Feb. 23 (UPI) -- California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, President Joe Biden's nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, told senators Tuesday that the decision to return to in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic should be made by local authorities.
Answering questions during the first day of his two-day confirmation hearing, Becerra said the pandemic would be his top priority as health and human services secretary.
"The COVID pandemic has killed 500,000 Americans, many of them alone without their families. Millions more have lost their jobs and healthcare. That is not the America my parents would believe possible," he said in his prepared opening statement.
"To meet this moment, we need strong federal leadership. That's what President Biden is demonstrating. If I'm fortunate to be confirmed, I look forward to joining the president in this critical mission."
Questioned by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, about federal recommendations for social distancing that might prevent schools from fully reopening during the pandemic, Becerra said ultimately local leaders must make decisions on returning to in-person classes and mitigation efforts.
"Senator, you pose a question that's on the mind of parents throughout the country every day," he said. "The preeminent concern must be the safety of our families.
"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."
Many districts across the country have instituted a "hybrid" mix of in-person and online learning to minimize crowding in schools.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency of the HHS, issued a report Monday urging teachers to have priority access to COVID-19 vaccines to limit the spread of the virus in schools. The CDC declined, though, to make teacher vaccinations a prerequisite for schools to fully reopen.
Biden has said he wants most students in kindergarten through eighth grade returning to in-person learning five days a week by late April.
Roughly $130 billion of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill currently being debated in Congress is aimed at helping schools reopen, including to reduce class sizes and modify spaces for social distancing, as well as to improve ventilation and airflow in school facilities.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate health, education, labor and pensions committee, praised Becerra as a good choice to lead the HHS based on his experience as a proven "executive leader." She called on the panel to quickly confirm him.
Ranking member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., though, took issue with Becerra's support for "Medicare for all."
"You've also been an advocate for more government interference," Burr said. "I'm not sold yet. I'm not sure you have the necessary experience or skills to do this job at this moment."
Brian P. Dunleavy contributed to this report.