Biden Dodges Question: Should Teachers Return to In-Person Instruction?

Teachers, staff and their supporters march through downtown Chicago, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. The teachers are calling for district leaders to meet their demands on class sizes just days before a threatened strike that would affect thousands of students in the country's third-largest school district. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)
AP Photo/Teresa Crawford

President Joe Biden vowed to reopen most schools during his first 100 days in office, but on Monday he sidestepped a question from a reporter about whether teachers should return to in-person instruction in schools.

A reporter asked Biden about the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) vote Sunday in favor of defying the school district’s order for teachers to return to their classrooms, as union leaders made the claim schools are not safe and the coronavirus vaccine is not readily available.

The reporter asked:

You have made reopening schools a central part of your first 100 days’ agenda and you have long portrayed yourself as an ally to teachers and the unions. Right now, the Chicago Teachers Union has refused, they have defied an order to return to in person classes because of a lack of vaccinations. Do you believe teachers should return to school now?

“I believe we should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers, and for the help that is in those schools maintaining the facilities,” Biden responded and continued:

We need new ventilation systems in those schools; we need testing for people coming in and out of the classes; we need testing for teachers as well as students; and we need the capacity, the capacity to know that, in fact, the … circumstance in the school is safe and secure for everyone.

For example, there is no reason why the clear guidance will be that every school should be thoroughly sanitized, from the laboratories to the hallways. This is about – and none of the school districts I am aware of, there may be some public school districts – they have insisted all those pieces be in place, and, I might add, the same kind of thing I hope we can do with small businesses and businesses, making sure they have the capacity to test their workers when they come in, to make sure they have plastic dividers and – between their booths, in their restaurants, etc., to make sure they can sanitize. The teachers I know want to work, they just want to work in a safe environment and as safely as we can make it. And we should be able to open up every school, kindergarten through eighth grade, if, in fact, we administer these tests and it will have the added advantage, I might add, of putting millions of people back to work.

All those mothers and fathers that are home taking care of their children rather than go to work, even when they can work, they are not able to do it unless they have the luxury of working distance-wise like many of us do. They are not able to do it. And, so, this is about generating economic growth overall as well.

CTU announced that “in an unprecedented remote electronic vote, 71 percent” of its members voted to continue virtual instruction only on Monday.

“With this vote, rank-and-file educators will continue teaching remotely, and safely, as they have been doing for months,” the union stated.

According to the Chicago Sun Times, city officials said recently they would consider a refusal to return to in-person instruction as a strike. Given the vote results to defy the order, however, they indicated they will delay the start of in-school learning until Wednesday “to ensure we have the time needed to resolve our discussions without risking disruption to student learning.”

The union, however, said it made no such agreement with CPS:

A message from Chicago Public Schools this afternoon, claiming that “we have agreed to a request from CTU leadership to push back the return of K-8 teachers and staff to Wednesday, Jan. 27,” and seeking to sow dissent and disrupt collective Union action, is inaccurate.

CPS unilaterally made the decision to move the return date for K-8 teachers back to Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. The Union currently has no agreement with the district on any terms.

“The overwhelming majority of our members have chosen safety, unity and solidarity, and an agreement is within reach, but we need a willing partner,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “Emails like that don’t help.”

“Our collective power is our greatest strength,” Sharkey added, “and this vote cements our intention to continue to stand together in unity to land an agreement that protects educators, students and all of our CPS families.”

The Sun Times report noted the strategy of union bosses has been “to back CPS officials into a corner in negotiations by forcing the district to address teachers’ concerns immediately, delay its reopening plan or risk halting all classes.”

Half of all Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers who were ordered to return to in-person instruction did not show up January 4.

CPS CEO Dr. Janice Jackson said the teachers were “pressured” to stay out by the union.

On January 10, the union announced a mobilization effort by “parents, neighborhood residents,” and teachers against what it called a “dangerous” plan to reopen CPS for in-person instruction.

Jackson said, nevertheless, that teachers who failed to show up for work would not be paid.

“We know that a small portion of staff members may choose not to return,” she said, according to NBC5 Chicago. “Those individuals will be deemed absent without leave, and they will not be eligible for pay going forward.”

“We believe we’ve done every single thing within our power to ensure a safe return to school in this situation,” she added.

CPS officials noted the school board has invested $100 million in virus-related safety, including PPE, air purifiers, and additional custodial staff.

In December, Local 1 of the CTU deleted its tweet that stated, “The push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.”

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