MILWAUKEE — President Joe Biden predicted Tuesday that most elementary schools will be open five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office, but said it will be tougher for high schools to reopen at the same rate because of the risk of infection.
The comments, made during his CNN town hall in Milwaukee, mark his clearest statement yet on school reopenings. While Biden has made it a goal to reopen America’s schools, he’s faced growing questions about how he would define that, with school districts operating under a patchwork of different virtual and in-person learning arrangements nationwide.
“I said open a majority of schools in K through eighth grade, because they’re the easiest to open, the most needed to be open in terms of the impact on children and families having to stay home,” Biden said, clarifying his stance.
Asked when the nation would see kindergarten through eighth grades back to in-person learning five days a week, Biden said, “We’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days.” He said he expected many schools would push to stay open through the summer, but suggested reopening would take longer for high schools due to a higher risk of contagion among older students.
Eager to move beyond his predecessor’s impeachment trial, Biden took his case for his $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package directly to the American people with a prime-time town hall designed in part to put pressure on Republican lawmakers.
The CNN town hall Tuesday night in Milwaukee comes as White House officials say the massive spending bill already has broad public support. The House is expected to vote on the measure next week.
“The vast majority of the American people like what they see in this package,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said as she previewed Biden’s sales effort. She added that the support in opinion polls “should be noted by members of Congress as they consider whether they’re going to vote for it or not.”
Biden landed on a slick, snow-covered tarmac to below-freezing weather about 90 minutes before the 9 p.m. EST program. He was to take questions from a small audience of Democrats, Republicans and independents invited for a small, socially distant gathering at historic Pabst Theater.
Biden’s trip to Wisconsin, a political battleground state he narrowly won last November, comes as coronavirus infection rates and deaths are falling after the nation endured the two deadliest months so far of the pandemic. The White House is also reporting an increase in the administration of vaccines throughout the country after a slow start.
But Biden has stressed that the nation still has a long road ahead as thousands of Americans die each day in the worst U.S. public health crisis in a century. The virus has killed more than 485,000, and newly emerging variants are complicating the response effort.
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The Biden administration is trying to get enough Americans vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity” and allow life to return to a semblance of normalcy. But it’s unclear when the vaccination will be widely accessible to Americans.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN prior to the town hall that the general public likely won’t have access to the vaccine until May or June, pushing back earlier estimates that the vaccine would be available to all Americans by April.
Biden’s team hopes funding provided in the coronavirus aid bill will help accelerate vaccination production and distribution. His team also argues that the federal government must keep open the spigot of government relief to help people who are suffering economically and to get the country back to pre-pandemic employment levels.
But many GOP lawmakers continue to bristle at the price tag of a package that calls for sending $1,400 checks to most Americans as well as assistance for businesses, schools and homeowners and renters.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Monday told The Wall Street Journal that going too big could hurt Biden politically in the long run.
“That will help unify our party,” McConnell said. “I don’t think many Republicans are going to be for very many of the things that are coming out of this administration.”
Asked as he left the White House about McConnell’s comment, Biden said, “It may unify Republicans, but it will hurt America badly.”
Biden has said that going too small with the coronavirus package would be far riskier than going too big.
Psaki said, “I’m not sure what numbers Sen. McConnell is looking at, but the American people have been clear what they’re looking for.”
Biden has mostly stayed close to the White House since taking office nearly a month ago, leaving the D.C. area only for weekend trips to his Delaware home and the Camp David presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland. In addition to his visit to Milwaukee, Biden is to travel to Michigan on Thursday to visit a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing facility.
The White House has been operating under strict social distancing rules, with most administration staffers working from home, mask wearing required throughout the White House complex and limits on the size and duration of in-person meetings in the West Wing.
In choosing Wisconsin for his first trip, Biden picked one of the most politically divided states to test his pitch that he has the ability to bring the country together after one of the most difficult periods in recent history.
The trip also comes just three days after the Senate acquitted Trump in his second impeachment trial. Biden said little about Trump before and during the trial, insisting he wanted to let the Senate to do its job.
Ahead of the trip, the White House announced Biden was extending the federal foreclosure moratorium and mortgage forbearance through the end of June to help homeowners who are behind on payments due to the pandemic. The president on his first day in office extended the moratorium on foreclosures, first issued by Trump, until the end of March.
By AAMER MADHANI and ALEXANDRA JAFFE Associated Press
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