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Reopening Debate Testing Biden's Ties With Teachers Unions

White House via AP
In this image from video, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a White House briefing on the Biden administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington.

The increasingly heated school reopening debate is forcing President Joe Biden to balance two priorities: getting children back into the classroom and preserving the support of powerful labor groups that helped him get elected.

Following weeks of standoff in some cities and states where teachers unions are demanding vaccines as a condition of reopening, the issue came to a head Wednesday when Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said vaccination of teachers "is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools."

But in a juggling of positions, the White House declined to back Walensky, saying she was speaking "in her personal capacity." Asked Friday about her earlier comments, Walensky punted.

So far, it doesn't appear that the issue is driving a wedge between Biden and the unions. Even those taking a hard line on vaccines say shots would not be required if schools were taking other steps to make buildings safe.

Walensky on Wednesday cited CDC data showing that social distancing and wearing a mask significantly reduce the spread of the virus in school settings. Just a week earlier, the agency issued a study similarly finding that, with mask wearing and other precautions, it's generally safe to hold in-person schooling.

To many Republicans and some on the left, Walensky's comment was seen as an endorsement to reopen schools immediately. Some believed it discredited teachers unions that have demanded vaccines before returning to in-person instruction.

Unions, however, largely met it with a shrug. With the right mix of safety measures in places, teachers unions generally agree the vaccines aren't a condition for reopening. The problem is that many schools are far behind on ventilation updates and other important measures recommended by health officials, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

"Vaccinations go from a priority to essential if you can't do some of these basic mitigation strategies," Weingarten said. "Rather than keep these schools closed for months, why not vaccinate teachers more quickly?"

Even among state and local unions that have taken a harder line on vaccinations, Walensky's comment drew little fire. The California Teachers Association is pushing for all teachers to be vaccinated but it's largely because many schools "aren't anywhere close" to making buildings safe through other methods, said Claudia Briggs, a union spokesperson.

Briggs applauded the Biden administration's response, saying the president has made clear that teacher safety is of "paramount importance." She cited his proposal for $130 billion in additional pandemic relief to help schools reopen.

In Chicago, vaccinations have been a major sticking point between the city and the teachers union as they work to negotiate a return to the classroom. At a Friday news conference held by the Chicago Teachers Union, special education teacher Dawn Kelly said teachers want to return but feel they aren't being protected.

"We want to come back to school. I miss my babies, I want to hug my students, I want to sit on the carpet and do read-alongs, but right now it's just not safe," she said.

Despite the seemingly definitive statement from the CDC, the White House has declined to take a firm stance on teacher vaccinations. Asked about it on Thursday, Biden press secretary Jen Psaki said Walensky was speaking "in her personal capacity" and that the White House would await updated school guidance that Biden has requested from the CDC.

"Obviously she's the head of the CDC, but we're going to wait for the final guidance to come out so we can use that as a guide for schools around the country," Psaki said.

Biden has pledged to reopen most of the nation's K-8 schools within his first 100 days in office, a goal he says is possible if Congress approves his pandemic rescue plan and if states prioritize teachers in vaccine rollouts. In many states, teachers are being included early in a second wave of shots.

But the plan has drawn fire from critics who say Biden is cowing to teachers unions who see him as an ally.

Both of the nation's two major teachers unions endorsed Biden for president, including the National Education Association, whose 3 million members include first lady Jill Biden, who is a longtime community college professor.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said efforts to get students back in the classroom have been blocked by "rich, powerful unions that donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities."

"An administration that puts facts and science first would be conducting a full-court press to open schools," he said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Some on the left have issued similar rebukes, including former New York Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, who said on MSNBC that Biden must "stand up" to teachers unions and force a return to the classroom.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom cited Walensky's comment as evidence that it's safe to reopen schools before all teachers get vaccines. He has been pressing schools to reopen for weeks, and so far it appears the CDC's finding has done little to persuade teachers to return.

Vaccine shortages and slow rollouts have jeopardized Biden's reopening plan as more schools delay in-person instruction. Leaders in some districts have expressed doubt that they will bring all students back for in-person instruction until next school year.

The Biden administration says it hopes to accelerate openings by boosting funding and helping schools implement virus testing. Miguel Cardona, Biden's pick for education secretary, has said he's prepared to help reopen schools safely even if teachers have not all been vaccinated.

Weingarten, of the AFT, said Biden's proposed pandemic relief would go far getting schools opened. But even if Congress approves it, she said, it could be months before schools receive it and make necessary fixes. Instead of scapegoating teachers, though, she said blame should fall to the Trump administration for failing to deliver vaccines sooner and to districts that have failed to update buildings for years.

"There's not a lot of trust for districts because we've had years and years of austerity budgets, and we know that the facilities are not what they should be," she said. "It shouldn't take a pandemic to fix ventilation systems."

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