Women Dropping Out of Workforce and Closed Schools Amid COVID Is 'National Emergency,' Biden Says

President Joe Biden talked about the challenges of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic in a wide-ranging interview with CBS News that aired Sunday, saying the situation was "even more dire" than his staff had thought before taking office.

Biden, 78, also touched on a troubling exodus of women from the workforce over the past year and the fact that millions of children are still out of physical school. He agreed with reporter Norah O'Donnell's question, telling her "it is a national emergency — it genuinely is a national emergency."

According to a report by the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation, nearly three million women have dropped out of the workforce in the past year. In September alone, the report found that four times as many women as men dropped out of the labor force.

The report estimates that the risk of mothers leaving the labor force — many of whom have reduced their workload in order to care for the children who are spending more time at home amid the pandemic — "amounts to $64.5 billion per year in lost wages and economic activity."

Speaking about the statistics that show that roughly 20 million American children have been out of a classroom for at least a year, Biden spoke in his CBS interview about the need to reopen schools "safely," with precautions.

"I think it's time for schools to reopen safely. Safely," Biden told O'Donnell. "You have to have fewer people in the classroom. You have to have ventilation systems that have been reworked. Our CDC commissioner is going to be coming out with science-based judgment, within I think as early as Wednesday, to lay out what the minimum requirements are."

"I think about the price so many of my grandkids and your kids are going to pay for not having had the chance to finish whatever it was … I think they're going through a lot, these kids," Biden said.

On his first day in office, Biden signed a number of executive orders, including one that aims to reopen schools within his first 100 days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to release school reopening guidance this week. 

A complication for life getting back to normal, and people going back to work, is the situation left by former President Donald Trump, Biden said.

"One of the disappointments was — when we came to office — is the circumstance related to how the [Trump] administration was handling COVID was even more dire than we thought," Biden said. "They indicated there was a lot more vaccine available. And that didn't turn out to be the case."

(Trump has been heavily criticized for knowingly downplaying the pandemic, though he has said he doesn't receive enough credit for his response, in particular how quickly vaccines were developed.)

Biden told O'Donnell that he had communicated with vaccine producers such as Pfizer and Moderna about ramping up production, but achieving herd immunity before the end of the summer would be a challenge. The White House has softened some of Biden's rosier vaccine projections already.

"The idea that this can be done and we can get to herd immunity much before the end of this summer is very difficult," Biden said.

During his first "weekly conversation" — a series in which he will participate on social media and a tradition halted during Trump — Biden spoke to a woman who had lost her job due to the pandemic.

"It's just been a tough time as far as trying to find work," Michele Voelkert, a California resident who wrote a letter to Biden after being laid off for the first time in her life due to the pandemic, said on the show while speaking via phone.

"Working is part of who you are. Like my dad used to say: A job is about a lot more than a paycheck," Biden told her. "It's about your dignity, it's about your respect, it's about your place in the community. I've been saying a long time the idea that we think we can keep businesses open and moving and thriving without dealing with this pandemic is just a nonstarter."

Biden went on to explain that his $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package — which is likely to pass Congress over Republican objections — would aim to provide emergency relief for those most in need.

"We're putting together a plan that provides for emergency relief to people who are in desperate need now," he said. "Everything from mortgage payments to unemployment insurance, to rental subsidies to food security for children. It provides for small, medium-sized businesses to be able to be open.

The proposed stimulus package, unveiled last month, would include $350 billion in state and local aid, $1,400 direct payments to Americans, expanded unemployment benefits and institute a $15 federal minimum wage by 2025.

Conservatives have questioned the scope of the aid offered, while the White House argues the widespread economic damage from the pandemic requires a widespread response.

The wage provision is also expected to be controversial on the right and has already received resistance from the GOP as the package is being negotiated.

A nonpartisan analysis of the proposed wage increase found it would keep nearly 1 million people out of poverty but would increase the national deficit and see 1.4 million jobs cut.

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