President-elect Joe Biden signaled Sunday he plans to move quickly to build out his government, focusing first on the raging pandemic that will likely dominate the early days of his administration.
Biden named a former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, and a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, David Kessler, as co-chairs of a coronavirus working group. Other members are expected to be announced today.
Transition team officials said Biden also will launch his agency review teams, the group of transition staffers that have access to key agencies in the current administration to ease the transfer of power. The teams will collect and review information such as budgetary and staffing decisions, pending regulations and other work in progress from current staff at the departments to help Biden’s team prepare to transition. White House officials would not comment on whether they would cooperate with Biden’s team on the review.
“People want the country to move forward,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden deputy campaign manager, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and that they want to see Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris “have the opportunity to do the work, to get the virus under control and to get our economy back together.”
It is unclear for now whether President Donald Trump and his administration will cooperate. He has yet to acknowledge Biden’s victory and has pledged to mount legal challenges in several closely contested states that decided the race.
Biden adviser Jen Psaki pressed for the Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration to quickly recognize Biden as the president-elect, which would free up money for the transition and clear the way for Biden’s team to begin putting in place the transition process at agencies.
“America’s national security and economic interests depend on the federal government signaling clearly and swiftly that the United States government will respect the will of the American people and engage in a smooth and peaceful transfer of power,” Psaki said in a Twitter posting.
A GSA official said Sunday that step had not been taken yet.
A bipartisan group of administration officials from the Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations on Sunday called on the Trump administration to move forward “to immediately begin the post-election transition process.”
“This was a hard-fought campaign, but history is replete with examples of presidents who emerged from such campaigns to graciously assist their successors,” members of the Center for Presidential Transition advisory board said in a statement.
The statement was signed by Bush White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt as well as Bill Clinton-era chief of staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty and Obama Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
Biden aides said the president-elect and transition team had been in touch with Republican lawmakers. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Trump’s closest international allies, opened a Cabinet meeting Sunday by congratulating Biden, a former vice president and longtime senator.
“I have a long and warm personal connection with Joe Biden for nearly 40 years, and I know him as a great friend of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “I am certain that we will continue to work with both of them in order to further strengthen the special alliance between Israel and the U.S.”
George W. Bush, the sole living Republican former president, also wished Biden well.
“Though we have political differences, I know Joe Biden to be a good man, who has won his opportunity to lead and unify our country,” Bush said.
Biden faces key staffing decisions in the days ahead. The always-frenzied 10-week transition period before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 already has been shortened by the extra time it took to determine the winner of Tuesday’s election.
The second Catholic to be elected president, Biden started his first full day as president-elect by attending church at St. Joseph on the Brandywine near his home in Wilmington, as he does nearly every week. After the service, he visited the church cemetery where several family members have been laid to rest, including his late son, Beau.
Beau Biden, a former Delaware attorney general, died in 2015 from cancer. Before his death, he had encouraged his father to make a third run for the White House.
Joe Biden said Saturday in a victory speech that he would announce a task force of scientists and experts to develop a “blueprint” to begin beating back the virus by the time he assumes the presidency. He said his plan would be “built on bedrock science” and “constructed out of compassion, empathy and concern.”
Murthy, who had advised Biden during the campaign, was named to a four-year term as surgeon general in 2014 by President Barack Obama. Murthy was asked to resign by Trump months into the Republican’s term. Kessler was appointed as FDA commissioner by President George H.W. Bush and served in the position through President Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House.
Biden senior adviser Ted Kaufman said the transition team will focus on the “nuts and bolts” of building the new administration in coming days.
Biden might not make top Cabinet choices for weeks, but he built his presidential run around bipartisanship and has spent the days since Tuesday’s election pledging to be a president for all Americans. That suggests he could be willing to appoint some Republicans to high-profile administration positions.
Many former Republican officeholders broke with Trump to endorse Biden’s campaign. Biden’s selection of some of them to join the new government could appease Senate Republicans, who might have to confirm many of Biden’s choices for top jobs. The GOP could retain control of the chamber after two special elections in Georgia on Jan. 5.
Still, too much across-the-aisle cooperation could draw the ire of progressives. Some already worry that uncooperative Senate Republicans could force Biden to scale back his ambitious campaign promises to expand access to health care and lead a post-pandemic economic recovery that relies on federal investment in green technology and jobs to help combat climate change.
“I think there will be a huge misuse of the word ‘unity’ to imply that we need to water down the ideas that Joe Biden just campaigned on,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. He said the country was more united around bold solutions to big problems than small-scale efforts.
Biden’s efforts at bipartisan reconciliation could still be derailed by Trump’s refusing to concede the race.
Symone Sanders, a Biden campaign senior adviser, said that while several Republican lawmakers have been in contact with the president-elect in recent days, the campaign has yet to hear from White House officials.
“I think the White House has made clear what their strategy is here and that they are going to continue to participate and push forward these flailing and, in many—in many respects, baseless legal strategies,” Sanders said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Trump had a right to pursue recounts and legal challenges. But he noted that those efforts will unlikely change the outcome, and he urged the president to dial back his rhetoric.
“I think one has to be careful in the choice of words. I think when you say the election was corrupt or stolen or rigged that that’s unfortunately rhetoric that gets picked up by authoritarians around the world. And I think it also discourages confidence in our democratic process here at home,” Romney said on NBC.
After a steep learning curve to begin the school year, both teachers and families of first-year students at ARISE Virtual Academy say the good outweighs the bad.
The Janesville School District’s online school experienced a boom in enrollment and staff size this school year as COVID-19 fueled uncertainty about students’ safe return to classrooms.
The school currently serves about 2,300 K-12 students, far surpassing last year’s enrollment of 243 students. Teachers have been in high demand as a result: The school has 112 teachers this year, a big jump from the 12 teachers—seven full-time positions—it had last year.
Assistant Principal Jenna Rosienski called teachers the “heart” of success at ARISE this year because the curriculum is the same. She said professional development will be offered throughout the year to help teachers, but early indications are positive.
“I think with any growth like we’ve had in any educational system, you’re going to hear negatives and positives,” Rosienski said. “Our job is to help families navigate that, and I believe we’re doing that.
“From my administrative lens, going from 200 to nearly 3,000 students brings many challenges and obstacles, but I believe we’ve put organizational systems in place to help our students, families and teachers be successful.”
With the growth came challenges for new teachers and new students.
“It’s night and day. It’s two totally different ways of teaching,” said Katie Egger, a teacher of 30 years who is teaching kindergarten at ARISE this year after spending last year at Madison Elementary School.
Egger made the switch to protect some family members who are in the high-risk category for COVID-19. After early difficulties with the platform, technology and finding the best way to communicate with families virtually, Egger said she enjoys every day at ARISE.
Egger begins checking emails each day around 6 a.m. She then does grading and Google Meets with her students to review topics and conduct team-building activities such as sharing. Some days end around 4 p.m. and others at 10 p.m.
“I would love to stay with ARISE,” she said. “I love the relationships that I’m building with the family and the staff members.”
Kayla Silha, also in her first year of teaching at ARISE, has experienced differences, too, but a lot of it depends on how willing a family is to seek extra help.
“It has changed quite a bit,” Silha said of the two teaching experiences. “There’s not as much of that face-to-face time as we’re used to. It’s harder to work with students and make that connection with students. It can sometimes be harder to work with them if they are struggling on a concept or falling behind. But it can also be easier to work with them one-on-one and help them catch up on things, because it’s flexible.”
Silha checks her gradebook each morning and resends work that needs to be done (students at ARISE must score higher than 70% for work to count) before beginning her Google Meets with students.
She loves the opportunity to teach without the risk of virus exposure.
“The start was very tricky, just like anything new. It took awhile to adapt to the learning curve,” she said. “Some parents were pretty frustrated, too, but now that we have it under our belts and we’ve been doing this for awhile now, I love it.”
For the Hedgecock family, the experience was similar.
Laura Hedgecock has two children who pivoted to virtual learning at ARISE this school year. Adele, in kindergarten, and Ava, a second-grader, both took about a month to adjust.
“The first month’s learning curve was challenging to get our schedules figured out and how much learning the girls can do in a day, breaks and all of that,” she said. “But by about mid-October, we got into a groove, and now they’re doing awesome.”
Hedgecock said the biggest challenges were learning how to use technology and learn online, as her daughters had little previous exposure to technology.
The family also took some time to find the right spot in the house to ensure the girls were productive and not distracted.
Adele has a Google Meet with her classmates and teacher around 8 a.m. each day, and Ava has one at 9:30 a.m. The girls work about four days a week with their mom and dad and spend one day with their grandma.
The Hedgecocks switched to ARISE because Laura works as a nurse and understands the gravity of getting COVID-19. Her husband’s parents are in poor health, and the family wanted to ensure they would be cared for and wouldn’t be exposed to the virus by the kids.
That and the uncertainty of school made the decision easy, Hedgecock said.
“Last spring when schools were shut down and we had to go to online learning, I didn’t feel like the girls were challenged by that,” Hedgecock said. “I wanted to make sure that my girls got the best education they could, and I was fearful that when school came back it would be shut down at least once.”
Adele and Ava both said they still enjoy school even when it’s on a computer. Some days are better than others, though.
“It’s not the same,” Ava said. “Kind of difficult and kind of easy.”
Her sister agreed.
“I like my math, and some are easy, some are hard, but I like my quizzes and all of it,” Adele told a reporter.
And while it took a little while to get here, both the Hedgecocks and teachers say the effort was worth it.
“This is a whole other world that I didn’t anticipate my family going through at this point in our lives, but the teachers have been so accessible, and we just love it,” Hedgecock said.
“I’m very happy with our decision on a lot of different fronts. … To be able to sit next to your child when they learn something new for the first time—all parents love that. … To sit there and watch your kindergartner put phonetics together and read words and your second-grader do difficult subtraction problems and see that light bulb go off, it’s very rewarding.”
Silha, the first-year ARISE teacher, agreed.
“I would just say that I am thankful for the opportunity to be able to do this as a community. At first it didn’t seem like the greatest option, but after doing it I truly enjoy my job, and I still feel connected to the kids and families.”
Students, staff and community members will be able to receive COVID-19 test results in 15 minutes on the UW-Whitewater campus starting this week.
The UW System announced last week that universities across the state will receive a total of 250,000 Abbot BinaxNOW COVID-19 tests provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to a news release.
Wisconsin schools were given the testing kits as part of a federal surge testing program, which sends temporary federal support to areas experiencing a spike in novel coronavirus cases, according to the release.
UW-Whitewater will host the testing site, providing facilities and resources to manage the flow of people and traffic. A third-party company contracted with the federal government will administer and process tests, said Matthew Kiederlen, chief of UW-Whitewater campus police.
The Whitewater campus will get 15,000 testing kits. Kiederlen said he expects that to last about five to six weeks.
If some universities have less demand, tests from those campuses could be sent to other campuses with greater demand, Kiederlen said.
Rapid COVID-19 testing is not new, but the Whitewater testing site is the largest, most publicly accessible use of the tests so far locally, said Mark Goelzer, medical director at Mercyhealth.
Hospitals have had limited access to rapid testing for months. The tests have been used so health care professionals can better determine which area of the hospital a person needs to be treated in, Goelzer said.
For example, a patient might come to the hospital with symptoms of another disease, but doctors need to know if that person has the coronavirus as well so the patient can be properly isolated.
Rapid testing is not yet widely available because of production slowdowns, Goelzer said.
The tests are less accurate than the traditional PCR tests that are more widely available, he said, but added that no test is 100% accurate.
Some fail-safe measures have been put in place to counteract the reduction in accuracy.
Those who test positive with a rapid test immediately will be directed on-site to get a traditional test. Those people will be required to quarantine while awaiting results of the second test and will receive guidance from health officials, Kiederlen said.
Those who test negative with a rapid test but are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms also will be directed to get a traditional test and required to quarantine while they wait.
Receiving results quickly is key to helping control the pandemic because it allows people to quarantine sooner and prevents them from spreading the disease to others, Goelzer said.
Coronavirus cases have been surging throughout the state since early September. Wisconsin had a record day Saturday of 7,065 new cases, the first time the state has seen 7,000 cases in one day, according to the state health department.
Goelzer said people need to take mask wearing, social distancing and staying home seriously.
Kiederlen said the testing site will be set up so students and staff who use the Williams Center won’t have to worry about coming into contact with those who are getting tested and could be contagious.
Testing will be available in the volleyball gym on the first floor, which has a direct-access door that people will be directed to for testing, Kiederlen said.
The university chose to host the site indoors rather than as a drive-thru because of winter weather and the possibility for snow, ice and sleet, which could harm operations, Kiederlen said.
Pre-registration will be required to ensure the test site runs smoothly. People can register online at doineed acovid19test.com.
Students are encouraged to continue getting tested at the university’s health center for free so more resources will be available to the community, Kiederlen said.