White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that schools should remain open for in-person learning despite a surge in COVID-19 cases, but declined to directly criticize the Chicago teacher’s union after it voted late Tuesday to work remotely.
Newsday reporter Laura Figueroa Hernandez, speaking on behalf of a Wall Street Journal reporter who was unable to attend the regular briefing due to resumed pandemic restrictions, asked Psaki whether the Chicago Teachers Union deserved blame for the cancellation of classes in the nation’s third-largest school district.
“Does the White House view the teacher’s union in Chicago as an obstruction to overseeing schools? What is your message to the union leaders?” Hernandez asked.
“I believe I answered this a little bit earlier and the president wants schools to be open,” Psaki replied, pointedly declining to mention the union.
“He believes we have the tools for schools to be open, and we’re going to continue to work to ensure that students are in classrooms, they’re in classrooms safely, and they are for the foreseeable future,” the press secretary added.
At the top of the briefing, Psaki was asked by Darlene Superville of the Associated Press: “Can you tell us if the White House or Education Department or the administration at large is doing anything to help get teachers and students back into school there?”
“We are in regular contact with a range of stakeholders on the issue of school reopening and closures including superintendents, state leaders, principals, teachers, parents and other school staff and that is certainly the case now,” Psaki said.
“We are all working to keep schools open. As the President said yesterday, he wants schools to be open,” she added. “We know they can be open safely. And we’re here to help make that happen … we’re going to keep our children and educators who selflessly serve their communities safe, but ensure that children are not enduring the mental health impact of not being in school, that we are, there are not gaps in learning — this includes schools everywhere, including in Chicago. And fortunately, 96 percent of schools are doing just that.”
The Chicago Teachers Union, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, forced Chicago Public Schools to cancel classes Wednesday after 73 percent of members voted to shift to remote learning, claiming classrooms were unsafe amid record-high COVID-19 cases.
President Biden, who held no public events Wednesday, has not directly commented on the Chicago school shutdown, but issued a general call for schools to stay open Tuesday.
“We know that our kids can be safe when in school, by the way,” the president said during a briefing with his COVID-19 response team. “That’s why I believe schools should remain open.”
“You know, they have what they need,” Biden added. “Because of the American Rescue Plan … that I signed in March, we provided the states with $130 billion — with a “B” — billion to specifically keep our students safe and schools open. Funding for ventilation — ventilation systems in the schools, social distancing in classrooms, even larger classrooms, on buses and — everything from bus drivers to buses — the actual bus.”
Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot is threatening to withhold pay from teachers and tweeted Tuesday, “we cannot accept … unilateral action to shut down the entire district, depriving hundreds of thousands of students of the safe, in-person schooling environment they need.”
Unions are an important source of support for Democrats and first lady Jill Biden is a longtime member of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teacher’s union. The White House took heat last spring for not doing more to urge teachers to return to work amid the increasingly broad distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
In some parts of the country, schools were closed for more than a year after the initial wave of COVID-19 cases hit in March 2020.
The more contagious Omicron variant has driven caseloads to new highs. Symptoms associated with the variant are less severe, according to preliminary data, and vaccines appear to reduce the chance of serious illness, but hospitalization rates are up sharply in New York and other hard-hit areas.
According to CDC data, a record high of more than 828,000 US residents tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. The New York Times, which compiles its own case data, said more than 1 million Americans tested positive for the virus Monday. The true case load is believed to be much higher because many people are asymptomatic or don’t report the results of at-home tests.