White House officials and Democratic lawmakers have attempted in recent days to reframe their position on school reopening policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Democrats have argued that they always supported students returning to in-person instruction and that President Biden's massive $1.9 trillion reconciliation package in March 2021 helped facilitate schools reopening nationwide, even though Republican-led states like Florida succeeded in returning students to classrooms well before the Biden stimulus package.
On Thursday, the National Center for Education Statistics released a report showing that, during the pandemic, American students' reading proficiency dropped to a two-decade low and mathematics scores falling for the first time ever.
"Let’s step back to where we were not too long ago when this President walked into this administration: how mismanaged the pandemic — the response to the pandemic was; how 47% of schools were — in less than six months, our schools went from 46% to — open — to nearly all of them being open to full time," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday.
"That was the work of this president and that was the work of Democrats, in spite of Republicans not voting for the American Rescue Plan, which $130 billion went to schools to have the ventilation, to be able to have the tutoring and — and the teachers and being able to hire more teachers," she added. "And that was because of the work that this administration did."
The American Rescue Plan (ARP) appropriated about $121.9 billion to the so-called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. The fund was designed to fund local plans in all 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico to safely reopen schools and return to pre-pandemic school operations through mitigation efforts such as improved building ventilation.
Since March 2021, the share of public schools offering full-time in-person classes across the country has increased from 54% to 98%, according to the Department of Education.
"I am proud that when Democrats got control a year and a half ago, Democrats voted for the American Rescue Plan that helped our kids get back into school safely, making sure that our schools had testing and supplies and ventilation and the ability to make sure their kids could be safe at school," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in an interview with CNN on Sunday.
"Today, virtually every child is back in school," she continued. "That is what I've focused on, making sure that we are providing the resources to our schools, so they could reopen safely and that's what we have today."
However, states and local districts have spent less than $15.6 billion, or about 12.7%, of the funds awarded to them under the ARP's ESSER program, according to a Fox News Digital analysis of Department of Education data. It is unclear how much of the spent funds were actually given to COVID-19 mitigation efforts since the ESSER program required schools to also use the money for "equity" programs.
In addition, schools in states that voted for former President Trump in 2020 reopened 75% of the time while those that voted for Biden reopened 37.6% of the time during the 2020-2021 academic year, according to education nonprofit The 74.
"Floridians deserve science-based action from Gov. Ron DeSantis," Biden said prior to the 2020 election. "While other large states continue to take strong, urgent, and sweeping action to stop the spread of COVID-19, Florida has not."
In March 2021, DeSantis accused Biden of being subservient to teachers unions that opposed reopening schools.
"His goal should have been yesterday to get everybody back in school, but he can’t do that because he doesn’t want to upset the teachers’ union," DeSantis said. "It’s a pathetic failure of leadership to not stand up for these kids and these families."
The Education Department data also showed that some areas that had implemented the most school closures like Rhode Island, Nevada, New Mexico, Vermont, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., have spent less than 5% of the ARP funds received, but have still allowed most students to return to in-person instruction. States like Florida and Texas, where schools were already reopened when Democrats passed the ARP, used more than 10% of the funds received.
The federal government has mandated local districts spend the entirety of the funds by September 2024, but the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2021 that the money would not be completely spent until 2028.
The White House didn't respond to a request for comment.