The Bidens are a union family through and through, which made the question asked at a White House briefing early in the new administration an uncomfortable one: If it ever came down to “a binary choice,” a reporter wanted to know, who would President Biden choose — “the kids or the teachers?”
At first, Jen Psaki protested that the premise was “a little bit unfair,” but then the White House spokeswoman said, as she has numerous times since then, the “president believes schools should be open.”
The binary choice is now a very real concern, thanks to the nation’s third-largest school district. Citing safety concerns over the omicron coronavirus variant, the Chicago Teachers Union has refused to teach in-person, and 340,000 students have been shut out of their classrooms this week as a result.
For his part, and even if the administration finds the framing uncomfortable, Biden is still choosing the kids. He wants schools open now and for the foreseeable future. That was the message delivered from the White House podium and from the president’s COVID-19 Response Team, creating a rare rift between an administration that aspires to be “the most pro-union in American history” and organized labor.
“The president couldn’t be clearer,” Jeff Zients told reporters. “Schools in this country should remain open.” Then, in short order, the White House COVID response coordinator noted that the administration had already made $130 billion available for schools to implement new safety measures plus another $10 billion to provide testing. Lest anyone forget, Zients also recalled how educators were invited to “the front of the line to get vaccinated before most adults.”
Psaki was just as unequivocal. “We know they can be open safely, and we’re here to help make that happen. And [the president] agrees with medical, scientific, and education experts that, because of the historic work we’ve done, we are more than equipped to ensure schools are open,” she said, before noting that this stance applies “everywhere, including Chicago.”
Don’t expect Biden to change his mind either. A source directly familiar with conversations inside the White House tells RealClearPolitics that the administration “will not budge.”
“There is no willingness to further sacrifice time spent virtually for kids and their parents,” the source said before pointing to how government officials have “provided hundreds of billions of dollars in resources, extensive technical assistance to implement the right strategies to keep schools safe, and to help educators during this rightfully challenging time, and together, they will not budge on their view that schools must be open.”
The classroom drama is nothing new, and teacher unions have been in sync every step of the way with the White House. The American Federation of Teachers, the second largest educators’ union, was in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and the White House as the administration drafted school reopening guidelines last February.
That revelation, revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request issued by Americans for Public Trust last May, was unsurprising. The unions are obvious stakeholders in reopening schools. The unions are also practically family to Biden, loyal supporters who showed up in a big way for him in 2020. First lady Jill Biden, herself a member of the largest teacher union, the National Education Association, made sure to show her gratitude on the first full day of the administration.
“You know, over and over, I’ve made you a promise,” she told leaders of the NEA and the AFT, “that when Joe was elected president, that you will always have a seat at the table. And I meant it.” They’ve been mostly sympatico ever since.
Cracks did emerge on Tuesday, though, when Randi Weingarten seemed to back Chicago’s teachers. “There are very real logistical decisions schools are making,” the AFT president tweeted. “We know kids do better in person, but the spike is real. We need adequate staff & the safety measures in place including testing, masking, ventilation. There is a lot of stress.”
By Wednesday, Weingarten was placing the blame on Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot for not doing enough to implement testing protocols like those in New York City and Los Angeles. “We got it right for most of this current school year; now the adults have to work together and double down to get it right as we confront this surge,” she tweeted. “Omicron’s the enemy, not each other.”
But Dr. Anthony Fauci has already said that omicron appears milder than previous strains and that vaccination significantly mitigates the risk of serious illness and death. Was it the right call, he was asked, to open schools back up after the holiday break, given the surge in cases?
“I believe it is,” the White House chief medical adviser replied Sunday on ABC News. “If you look at the safety of children with regard to infection, we have most of the teachers, an overwhelming majority of them are vaccinated. We now can vaccinate children from 5 years of age and older.”
A growing body of research, going back at least to the summer of 2020, shows that not only do children rarely become seriously ill from the virus, they are not nearly as likely as adults to pass it on. The previous administration tried, and failed, to pressure schools into reopening, with then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos arguing that students were being “held captive to other people’s fears and agendas.”
The vaccine is now widely available, and school shutdowns have become a potent part of pandemic politics. Analysis from Boston College showed that Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin outperformed his Democratic opponent in parts of Virginia where schools were slow to reopen. “With kids struggling with last year’s school closures, that’s something that parents are going to see every day,” Michael Hartney, the Boston College political science professor who conducted the analysis, told Chalkbeat. “That’s not going to go away.”
Originally published by RealClearPolitics. Republished with permission.