Washington, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, questioned California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at a hearing to consider his nomination to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Senator Collins discussed the significant harm school closures are having on students and emphasized the urgent need to reopen schools safely and quickly. She also called on Attorney General Becerra to support additional funding for health care providers during the pandemic, particularly in rural areas.
Senator Collins referenced a recent op-ed in the Washington Post by two public health experts who were critical of the new CDC school reopening guidelines. They suggested that while six feet of spacing is needed for adults, it is safe for students to be kept three feet apart if they have masks and other precautions. She also raised the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics has similarly stated that schools should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to the six-foot spacing rule, with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative.
“About half of K-12 students are still not spending any time in classrooms, with resulting losses in academic achievement, literacy, and social and emotional development, not to mention the stress on their parents. Experts tell us that these extended absences are causing large learning problems, especially for lower-income students,” said Senator Collins. “…[M]y question to you is this: won't maintaining this six-foot recommendation, despite these very credible alternative views by health care experts, prevent many schools from resuming full-time, in-person learning this year, and possibly even into next year? And keep in mind, some of these students have not been in school since last March.”
Attorney General Becerra responded, “I will tell you what I believe is the best approach, and that is to let science guide us, and let the experts determine when it is safe, remembering that schools and education are a local issue, and where the federal government has a partnership, we provide the guidance. We should not be the ones making the final decision on how and when a school will reopen because those are local decisions, but we must work with them and provide the guidance, the support, the resources to make sure that those schools do reopen as soon as possible and as safely as possible.”
Senator Collins pointed out that it is the American Academy of Pediatrics and other public health experts who are suggesting the harm school closures are having on students and stressed the “need to broaden whom we are listening to” in order to allow more students to return to classrooms.
During the hearing, Senator Collins also told Attorney General Becerra about the Aging Committee hearings she chaired on seniors living in nursing homes and other congregate settings and the challenges providers are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I've heard from numerous health care providers about the difficulty and expense of paying for additional staff, and COVID-related facility improvements, PPE, etc. In my state, more than a dozen nursing homes have closed in the past six years and many more are struggling to keep open,” said Senator Collins. “I was astonished that in a $1.9 trillion COVID package, the administration did not include any money for a Provider Relief Fund, which would help these nursing homes. Do you support providing additional assistance to long-term care facilities, our rural hospitals, community health centers, and other providers?
“I know how hard you've worked on these matters. I can tell you that, if I were fortunate to be confirmed, that it would be a top priority to make sure that we are providing the resources necessary,” Attorney General Becerra replied. “I believe President Biden will be there to provide the support, whether it's through the Provider Relief Fund, or simply by making sure that we are providing resources that are already allocated to make sure that we're working closely with those facilities that have been hit the hardest.”
Senator Collins concluded her questioning by noting that robust funding for the Provider Relief Fund was included in the COVID-19 relief package she proposed along with 10 other Republicans late last month, and she urged Attorney General Becerra to review it. In February, an amendment authored by Senators Collins and Joe Manchin (D-WV) to strengthen and support the Provider Relief Fund was adopted by the Senate by a vote of 99-1.