Mitt Romney says if schools want pandemic aid, they need to offer in-person classes

(Eric Gay | AP file photo) Students in San Antonio attend a class in-person as they interact with classmates virtually on Feb. 8, 2021. Sen. Mitt Romney is pushing for schools to reopen in-person classes, and even wants it as a requirement for new pandemic aid to them.

Sen. Mitt Romney said Thursday that before schools get the $170 billion that President Joe Biden proposes for them as part of his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, they should be required to hold in-person classes and no longer meet online.

The Utah Republican claims — as do many in the GOP — that schools halting in-person classes has had more to do with pressure from teacher unions than from any scientific evidence of increased threats from COVID-19 through in-person teaching.

Romney made those statements Thursday during a joint confirmation hearing for Rachel Levine to become the assistant secretary of health and human services and Vivek Murthy to become U.S. surgeon general.

Answering a question from Romney, Levine said she is not aware of any studies about whether schools that offer in-person classes have higher rates of COVID-19 than those that offer classes online or through a hybrid of both methods.

“The evidence doesn’t show so far that those that have been having kids in classrooms are seeing a spike in COVID cases,” Romney said

“I don’t understand why our schools are still closed,” the senator added. “There are some of us who feel it’s a submission to the teachers unions because they’re such big donors to the Democratic Party that that the administration is saying … we’re not going to push to get our schools open.”

Romney said if it is safe for essential employees in a variety of industries to work safely, students should be able to return to school, too.

“Grocery store workers are working, drugstore workers, taxi drivers, EMS workers, health care workers — but there’s just as much a priority for our kids to be educated,” the senator said. “We have to get our kids into school.”

Romney also said that only 5% of the $170 billion that Biden wants to send to schools as part of his proposed pandemic aid would be spent this year, so he argued the money has little to do with reopening schools.

“I just I don’t understand why the administration does not directly encourage all of our school districts to open again,” he said.

Then Romney added, “If we’re going to send out $170 billion, it ought to be linked to them [schools] agreeing to get the doors open and get the kids back in the classroom.”

Some have portrayed the increasingly sharp call for schools to open amid criticism of teachers unions as a political strategy by Republicans hoping to make gains in the mid-term elections.

“Attacking the unions as standing in the way of educational progress is a classic conservative tactic that helped Republicans win over frustrated parents in Democratic-leaning states such as New Jersey and Wisconsin the last time they were locked out of power in Washington in 2009,” said a recent NBC News analysis. “It both unites the fractured GOP and is sowing division in some corners of the Democratic Party.”

Romney also used his questioning to push for a ban on flavored e-cigarettes that he says help draw youth into vaping.

“About one quarter of high school kids are vaping on a regular basis,” Romney said. “How are we going to get vaping products that are flavored off the marketplace so we don’t addict our kids to nicotine?”

Murthy, the surgeon general nominee who was also surgeon general for Barack Obama, said he shares Romney’s passion for the topic and is “deeply concerned” about the rise in youth vaping. Noting that others make policy on e-cigarette contents and ads, he said he is willing to press an educational campaign to youth about the dangers of vaping.

Romney urged him to push others in the administration and the Food and Drug Administration to attack the problem, too.

“You’ve got to push this faster. We’ve got to move ahead. The analysis paralysis that goes on in government is something which the private sector could never abide,” Romney said. “It is a public health emergency.”