion included in the package enacted in December 2020.  The funds can be used for PPE, technology, safety measures and more.  That proposal is being vetted and it is unclear whether the Congress will agree to provide any of the funds President Biden has proposed.

The bottom line: Any headlines you may have seen that indicate there is a requirement to open all schools within the next 100 days are inaccurate.  President Biden would like to have all schools open within the next 100 days, but he does not have the authority to mandate it.  There will be federal actions to encourage schools to open when appropriate but ultimately your state and local officials, particularly your school board and local administrators, will be making the many decisions about when and how to open your schools. 

Reliable Information is critical for those decisions so NAPT will continue to monitor federal agency activities in tandem with Congressional negotiations and we will provide updates through our various member communications.