Joe Biden has acknowledged the mass exit of women from the US labour force as well as ongoing school closures as a “national emergency” – as the Covid crisis rolls through its 11th month.
More than three million American women have left their jobs and are no longer looking for work, alarming new statistics from the federal government show. And parents have reported growing concern over their schoolchildren’s stunted learning, emotional growth, and mental health over the last year as the pandemic has forced school buildings to shutter in favour of online classes.
“It is a national emergency. It genuinely is a national emergency,” Mr Biden said of the dual crises in an interview with CBS News that has aired in segments over the weekend.
Mr Biden signed an executive order shortly after being sworn in on 20 January to prioritise re-opening schools within his first 100 days in office, a goal he still hopes to achieve as parents across the country become increasingly desperate.
“Do you think it’s time for schools to reopen?” CBS’ Norah O’Donnell asked the president in his first network interview since taking office last month.
“I think it’s time for schools to reopen safely. Safely,” Mr Biden said, emphasizing that all-important qualifier.
“You have to have fewer people in the classroom. You have to have ventilation systems that have been reworked,” he said, enumerating several obstacles that have prevented in-person classes from resuming during the pandemic.
Mr Biden told Ms O’Donnell that the commissioner for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention would be “coming out with science-based judgment” as early as this Wednesday to “lay out what the minimum requirements are” to get greenlight in-person classes.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the US, who has been advising Mr Biden on pandemic policy, has cautioned that re-opening schools for in-person classes “may not happen” in the administration’s first 100 days for a variety of reasons.
Some states’ and school districts’ infection rates, vaccine rates, and safety standards simply are not up to snuff, experts have warned.
Roughly half of the 50 US states have begun permitting some school teachers and staff to receive the Covid vaccine, which is in limited supply, spawning difficult ethical debates for state and local leaders.
In the portion of his CBS interview released on Sunday, Mr Biden blamed the disorganisation of the Trump administration for setting the country back on its road to recovery from the Covid crisis.
The situation Mr Biden’s team took over on 20 January was “even more dire than we thought,” he told Ms O’Donnell.
“We thought they had indicated there was a lot more vaccine available. And [that] didn’t turn out to be the case. So that’s why we’ve ramped up every way we can,” he said.
Mr Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of the various Covid vaccines, although it is unclear how effective that strategy will prove.