President Joe Biden has committed to reopening most of America’s K-8 schools within the first 100 days of his administration, a goal the country’s two most powerful teachers unions endorse. Some GOP lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), want Biden to move faster, ordering districts to resume in-person instruction immediately. 

“Science is not the obstacle. Federal money is not the obstacle. The obstacle is a lack of willpower,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “Not among students. Not among parents. Just among the rich, powerful unions that donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities.”

In the 2020 election cycle, the country’s most influential teachers unions did endorse and support Biden and Democratic Senate candidates over their Republican counterparts. The American Federation of Teachers donated $2 million to Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC that spent $44.2 million supporting Biden. The National Education Association gave $500,000 to Take Back 2020, another Democratic super PAC that spent $6.4 million to run ads supporting Biden. The AFT also gave $175,000 to Take Back 2020.  

Teachers unions spent a total of $43.7 million in 2020, more than any previous year. Much of that went to outside spending on ads and other campaign materials, rather than direct contributions to candidates. In 2016, teachers unions spent a total of $36 million, with around $30 million on outside spending. In 2020, their outside spending jumped to almost $38 million. 

Around half of American children are learning virtually. In an interview broadcast just before the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, Biden told CBS’ Norah O’Donnell that the continued rates of virtual learning “genuinely is a national emergency.” Previously, Biden vowed to “reopen school doors as quickly as possible.” Biden told O’Donnell that his administration plans to release its school reopening guidelines before the end of the week. 

School districts’ ability to meet the forthcoming guidelines will likely be contingent on whether congressional Democrats’ are able to pass the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that includes $130 billion for school districts. Teachers unions say that sum is necessary to pay for certain safety protocols, such as installing better ventilation systems and hiring more custodial workers, that would help limit the spread of  COVID-19 in classrooms. 

If these protections cannot be implemented, union leaders are pushing for Biden to bump teachers to the front of the vaccination line. Currently, teachers in approximately half of states are eligible for vaccination.  

There is no federal agency or official keeping track of how many educators have contracted the coronavirus or died since the pandemic began. The AFT has documented at least 530 deaths of teachers from the coronavirus. The New York Times reported that, in several instances across the country, these deaths galvanized communities and led other educators to protest districts’ decisions to reopen classrooms without ensuring employees’ safety. 

“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,” said one Chicago teacher at a union-organized press conference last week.

Director of the Centers for Disease Control Rochelle Walensky ruffled some feathers last week when she said at a press briefing that vaccinating teachers “is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki distanced Biden from Walensky’s comment, telling reporters that the CDC director’s remark expressed a personal view, and not the official posture of the federal government. 

Negotiations over teachers’ place in vaccination schedules have figured prominently in struggles between local unions and school districts across the country, though neither the NEA nor the AFT are explicitly calling on Biden to speed up teachers’ access to vaccines before resuming in-person learning. After a tense standoff with Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot nearly led to a strike, the Chicago Teachers Union agreed to a settlement over the weekend that set a benchmark for a minimum of 1,500 Chicago educators to receive the vaccine each week as the district works to ramp up classroom capacity to 100 percent. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom cited Walensky’s comment last week as he urged teachers to return to their classrooms. Education unions in the Golden State are insisting that inadequate ventilation and aging infrastructure in school buildings make vaccination the only viable safeguard against the spread of the coronavirus. 

San Francisco’s mayor and city attorney are suing the San Francisco school district for failing to draw up a comprehensive reopening plan that satisfies unions’ demands. 

“Unfortunately, the leadership of the school district and the educators’ union can’t seem to get their act together. The Board of Education and the school district have had more than 10 months to roll out a concrete plan to get these kids back in school. So far they have earned an F,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement.

Teachers aren’t the only people wary of sending kids back to school. Even after Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union agreed to a reopening plan, only around 20 percent of students opted in to classroom instruction. An October poll conducted by Global Strategy Group on behalf of the Education Trust found that 44 percent of parents of color and 50 percent of low-income parents in New York City would not even consider sending their children back into classrooms if that option were open to them. 

Across the country, 85 percent of all adults — and 90 percent of school parents — trust teachers to make good decisions about education, according to a January poll by EdChoice and Morning Consult. The poll also found that a strong majority of parents see teachers unions as playing a “somewhat” or “very” helpful role in both school operations and student learning.

This article originally was published on the Center For Responsive Politics website, on February 10, 2021.

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