The Biden administration is turning up the heat on Republicans to stay true to their advocacy for reopening schools, which to the White House means voting for the president’s $1.9T coronavirus relief package.
“This COVID package, that is the top priority for him right now — things that Democrats and Republicans across the country support, 70% of the public supports them,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Thursday. “Are Republicans now against reopening schools?”
As of Friday, 38% of K-12 public schools are still offering “virtual only” classes. About 38% are attending fully in-person sessions, and the rest are on a hybrid schedule, according to Burbio, which scrapes school websites for data.
“But I will say on the COVID package, you know, the challenge facing right now, Rachel, as you know and you talked about this on your show, is there’s urgency here. … If we aren’t able to plan for how we’re going to reopen schools, this can’t be a game that’s played where we wait and wait and wait and negotiate, negotiate, negotiate,” Psaki said.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers released a study this week coronavirus transmission at schools was very low, even lower than in the community when mask-wearing and social distancing measures were taken.
But teachers unions in areas like Chicago and Montclair, N.J., continue to assert it isn’t safe for their members to go back to the classroom.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain defended the teachers unions when pressed about the CDC study during an interview on CNN, saying there was a lack of funding for safety measures.
Anchor Erin Burnett asked him why “the unions in many cases are overruling what the studies show?”
“I don’t think unions are overruling studies,” Klain responded during the Jan. 26 interview. “I think what you’re seeing is schools that haven’t made the investments to keep the students safe.”
Klain argued the CDC study was unique to rural Wisconsin and not necessarily applicable to other communities that didn’t have money to invest in smaller class sizes.
“What that study in Wisconsin from the CDC showed was the 17 rural schools that got a sizable grant from a private foundation to put in the kinds of safety measures they needed — students in very small pods classes of about 11 or 12 distanced in a rural area — they could go to school safely,” he said.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief proposal includes $350 billion for state and local governments, to be divvied up between helping keep front-line workers employed and aid with vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing, reopening schools, and “maintaining other vital services.”
But Psaki emphasized that Biden was not willing to break down the package into piecemeal bills or target legislation solely toward school reopenings.
“At the end of the day, he also has his principles and he is not going to break this bill up. He wants pieces that address the vaccine’s pieces, that address ensuring we’re getting checks to people so they can put food on the table and money so that we can reopen schools in the package is not going to break it up.”
Many parents in communities like Chicago, unable to afford childcare, are at their wit’s end with virtual education 11 months into the pandemic.
Teachers and staff for K-8 were ordered to return Monday in an effort to prepare for a Feb. 1 opening, but those plans fell apart when the Chicago Teacher’s Union overwhelmingly voted to continue virtual learning and teachers defied district orders to return after negotiations over reopening conditions broke down.
Some parents told Fox News they would sue the teachers union if a “strike” materialized amid the deadlock. A 2019 collective bargaining agreement bars union members from striking while under contract.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson said the district has precautions in place to mitigate the spread, and it’s time to return to the classroom. She said that students most falling behind with virtual learning were Black and Latino.
“If people don’t see that as an equity issue, I really don’t know what else to say,” Jackson said.
Fox News’ Louis Casiano and Joey Wulfsohn contributed to this report.
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