Democrats are caught in a political bind between frustrated parents who want to send their children back to school and teachers’ unions resisting appeals for in-person learning over safety concerns, a tug-of-war that threatens to ensnare President Biden.
Mr. Biden pledged to reopen most schools in his first 100 days on the job, but his administration has been criticized for doing little beyond advocating for his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, even as public-health experts increasingly insist that K-12 classrooms pose little risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.
Despite that, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the nation’s two largest educators’ unions and leading donors to Democratic candidates, continue to insist that more needs to be done to protect teachers from COVID-19.
“It shows once again that the unions put the needs of adults before students and families, and that has put the Biden administration in a tricky spot, because obviously they have enjoyed that largesse,” said former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush.
She pointed to the growing agreement on classroom safety, a consensus that includes politically disparate figures such as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, as well as public-health experts like Biden chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“I think the science — as President Biden likes to say, we’re going to follow the science — is clear: We can put our students back in school safely,” Ms. Spellings said Monday on Fox News. “Whether you’re Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago, or Rand Paul or Tony Fauci, we agree, students need to be back in school and we can do so safely.”
Reinforcing that view was a study released Monday by Duke Health researchers that found “extremely low” levels of COVID-19 transmission among staff and youth at YMCA day camps in six North Carolina counties.
“These findings suggest that the benefit of in-person programming in recreation settings with appropriate mitigation may outweigh the risk of viral transmission,” said the peer-reviewed study in the journal Pediatrics.
While some school districts have resumed in-person education, remote learning remains the rule in major cities such as Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco, as well as the District, as teachers’ unions continue to call for more mitigation measures.
The result is that Democratic leaders and putative union allies such as Ms. Lightfoot and San Francisco Mayor London Breed are publicly tangling with teachers’ groups as pressure from parents grows, including Democrats who supported Mr. Biden in 2020.
Organizations of parents such as Open Schools California are cropping up to advocate for in-person reopening, putting pressure on Democrats such as Gov. Gavin Newsom, who faces a recall threat driven in part by the state’s continued reliance on virtual learning.
“In my neighborhood in Fairfax, Virginia, you still have Biden-Harris signs in yards, but next to them you’ve got signs saying, ‘Open the Schools Now,’” said Mark Mix, president of the anti-union National Right to Work Foundation. “What I think is happening is the Democratic constituency is putting pressure on the Democrats to stand up to the unions. And the politicians are kind of in the vise now between Democratic voters and parents who want their children back in school.”
The Biden administration was accused of playing politics last week after walking back comments by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who said that vaccinating teachers was “not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the next day that Dr. Walensky “spoke to this in her personal capacity.”
“Obviously, she’s the head of the CDC, but we’re going to wait for the final guidance to come out so we can use that as a guide for schools around the country,” said Ms. Psaki.
That guidance is scheduled to be released Wednesday, leading to speculation about whether the document will support Dr. Walensky’s pro-reopening views, or a more union-friendly wait-and-see approach.
Turning up the pressure are Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell unloaded on the Biden administration last week in a floor speech, accusing the White House of bowing to “the rich, powerful unions that donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten declared that Mr. McConnell was “playing politics with children’s lives and teachers’ lives” by opposing the Biden COVID-19 relief package.
“Today McConnell tried to cynically exploit this crisis to scapegoat teachers — and he’s doing it because he wants an excuse not to pass a bipartisan bill to safely reopen schools,” said Ms. Weingarten. “He would rather kick sand in our faces than get us the guidance and relief we need.”
She said the “Biden administration has joined teachers in our goal to reopen safely — which is why it’s crucial Congress acts on a relief bill in coming days, without Republicans if necessary.”
Republicans argue that school districts have yet to spend the funding in the first stimulus package. Mr. McConnell said that as of late January, states and districts “had only spent about $4 billion of the roughly $68 billion we set aside for K-12 schools. That leaves $64 billion in the pipeline already.”
More than money is involved. Union leaders have said they want to see teachers vaccinated and improve ventilation systems in school buildings, both of which could take many more months, but even with vaccines, educators are still rolling the dice with their health.
“All the risk is on the educators, in terms of going back to school buildings,” Ms. Weingarten told Boston Public Radio. “The science is one thing, but the moment — psychologically — you [return to in-person classrooms], you’re always wondering if you’re the case, if you’re the one in 100.”
She said much can go wrong when working with kids. “The difference between educators and so many other frontline workers is: What happens when a child takes off her mask? What happens when kids in a class just for a moment … forget about the social distancing?”
Such factors “make some of the mitigation hard,” she said.
Still, Ms. Weingarten praised the phased-in reopening of the Boston Public Schools — all 129 buildings were open last week — calling it a “blueprint” for school districts.
While safe classrooms are at the top of the unions’ list, critics say some of the federal funding may well find its way into hiring more teachers and raising salaries, both of which benefit unions.
“It depends on what rules Congress writes for the use of those funds,” said Maxford Nelson, director of labor policy for the union-critical Freedom Foundation. “Money is fungible and it’s fairly easy for money to change pockets. Maybe the Covid money displaces some of the operational expenses that the district has, and that frees up money to be diverted to hire additional staff or salary increases, who knows what.”
He added that “once you start pumping more money into the system, it’s kind of difficult to control where it gets spent.”
The unions have been accused of overplaying their hand, but there’s little doubt that their leverage remains strong.
“Many teachers unions are approaching the COVID-19 pandemic as a strike that they didn’t have to call,” Mr. Nelsen said. “The teachers are out of school now, and the teachers’ unions have a lot of leverage to control the discussion about when and how and under what circumstances teachers come back to the classroom.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.