But even within those districts, many or most students are staying home to avoid the virus. And education experts still forecast huge amounts of learning loss and negative social and emotional impacts, especially for younger students, those with special needs and lower-income students.
The question of whether, and when, to reopen schools became a political debate over the summer when President Trump called forcefully for reopening without providing additional funding through Congress. Biden, by contrast, has publicly noted the estimate by the School Superintendents Association and the Association of Educational Service Agencies that K-12 education needs at least $200 billion in emergency funding.
This week the president-elect named a COVID-19 task force, composed of doctors and public health experts. Some members have spoken cautiously in favor of reopening schools, but only with proper safety measures in place — and the resources to do it right.
For example, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the co-chair of the new task force, wrote on Twitter in September: "3 keys to open schools: low community prevalence of virus (critical), safety precautions (eg reduced class sizes, universal masking), and resources for implementation."
Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, another task force member, co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times in July that outlined safe school reopening guidelines. "We all want schools to open, even as we recognize the risks attached," the piece noted. But it also reinforced the idea, "Being safe is not free." In other words, following measures such as social distancing and smaller class sizes takes additional funding.
That includes hiring teachers and substitutes to keep schools staffed. Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, told NPR that by the union's estimates almost 1 million educators have been laid off since the passage of the initial coronavirus relief package in the spring.
Aside from funding, experts told NPR they expect a Biden Department of Education to do more to help schools operate through the pandemic. Scott Sargrad at the left-leaning Center for American Progress said, "I think you'll certainly hear from the Education Department more of an effort to actually provide guidance to school districts on ... how to ensure that, if you're considering reopening, that they can do that safely, how to improve their remote learning strategies."
The urgency of the pandemic — and a closely divided Senate, with control awaiting the outcome of two Georgia runoffs in January — also means that a coronavirus relief package could end up being this administration's most significant intervention in public schools.
Michael J. Petrilli of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed to the Obama-era Race to the Top initiative as a potential model. In 2009, tasked with crafting a giant economic rescue package amid the financial crisis, the Obama administration created a funding competition for states. Race to the Top influenced the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, high-stakes evaluations for teachers, data systems for schools and other innovations.
This time, Petrilli said, "I think the Biden folks are likely to be looking very carefully at what goes into this relief bill and try to get [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and other Republicans to go along with as much as they can, to get some of their larger agenda."
Teacher pay and respect
The U.S. Education Department controls only around 10% of the dollars spent on K-12 public education in this country. A lot of that comes through the $16 billion Title I program, which goes to schools serving the most high-poverty students. The Biden campaign pledged to triple that funding and, first off, direct states to use it preferentially to bump up teacher pay. Teachers consistently make about 20% less than other professionals with the same amount of education — a number that has risen slightly in the wake of teacher walkouts in many states in 2018.
That's a lot of money, and the fate of Biden's Title I proposal is unknown, as is whether the federal government will be successful in telling cash-strapped states how to allocate that money if they do pass it.
Of course, one of the biggest ways in which the incoming administration will signal its support for educators is through the naming of an education secretary. "It is a teacher. A teacher. Promise," Biden told the NEA, the nation's largest teachers union, back in July 2019.
"It seems like something we would take for granted, that the secretary of education would be an educator," the NEA's Pringle said. "But no, it is something we have to say out loud." And she added, "It brings a smile to my face to say it."
However, that doesn't necessarily mean a K-12 teacher. "The most politically savvy thing for them to do," the Fordham Institute's Petrilli said, "is to pick somebody from the world of higher education who can get around some of the complications with their reform wing versus the union wing within the [Democratic Party]."
The Education Department wields a much bigger budgetary impact on higher education, through student aid, than it does with K-12. So, having someone in charge who's an expert in higher ed — for example the president of a historically black college or a community college — makes a lot of sense, Petrilli said.
Rights and equity
The education secretary commands a bully pulpit, particularly on issues of discrimination, segregation and bias through the Office for Civil Rights. During her controversial tenure, the current secretary, Betsy DeVos, made headlines for rolling back rights for students who are transgender, and for guidance on racially discriminatory discipline.
Pringle said her union will be looking to Biden's Education Department to be a partner: "On racial justice. Social justice. The work we still have to do for women and girls ... the rights of our LGBTQ students."
Sargrad of the Center for American Progress agreed: "I think we'll see a real effort to actually enforce our nation's civil rights laws, and rebuild the Office for Civil Rights and make sure that they are investigating complaints, that they're pursuing cases, that they're taking their role as enforcing civil rights laws seriously."
Early childhood education
The president-elect has promised a broad expansion of K-12 to include 3- and 4-year-olds in the form of "high-quality, universal" prekindergarten.
Publicly funded preschool has been gaining momentum in the states over the past two decades. Tulsa, Okla., adopted an influential and high-quality program in 2001, with promising long-term results. Washington, D.C., and New York City have programs, too, and Multnomah County, Ore., where Portland is located, just passed a preschool initiative of its own.
The pandemic has driven hundreds of thousands of mothers out of the workforce, highlighting the conflict between the needs of small children and the demands of the economy. At the Democratic National Convention this summer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts delivered a remote address from an early childhood classroom, stressing the message that child care is "infrastructure for families."
But, like tripling Title I and increasing teachers' pay, any major expansion of pre-K is going to be expensive, likely requiring both states and the federal government to chip in. Pringle said she'll be looking for action from agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, and the Department of Labor as well as the Education Department.
For higher education, Biden released an expensive and ambitious plan during the campaign that included free public colleges, loan forgiveness and more money for low-income students to pay for college.
Broadly, the federal government's approach to higher education seems almost certain to be less confrontational. In both rhetoric and policy, the Trump administration was openly hostile to colleges, viewing them as liberal, elite institutions that were out of touch with the rest of the country.
"Across most of public and private nonprofit higher ed, there is a sigh of relief," said Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.
"This will be an administration that cares about the challenges that students are facing, that knows that the cost of college is a significant problem and needs to be addressed both on the front end and the back end," said Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.
Other experts, though, are less certain how far the Biden administration might go to fight for progressive policy proposals, some of which were borrowed from Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders for the campaign.
"These plans, they look nothing like what [Biden] advocated in 2008, or really nothing like what he's advocated for most of his career," said Jason Delisle of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. "We should take him at his word. But you look at what he's proposed on higher ed in the past, and you just sort of have to say, 'Do you really believe your own stuff here? How hard is he going to fight for this?' "
Plus, there is the potential of a Republican-controlled Senate, which will pose a challenge for progressive legislation and funding increases. The administration will most likely rely on other ways to make policy changes: through executive orders and regulations from the Department of Education.
As with K-12 schools, the biggest priority for higher ed is getting through the pandemic. Just 40% of colleges are operating fully or primarily in person this fall.
"The finances are very bad across the board right now," Kelchen said. "[Colleges] have laid off staff members, they've laid off faculty, they've cut majors in programs. They're doing everything they can to preserve their money so they can get through the length of the pandemic, and quite a few colleges are starting to run out of money because this has gone on so long."
The American Council on Education, a group representing college presidents, is asking for $120 billion to support higher ed. A relief package will be a major priority for the Biden administration if the Trump administration and Congress can't do something in the meantime.
There was a lot of talk during the campaign, especially from Democratic candidates Warren and Sanders, about forgiving some — or all — of the nation's $1.5 trillion in student debt.
Congress and the Trump administration opened the door in March when they issued a moratorium on student loan payments because of the pandemic, which Trump later extended through Dec. 31. Higher education groups have asked DeVos to extend that suspension of payments until September 2021. "I expect the Biden administration to support that plan," Kelchen wrote in an op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The pandemic may be good cover for loan forgiveness — Biden has proposed a number of changes to paying back loans, including canceling $10,000 in debt for students who work in national or community service.
But it's unclear exactly how the administration would go about doing that in a more permanent way. Warren has noted that the education secretary does have the power to cancel loans via an obscure and rarely used provision in a 1958 law.
"Would Biden's secretary of education use that authority to enact his loan-forgiveness plans? I don't know," Delisle said. "Politically speaking, the question is, how far can you take it? Trump has pushed the envelope, in terms of power, and so for Democrats, it's really, how much can you get away with?"
The Trump administration has tightened restrictions on immigration, which often directly affect higher education, notably in a roller coaster two weeks this summer when the administration tried to ban international students from coming to the U.S. if their classes were held online due to the pandemic. It's possible the Biden administration will focus on immigration ahead of any policies specific to higher education.
"Higher education is, in general, very supportive of making it easier for international students to come to, and stay in, the U.S.," Kelchen said. "International enrollment went down substantially this fall, part of it due to the pandemic and part of it due to changes in immigration policy. And that's a big revenue loss."
A Biden administration could also push to make protections for DREAMers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, permanent, and to create a path to American citizenship. That policy has been encouraged by high education leaders and groups.
Walking back DeVos' policies
Additional policies the Biden administration may strengthen or revive that were dismantled or weakened under Trump include "borrower defense to repayment," a policy that allows for the cancellation of debt when students have been misled or defrauded by their colleges and the "gainful-employment" rule, a policy that targets programs where debt is high in relation to income.
Another focus point: Title IX , which governs how colleges handle sexual assault and sexual harassment. As vice president, Biden helped craft federal guidelines around students' reports of assault — he personally unveiled the now famous "Dear Colleague" letter that outlined how colleges should handle reports.
Under DeVos, the rule was changed — strengthening protections for accused students and employees. Advocates for victims' rights said that made it harder for people to report offenses.
"I think [Biden] will continue prioritizing addressing sexual harassment and safe school climates for students," said Shiwali Patel of the National Women's Law Center, an organization challenging DeVos' Title IX changes in court.
The Trump administration has been friendly with the for-profit sector, but that is set to change under a Biden administration. As the attorney general of California, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris prosecuted Corinthian Colleges, a large chain of for-profit colleges that defrauded students.
"Harris' track record prosecuting for-profits and her awareness of the depths of the abuses is really important," said Flores of the Center for American Progress. "I think that will inform the response in the regulations that come out of this administration."