Before taking office, President Joe Biden pledged to reopen schools within his administration’s first 100 days. But only, he said, if it could be done safely with adequate funding. But is it safe for kids to go back to school yet to fulfill Biden’s pledge? And what do the teacher unions across the country think about it?
“It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school,” Biden said in December. “If Congress provides the funding, we need to protect students, educators, and staff. If states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow, then my team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”
Less than three weeks after his inauguration, Biden doubled down on that sentiment in an interview with Norah O’Donnell of CBS Evening News ahead of the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, calling the situation a “national emergency.”
“I think it’s time for schools to reopen safely. Safely. You have to have fewer people in classrooms. You have to have ventilation systems that have been reworked,” he said. “Our CDC commissioner is going to be coming out with science-based judgment, within I think as early as Wednesday as to lay out what the minimum requirements are.”
“I think about the price so many of my grandkids and your kids are gonna have to pay for having had the chance to finish whatever it was,” the president added. “That graduation where you didn’t get to walk across the stage. I think they’re going through a lot, these kids.”
Yet, reopening schools in a safe matter so that can kids can go back is easier said than done.
In January, a study published by CDC epidemiologists found that, when adhering to basic health and safety measures, instances of in-school transmissions were generally rare. However, the study also noted that for in-person schools to be safely conducted, the burden must be placed on individual communities to keep cases down by curtailing high-risk behavior.
With COVID-19 cases currently in national decline as of early February, stalemates are being drawn across the country. It’s often between parents, school boards, and politicians eager to get kids to go back to school vs. teacher’s unions fighting for enhanced measures that make it more safe and widespread vaccinations for school staff.
In San Francisco, the city even sued its school district to force it to open. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) likewise split with the California Teachers Association, which called for all teachers to be vaccinated before reopening.
“If we wait for the perfect, we might as well just pack it up and just be honest with folks that we’re not going to open for in-person instruction in the school year,” Newsom recently told school administrators.
Be that as it may, many teachers fear for their health and safety or the health and safety of at-risk family members.
On Feb. 7, Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the country, reached a tentative agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union amid mounting tensions that seemed headed for a strike. The district has now set a reopening timeline, promising that teachers living with medically vulnerable family members will have prioritized access to a vaccine starting Feb. 8.
Those who choose to get the vaccine can work remotely for two weeks following the first dose, while those who refuse the vaccine will be permitted to take an unpaid leave of absence with full benefits.
A similar situation unfolded in Philadelphia on Feb. 8, as teachers and educational staff across the city braved freezing temperatures to demonstrate outside of classrooms and to draw attention to their plight.
William R. Hite Jr., Philadelphia school district superintendent, had ordered some district teachers to return onsite that day ahead of a planned student return later in February, with discipline threatened to any of the 2,000 pre-kindergarten through second-grade teachers who refused to comply with orders.
The move was condemned by Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan as unsafe. Mayor Jim Kenney agreed by allowing teachers to continue working remotely until the district arrives at a final decision. The city is now awaiting a ruling from Peter Orris, a Chicago-based doctor and public health expert.
In cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago, where the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected low-income families and people of color, it’s not wholly surprising that educators would be hesitant to return to work. This is particularly egregious when you factor in the half measures suggested to keep teachers and students safe.
Further complicating matters are aging school buildings, where districts do not have the time or money to upgrade safety measures to the standards of their public and private suburban counterparts, which tend to be wealthier with better resources. Because many old Philadelphia school buildings don’t have mechanical ventilation, the proposed workaround has been to open windows and use fans to help circulate air—yes, in the middle of February.
Adriane Wagner, a school nurse who was part of Monday’s demonstration, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she felt compelled to protest because she “cares about student health” and that this was not a viable solution for students with asthma. “Having a fan blowing is not going to work for them,” Wagner said.
In other words, when Biden talks about reopening on the contingency of protecting staff and students, about making sure it is safe to go back to school, it’s unlikely that he’s envisioning classrooms with windows open and fans on in the middle of winter. Whether his plan for reopening schools with 100 days will come to fruition is still unclear.
But without increased funding and guidance from Congress, teacher’s unions are making it clear that this is a gamble that they are just not willing to take.