If President Joe Biden really wanted to unite the country at this moment of profound political crisis and existential dread, a powerful gesture is available to him. He could earn the appreciation of millions of parents by simply asserting that public school teachers—including those currently on strike in Chicago—must return to their classrooms.
Unfortunately, Biden and his surrogates have repeatedly sidestepped questions from reporters, giving no indication that the administration will defy the politically powerful teachers unions currently waging a quixotic campaign to keep schools closed for as long as possible.
"It seems like Biden is refusing to acknowledge the fact that there is increasingly a conflict between school districts that are trying to make schools safe so kids can get back to in-class learning with PPE [personal protective equipment] and better ventilation and more, and teachers unions who are concerned about their teachers getting COVID and are basically just refusing what the health officials say they should be doing," said CNN's Jake Tapper on his program Tuesday evening.
Erin Burnett, another CNN anchor, asked White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain about schools. Klain demurred, saying that Congress must allocate billions in funding for schools before many of them can reopen.
"We need Congress to pass that plan so we can do the kinds of things you need to do so that the schools can be safe, so the teachers can be safe, so the students can be safe—sadly, it costs money," said Klain.
Chicago Public Schools, though, has already implemented many of the mitigation strategies that government planners have in mind, and the district believes teachers can safely go back to class. Officials have good reason to think this: Outside major cities, many schools—including a great number of private schools that lack easy access to government dollars—have been open since at least September, and there's simply no evidence of widespread disease in classrooms. Schools have not played host to superspreader events, and there's little reason to think that students are infecting their teachers. Even the CDC, which is hardly known for taking an incautious approach to resuming normal life, says that schools can reopen safely.
"Of the nearly 17,000 students enrolled in the diocese's 41 schools, fewer than 200 students have been diagnosed with COVID-19." And not a single hospitalized teacher. Catholic schools reopened safely—why can't public schools do the same? https://t.co/LYgInkjLs8 via @crousselle
— Robby Soave (@robbysoave) January 27, 2021
Try telling that to teachers unions: Their response is thunderous denial that schools are safe enough yet. In fact, Chicago teachers are now engaged in what the district has described as an "illegal strike" to disrupt the city's plan to reopen schools on February 1. The strike has actually forced Chicago preschools—which were open already—to close down because the teachers don't plan to show up.
"As a result, we have no choice but to ask parents to keep your children home [Wednesday]," said the district in a statement. "We are greatly concerned for our youngest and highest-need students, who are suddenly without a safe, in-person learning option, and are continuing to make all possible efforts to reach an agreement that addresses the union's priorities and provides families a much-needed resolution."
Thanks to the Chicago Teachers Union's efforts, city schools are even more shut down than they were a week ago. But the union is perfectly content to hold the city hostage for as long as possible. Its Twitter account recently released a video of "rank-and-file dance teachers" expressing their opposition to reopening through the medium of dance.
Six of our rank-and-file dance teachers come together to use their art form as a voice to express their desire to feel safe amidst CPS' teacher return policy. They stand in solidarity with all educators at risk, because no one should have to choose between life and livelihood. pic.twitter.com/gajXH9PReE
— ChicagoTeachersUnion (@CTULocal1) January 23, 2021
National teachers union boss Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that she stands behind CTU "100 percent." And if Biden disagrees with the teachers unions, he certainly isn't saying so. (His incoming deputy education secretary fought tooth and nail to keep San Diego schools closed.)
The administration's evasiveness on the question of school reopenings must be demoralizing for U.S. families who desperately want their children back in school and accept the scientific consensus that this can and should be done right now. The teachers unions have made it perfectly clear that they will thwart reopening plans, not just this month and next, but also in the fall, and perhaps in 2022 as well. In Fairfax, Virginia, a teachers union president recently asserted that she would keep kids out of school at least three days each week, even if school employees had been vaccinated.
Many of the public education system's neediest students have now been at home, suffering through the farce of virtual learning, for nearly an entire year. With no powerful public union on their side, they have truly become the unheard. They deserve better choices than this.