The White House issued a loud call to keep schools open Wednesday after the Chicago Teachers Union bucked city leaders and voted in favor of remote teaching, forcing the public school system to cancel classes and marking a new high point in the clash between Democratic leaders and their union allies.
President Biden’s COVID-19 coordinator, Jeff Zients, said the combination of vaccines for children as young as 5, booster shots for ages 12 and older and $130 billion in funding for ventilation and social distancing measures make schools safe environments.
“The president couldn’t be clearer: Schools in this country should remain open,” Mr. Zients told reporters in a briefing.
He pointed to $10 billion for virus testing in schools and efforts to put teachers at the “front of the line” for vaccines.
“We have the tools. We know how to keep our kids safe in school,” Mr. Zients said. “About 96% of schools are open. Parents want schools open, and experts are clear that in-person learning is best for kids’ physical and mental health and for their education.”
His comments echoed Mr. Biden’s call one day earlier as Chicago became the focus of debate. Democratic leaders want to get children back on track and satisfy pandemic-weary parents, and teachers unions say efforts to stem the spread of the omicron variant have been inadequate.
SEE ALSO: Chicago schools scrap classes after union backs remote learning because of COVID-19 surge
Nearly three-quarters of the Chicago Teachers Union voted late Tuesday to report only for remote work. Administrators kept school buildings open with vital services but no classes and said teachers who failed to report would not be paid.
Asked whether the White House was trying to get students back into Chicago schools, press secretary Jen Psaki did not single out the union but highlighted broad efforts to keep schools open across the country.
“We know they can be open safely, and we’re here to help make that happen,” said Ms. Psaki, adding that it is important to prevent gaps in learning. “This includes schools everywhere, including in Chicago.”
She said states should distribute existing funding to schools that need it.
WBEZ Chicago reported that the union wants teachers to work remotely until Jan. 18 or until the city no longer meets the standard outlined last year. That plan called for switching to remote learning if coronavirus infections rose above 15%. The rate of tests coming back positive is now 23%.
The union said schools need more testing and other protocols, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools administrators insist schools are safe. They said there is no evidence of widespread transmission within the buildings.
“Let us be clear. The educators of this city want to be in their classrooms with their students. We believe that our city’s classrooms are where our students should be. Regrettably, the mayor and her CPS leadership have put the safety and vibrancy of our students and their educators in jeopardy,” the Chicago Teachers Union said.
Unions haven’t received much support from elected officials, who say it is time to prioritize children after a bruising two years.
Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University, said it is “a warm day in January” when a Democratic president goes over the heads of teachers union leaders, but Mr. Biden is feeling pressure from a broad swath of the electorate.
“The voice he’s hearing is of those parents who have seen their kids sink into lethargy and depression and fall behind academically,” Mr. Baker said. “It’s a lot more voters than the membership of the teachers union.”
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, warned unions in his state that he would not tolerate a push for remote learning. Still, Democrats are gaining notice after their reluctance to break with unions earlier in the pandemic.
New York’s Eric Adams, a Democrat, resisted union calls for remote learning as one of his first acts as mayor this month. He said nimble staffing systems and a surge in testing will help the city weather the omicron surge.
“The safest place for a child is in school,” Mr. Adams told CBS’s “Mornings” on Wednesday.
“Negative energy in our country is really destroying our children, it’s destroying each other,” he said. “We’re tired of being prisoners to COVID. So let’s be smart, let’s do the social distancing, let’s wear our masks, get vaccinated and take the booster shot.”
City leaders are clashing with unions as the U.S. reports more than a half-million new infections per day. Hospitalizations do not appear to be soaring at similar rates but have tipped over 100,000 per day.
“We are dealing with a highly, highly transmissible variant that spread rapidly. The data are overwhelming in that regard,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In some positive news, Dr. Fauci pointed to studies that show omicron appears to attack the upper airway efficiently, making it easily transmissible, though infection in the lungs is less severe than previous variants. Still, he said, the sheer number of cases could tax hospitals.
“A certain proportion of a large volume of cases, no matter what, are going to be severe,” Dr. Fauci said.
Some say the Biden administration and local officials should have been better prepared for the surge, given that they knew about omicron since Thanksgiving.
“This is simply the product of horrible planning, not unions,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. “We knew omicron was coming. Have for weeks. Where was the consensus-building on back to school? Where are the damn tests we need to keep schools open while minimizing infection?”
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor union, told C-SPAN on Wednesday that federal resources are available but distribution to schools has varied from state to state.
“We know there are still schools that still do not have the resources available to them or they just haven’t had the time yet or don’t have the people to do the type of repairs that are needed to ensure that all of those mitigation strategies are in place,” she said. “We have to stay vigilant because we know there are schools that have work to do.”
Most districts resumed in-person learning on Monday after a holiday break, but school systems in Cleveland, Atlanta and Newark, New Jersey, are examples of places that started the year remotely.
Ms. Pringle said teachers across the country want to be back in classrooms and it is important for parents and school officials to work together “to make the decision that is best for that school district in that area depending on what the virus is doing, how high that transmission rate is and whether they have the tools in place to keep their students safe.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.