By Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden visited a Washington, D.C., public middle school on Monday, seeking to highlight his government's efforts to combat cratering U.S. student performance since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden, who returned on Saturday from a week-long vacation, marked the return to school for many students with his own trip to the Eliot-Hine Middle School. He and his wife Jill Biden were greeted by excited young teenagers, shouts of "Joe Biden" and squeals as he walked into a classroom.
"The hardest thing is to come back after three months of not doing any work, not doing any homework, and all of a sudden .... everybody has a lot to catch up on from the end of the last year," Biden told students.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused lengthy school closures in much of the United States, sent teachers fleeing the profession amid pushback on mask mandates and other public health measures, and frayed children's mental health, reasons cited by education experts for sharp declines in U.S. reading and mathematics test scores since 2020.
Republicans argue that Biden and Democrats kept schools closed too long during the pandemic, hurting the education and welfare of children. Democrats say more people would have died if schools were reopened sooner. States that reopened earlier did not test better than states that stayed closed, studies show.
Nearly $200 billion in federal money has been allocated to address pandemic-related learning loss. But students on average would need more than an additional four months of instruction in math and reading to catch up to pre-pandemic levels, a July study by the Northwest Evaluation Association found.
The vast majority of American children, some 49.4 million in 2021, attend one of the country's nearly 100,000 free public schools that run though 12th grade.
They are mostly funded by local taxes, but Biden has also been directing more federal money into after-school programs, teacher apprenticeships, schools serving low-income students and public-private partnerships that bring tutors into classrooms.
Eliot-Hine, a school for children aged 11 to 13, is working to boost its predominantly low-income students' arithmetic with a tutoring program with George Washington University.
Republicans have sought to make what American children are taught in public schools a key focus of the 2024 presidential campaign, and pushed for private schools that teach some 6 million kids to get more government funding.
As part of the battle over the future of schools, some Republican legislatures have attempted to restrict trans athletes competing in sports that do not correspond with their birth sex, altered school curriculums and, in some districts, removed books that teach about LGBTQ issues and racism in the United States.
Former President Donald Trump and several of his rivals for the Republican nomination have suggested eliminating the federal Department of Education, arguing states should control what kids learn, a step that would require an unlikely act of Congress.
Biden aides see the learning decline as a threat to long-term economic growth and hired an academic focused on the issue as an adviser to Biden this month.
Biden, 80, is seeking another four-year term in the 2024 election. The largest U.S. labor union, the National Education Association, a group of public school teachers numbering 3 million, endorsed him just a day after he announced his re-election bid.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Steve Holland and Jasper; Editing by Heather Timmons, Andrea Ricci and Rosalba O'Brien)