President Biden’s goal of reopening schools in the first 100 days of his administration is running into stiff opposition from one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful allies: teachers unions.
Mr. Biden says science will determine when children return to the classroom, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that the evidence shows in-person learning is safe.
But public school teachers and their unions are stifling reopening plans across the country. They argue that it is still too risky for them to return to the classroom.
“The politics here tend to matter as much as the science,” said Brad Marianno, a professor at the University of Nevada who specializes in teachers unions.
The advocates for reopening got a boost from a CDC study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that concluded the “preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester” found that in-person learning did not lead to an uptick in COVID-19 cases among students, teachers or their families.
“As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the U.S. as well as internationally, school-related cases of COVID-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” they wrote.
The research put teachers on the defensive in fights over reopening, including in Illinois, New Jersey and Virginia, where teachers unions cited a lack of vaccines and a surge in COVID-19 cases as reasons to put reopening plans on ice.
The powerful Chicago Teachers Union has rejected the push from Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the leaders of the public school system to call 10,000 K-8 staff members back to school Monday.
Teachers shouldn’t be forced to return before they can be vaccinated, according to the union, which has threatened to strike and has charged that schools, particularly in minority communities, lack the resources needed to protect students, faculty and staff from infection from the coronavirus.
At a press conference, Chicago Teachers Union members said the city’s vaccination plan is a “total mess” and safeguards that public schools have adopted are “not safe at all.”
Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, said in a Twitter post that school employees are scrambling to get vaccinated.
“This is a lifesaving vaccine, and educators are having to run around to stores on their own to see if they can get it like it’s a limited edition Tickle-Me-Elmo, PS5 or Cabbage [Patch] doll?” she said.
Pressure has been growing across the nation to reopen schools full time. Parents have grown weary of virtual learning, and evidence suggests that early fears about the spread of the coronavirus in the classroom were overblown.
Mr. Marianno said Mr. Biden is trying to strike a balance between pleasing the unions and keeping his pledge to reopen schools.
“He has done what he needs to signal he is an ally of the unions, but at the same time not ostracizing those who want to see him take a strong stance on reopening,” Mr. Marianno said. “It will be a tightrope he will have to walk over the next few months.
“Going forward, the public opinion on this will be determined on how it is actually implemented,” he said.
Mr. Biden tiptoed over the school reopening fight this week when a reporter asked about the Chicago teachers’ refusal to return to schools.
“The teachers, I know they want to work,” Mr. Biden said. “They just want to work in a safe environment, and as safe as we can rationally make it, and we can do that.”
The stance exposed Mr. Biden to criticism from congressional Republicans.
“Millions of students in public schools have gone almost a full year without stepping foot in a classroom,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said in a post on Twitter.
“Special interests have fought to keep schools closed, despite the science.
“Parents have had enough,” Mr. McCarthy said. “It is time to get kids safely back in school.”
Mr. Biden vowed in December to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under enough control with the help of Congress to open most of the nation’s schools by the end of April.
Since his inauguration last week, Mr. Biden made it clear to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that he welcomes their feedback on policy.
He has signed an executive order directing the departments of Education and Health and Human Services “to provide guidance on safe reopening and operating, and to develop a Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse to share lessons learned and best practices from across the country.”
He is leaning on Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion relief package that includes $130 billion in additional aid for K-12 schools and $160 billion in additional funding for testing and vaccine administration.
The final decision on when and how to reopen schools ultimately falls to state and local officials.
That helps explain why Mr. Biden refrained from picking sides in the fights in Chicago and elsewhere over getting students back into the classroom.
Mr. Marianno said parochial fights, such as contract negotiations, can play into the reopening debates and that teachers unions, including in Chicago, could test the public’s patience.
“I wonder at some point if teachers unions are going to overplay their hand here — especially in areas where teachers unions have said with a vaccination that might not be enough to reopen schools,” he said. “In some locations, they have moved the goalposts multiple times.”
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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