WASHINGTON — The challenge of reopening schools for in-person instruction amid a coronavirus surge fueled by the Omicron variant deepened on Wednesday, with Chicago teachers refusing to return to the classroom after a union vote Tuesday night. The city’s school superintendent in turn declined to allow them to teach remotely, instead canceling school for 330,000 children in the nation’s third-largest school district.
President Biden has repeatedly said he wants schools to stay open, in recognition of the damage that remote learning has done to children and the low risk of transmission in schools. “The president couldn't be clearer — schools in this country should remain open,” White House pandemic response team coordinator Jeff Zients said during a press briefing on Wednesday.
He and other White House officials avoided singling out Chicago educators while also doing little to hide their frustration with the strike. “Long story short, we want schools to be open, the president wants them to be open and we’re going to continue to use every resource and work to ensure that’s the case,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said later in the day.
Seventy-three percent of the teachers in Chicago voted in favor of staying home. Union leaders had asked Mayor Lori Lightfoot for a testing program such as ones that have been implemented by other districts, including Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. In a list of demands issued last week, the union also called for high-quality face masks to be provided to students as well as provisions for remote learning.
An official with the federal Department of Education, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, a vociferous advocate for in-person instruction, had spoken to both the Chicago school superintendent and Randi Weingarten, the influential leader of the American Federation of Teachers.
The Chicago Teachers Union did not respond to a Yahoo News request for comment, but the group posted messages on Twitter explaining its vote. “To be clear: Educators of this city want to be in buildings with their students,” one message read. “We believe that classrooms are where our children should be.” The union accused Lightfoot of failing to “provide safety for the overwhelming majority of schools.”
The new, highly transmissible Omicron variant has produced challenges for many workplaces across the country that had been seeking to begin 2022 with a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. Though the variant tends to result in milder symptoms, especially for vaccinated people, a huge spike in positive cases has led to staffing shortages as people isolate themselves at home according to public health guidelines.
Biden is a close ally of teachers’ unions but is also aware that parents’ anger over school closures could prove damaging for Democrats in this fall’s congressional midterms, as it already did in Virginia last year.
“Parents want schools open,” Zients said on Wednesday.
According to data website Burbio, there are now 4,561 schools closed across the nation. “Current disruptions tend to be triggered by cases among staff,” Burbio president Dennis Roche wrote in his summary of the rapidly changing situation.
Few expect the closures to last as long as they did in 2020 or early 2021, but the situation in Chicago proved a potent reminder that even after months of trying — and $130 billion in support from the Biden administration — schools have struggled to balance the needs of students and educators.
Teachers in Chicago have long had an activist streak and a willingness to buck the city’s Democratic establishment. Their intransigence, however, earned major pushback on Wednesday. “If you don’t want to teach, don’t teach,” fumed MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. “Quit. Just stay at home and stop teaching children, OK?”
Others noted that teachers were among the first segment of society to receive a vaccine, and that the educational loss and social isolation of learning from home outweighed the risk of contracting COVID-19. “Children desperately need us,” New York City public school social worker Justin Spiro told Yahoo News in a text message. “Rates of depression, anxiety, food insecurity and homelessness are through the roof. We must rise to the occasion.”
Advocates for charter and religious schools also said the Chicago decision bolstered their case. “It’s time to give the money directly to families and let them find alternatives,” Corey DeAngelis, executive director of the Educational Freedom Institute, told Yahoo News in a text message.