President Joe Biden’s vow to reopen most schools during his first 100 days is crashing into demands of one of his party’s most powerful constituencies: teachers’ unions. And the friction is creating an early test for the Democratic Party’s commitment to following the advice of scientists when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.
Tensions began bubbling up this week as Chicago teachers and city officials clashed over a plan to reopen. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot insists that classrooms are safe, but teachers in the city are pushing for an expansion in vaccinations first. Now, a version of that fight is playing out nationally, as the White House tries to navigate between a growing body of science indicating that long-held fears of reopening schools may be overblown with demands from teachers for more funding and health supplies before returning to the classroom.
Teachers’ unions, which played a crucial role in Biden’s electoral victory last fall, say they share the goal of reopening schools for in-person learning, but that this can only be done if schools have the resources to safely proceed. White House officials, too, said Biden’s 100-day goal depends on Congress following through with more funding for schools to pay for improved ventilation, reduced class sizes and other Covid mitigation strategies.
But the stalemates in Chicago and recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which wrote that in-person learning leads to little spread of the coronavirus so long as schools closely follow safety measures — are creating an immediate flash point for the president, along with potential political vulnerabilities.
“This is one of several issues that is going to have some starts and stops—and [it’s] a big challenge for [the White House],” conceded Steve Barr, a longtime Democratic political activist and operative and the founder of a charter school organization in Los Angeles. Barr said he agrees with the White House push for a big financial package, but stressed that the new administration needs to sharpen its message and offer detailed plans to sway lawmakers and the public in support of it.
“They have to be able to sell it,” Barr added.
Selling it won’t be easy, though. Republicans are already criticizing the White House’s caution over reopening schools, suggesting it is beholden to teachers’ unions. They point to the CDC article as fresh evidence that the debate is settled on whether reopening K-12 schools contributes meaningfully to spreading the virus. And they cite the tens of billions of dollars Congress has already allocated for schools to reopen as proof that the issue isn’t a matter of money.
Privately, GOP operatives are confident they can drive a wedge between Biden, teachers and parents who are exhausted by the months of school closures.
“It is a very tough political position the White House is in, having to pick between their constituents in the teachers’ unions and a lot of angry parents,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesperson for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that supports Republican Senate candidates.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has reiterated calls for in-person learning to begin immediately as congressional operatives prepare to target Democrats over the issue.
“We definitely plan to go after folks on this,” said Michael McAdams, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It’s a politically toxic position for Joe Biden and Democrats that they are denying the science in favor of the teachers union and the millions of dollars their party benefits from.”
A close White House ally pushed back on the GOP, saying it was “appalling and importantly revealing” that with many schools closed and thousands dying every day, “those who are worsening these unprecedented crises by standing in the way of the resources that are desperately needed … are already admitting what they really care about.”
Labor leaders and Democratic officials on Capitol Hill, where Biden advisers are busy pitching their nearly $2 billion recovery plan, have stressed that schools are underfunded to begin with and contend that there’s been little acknowledgment on the Republican side of how costly distance learning has been. Schools need to address the significant “learning losses” that were caused by the pandemic, they added, and the roughly $130 billion more schools stand to receive from the Biden plan would go far in meeting those needs.
“Teachers know how important in-person instruction is, but we have to make it safe,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Testing and vaccination, as well as masking and distancing, are crucial, as are accommodations for educators at risk. Unfortunately, the grievous failures of the previous administration have made our task harder than it should be.”
The political landscape around school reopenings shifted dramatically in recent weeks. Over much of the pandemic, Democrats blamed the spiraling virus and resulting school closures on former President Donald Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The two repeatedly pressed schools to reopen during the pandemic, even threatening to yank funding from those that remained closed. But they resisted issuing prescriptive federal guidance on school reopening or tracking Covid cases in classrooms.
Democrats at the time pointed to polling data that found broad skepticism to schools resuming regular in-person classes. They also fought off attempts by Trump and GOP lawmakers to put strings on the money — such as limiting funding to states that reopened schools — dismissing it as wrongheaded education policy. Education groups and unions, meanwhile, complained about contradictory and vague federal guidelines.
The Trump administration, which largely iced out labor unions, was also sharply criticized after political officials interfered with policies around reopening schools.
Now, however, Democrats have to deliver for Biden. He’s made reopening most K-8 schools in his first 100 days a major priority, and his team recognizes they’re heavily reliant on unions to help them carry out their goals. Biden has also ordered the Departments of Education as well as Health and Human Services to develop new guidance on how to safely reopen schools and track school closures across the country. His Covid team outlined the need for widespread vaccinations for teachers, testing materials and support for contact tracing.
So far, at least, Biden and his team have held close to the union position and made sure to consult with their leaders. Several teachers’ unions officials were part of the Biden transition agency review teams. Two National Education Association staffers were appointed last week to senior leadership roles at the Department of Education. And Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, is set to hold a fireside chat with union officials on Thursday night to discuss vaccine rollout.
The level of collaboration is “quite different than anything we’ve ever had,” said Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association.
“We’ve already had input, but I absolutely expect that we will continue to have that input,” Pringle said in an interview. “And I have no doubt that he will get input from his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, when she finishes teaching her class at the end of a day.”
Weingarten also briefed White House officials about the dispute between teachers and Chicago school officials, the nation’s third-largest district. And after describing her discussions with the president to the Chicago Sun-Times, Biden weighed into that contentious fight by seemingly backing Chicago teachers’ concerns.
“The teachers I know — they want to work,” Biden said. “[W]e should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that is in those schools maintaining those facilities.”
One of the next major developments in reopening schools could come when the Biden administration issues new CDC recommendations on how and when schools should operate during the pandemic. Biden, on his first full day in office, ordered federal agencies to coordinate on developing “evidence-based guidance” for schools, colleges and child care providers. But those updated recommendations will likely add new fuel to the raging debates across the country over how to handle school reopenings.
At the White House on Wednesday, press secretary Jen Psaki said she wouldn’t wade into hypothetical scenarios concerning what Biden would do if Congress refuses to act on the stimulus request.
“Nobody wants to be having a conversation in May or June about why schools are not reopened,” Psaki said, returning to the necessity of passing the funding package.
But Pringle said that much of the complexity and nuance of the science behind reopening schools has been lost as the issue becomes a hot-button political talking point.
“We’re already seeing people quoting from the CDC saying, ‘The CDC said it’s safe for kids to go back to school,’” Pringle said, ”and they don’t read the rest of the sentence,” which emphasizes this is true only if mitigation strategies are rigorously followed.
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