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Joe Biden says schools should be open in the fall

The president weighed in on the reopening of K-12 schools during an exclusive interview with TODAY's Craig Melvin addressing the challenges and accomplishments of his first 100 days in office.
/ Source: TODAY

President Joe Biden took a stance on the challenging topic of reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic in an exclusive interview with Craig Melvin that aired on TODAY Friday marking his first 100 days in office.

Because it's unlikely that COVID-19 vaccines will be available to all school-aged children by the fall, Craig asked Biden if he believes schools should still fully open for in-person learning this upcoming academic year, even if students aren't immunized against the virus.

"Based on science and the CDC, they should probably all be open," Biden said. "There's not overwhelming evidence that there's much of a transmission among these young people."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in February its roadmap to safely reopening schools — which the CDC stressed is an "operational strategy" and not a mandate for schools to open or close — and urged states to vaccinate teachers. The CDC has been updating its website with latest guidance as the nation moves through the pandemic and toward recovery.

Biden said he's urging people 16 and older to get vaccinated, as shots have since been opened up to everyone in this age group in all states.

Craig also posed the same question about schools opening to first lady Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate in education and has been a teacher for decades.

"We're following the science and what the CDC says," she said. "Each district is different, and I think we have to listen to the experts and science, and then the districts have to decide."

She went on to address the losses in learning that many communities, especially children of color and students in high-poverty schools, have faced due to lack of access to high-speed internet necessary to attend virtual classes. She also praised the funding that the American Rescue Plan — the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law that her husband signed in March — will provide to schools.

"I am concerned about the lost learning, but I do think we have an opportunity now to make things better," she told Craig. "That's one of the reasons I was so excited about the American Rescue Plan, because it has so much money in there for education."

Joe Biden's first 100 days in office have been defined by the pandemic, and Craig pressed the president on the issue of vaccine hesitancy among Americans, especially members of the military. A recent poll released by CNN found that 40% of Marines said they do not plan to be vaccinated.

The president stated that he doesn't currently intend to require service members to be vaccinated against the virus, but that could change.

"I'm going to leave that to the military (to decide)," he said, and then added, "Well, I'm not saying I won't."

He then said he believes a shift in mindset could apply to the military.

"I think you're going to see more and more (service members) getting it. And I think it's going to be a tough call as to whether or not they should be required to have to get it in the military because you're (in) such close proximity with other military personnel, whether you're in a quarters where you're all sleeping or whether you're out on maneuvers."

As more Americans get vaccinated, the CDC announced this week that people who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks outdoors. But Biden said he will continue to wear one if he's in a situation where it's likely he'll be interacting closely with people.

"It's a small precaution to take that has a profound impact," he added. "It's a patriotic responsibility for God's sake. It's making sure that your wife, your children, if in fact they haven't been vaccinated, your neighbors, your colleagues ... that they're not going to get sick."

While the pandemic was one of the country's crises that Biden had said required urgent action when he took office, a surge in undocumented migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has also become a central challenge for the administration. In March alone, 170,000 migrants were apprehended at the border, a 20-year record, and there are 22,000 unaccompanied children currently in the country.

"It is getting urgent action now," Biden told Craig. "For example, a month ago, we had thousands of young kids in custody in places they shouldn't be and controlled by the Border Patrol. We have now cut that down dramatically."

He then blamed a failure in cooperation by the Trump administration during the transition between presidents.

"Look, here's what happened, Craig," Biden said. "The failure to have a real transition. The two departments that didn't give us access to virtually anything were immigration and the Defense Department. So we didn't find out that they had fired a whole lot of people, that they were understaffed considerably."

He went on to address his promise to reunite children who'd been separated from their parents by Trump administration policies. Craig raised that NBC News reporting has found that during the first 100 days of the Biden administration, no families have been brought back together.

"I don't think that's true — that could be," Biden answered. "What we have done is we have united children with their families as they've come across the border.

But one of the things is, we don't know yet where those kids are. We're trying like hell to figure out what happened. It's almost like being a sleuth. And we're still continuing to try like hell to find out where they are."

During the conversation, Biden also revealed that he had not been made aware ahead of time that federal investigators had executed search warrants at the apartment of Rudy Giuliani in connection to his time as former President Trump's attorney and his dealings with Ukraine. He said he's "not asking to be briefed" on the investigation, stressing, "The Justice Department is the people's lawyer, not the president's lawyer."

In addition, Craig asked the president about his first address to Congress Wednesday night, in particular South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott's response to it. Biden's speech touched on racial issues in the U.S., and Scott asserted that "America is not a racist country."

Biden told Craig, "I don't think the American people are racist, but I think after 400 years, African Americans have been left in a position where they're so far behind the eight ball in terms of education, health, in terms of opportunity."

"I don't think America's racist, but I think the overhang from all of the Jim Crow and, before that, slavery have had a cost and we have to deal with it," he added.