Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday accused President Joe Biden of putting politics ahead of science in the divisive and complicated debate over reopening schools for in-person learning – tethering the White House’s position on the issue to teachers union leaders who McConnell said are obstructing reopening efforts despite mounting data suggesting it’s safe.
“In places across America where public education depends on the whims of a powerful public sector union, the best interests of children have often come dead last,” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor. “As the months have rolled by and the data have poured in, it’s become clear that schools can open safely.”
“An administration that puts facts and science first would be conducting a full-court press to open schools,” McConnell said.
While it’s too early to say with any authority that the tide is turning in the direction of wide scale reopening for in-person learning, there is an opening for the politics surrounding the crucial debate to become stickier in a way they weren’t before.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave its fullest throated endorsement yet for reopening schools last week, saying that research increasingly shows that, while COVID-19 can and does transmit in school settings, reopening schools for in-person learning does not drive community spread or result in significant outbreaks as long as the proper safety mechanisms are in place.
The announcement comes after the CDC and other academic researchers published a series of small-scale studies over the last two months showing that if schools require staff and children to wear masks, enforce frequent sanitization and social distancing, and establish testing and tracing programs – and if community spread is under control – that in-person learning poses little to no threat. In fact, the studies suggest, in most cases, holding classes is far less dangerous than other settings, like in-person dining and organized sports.
The conclusion comes at a time when educators are beginning to get vaccinated, despite the federal government’s bungled rollout that’s delayed distribution to school staff. Most public health officials now estimate that teachers who wish to be vaccinated should be able to do so by March or April.
The combination of those two important developments, along with Biden’s stated goal of getting the majority of elementary and middle schools open for in-person learning in the first 100 days of his administration, gives McConnell and other Republicans leverage to push the issue. And with high-profile battles over whether to reopen for in-person learning between city and union officials in Chicago and Washington, D.C., among others, GOP leaders are beginning to sharpen their attacks on Biden.
“Apparently, big labor’s talking points have already displaced Dr. Fauci as the White House go-to source,” McConnell said. “The president’s chief of staff keeps saying we need even more massive federal funding before teachers can go back. There is no scientific basis for that – none whatsoever. The goal post-moving doesn’t stop with money.”
In Chicago, students in kindergarten through eighth grade were expected to return to schools for in-person learning on Monday, but city officials and the teachers union are locked in ongoing negotiations over safety standards needed to reopen and vaccine distribution. Both sides will return to the bargaining table Thursday after a two-day “cooling off” period meant to lessen the chances of a strike.
Meanwhile, in Washington, about 1,800 of the city’s 4,000 teachers and about 9,000 of its 52,000 students returned to schools Tuesday after a stand-off between the union and city officials, the latter of which slapped the union with a last-minute restraining order on Monday to prevent them from talking about a strike.
“Science is not the obstacle,” McConnell said. “Federal money is not the obstacle. The obstacle is a lack of willpower. 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.”
To be sure, teachers unions’ purse strings also played a significant role in the election of President Barack Obama, and they agreed with little to none of his policy priorities – even going so far as to demand the resignation of then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Yet it’s not all political scorekeeping. Biden promised teachers that his administration would elevate their voices and he’s sought counsel from them as well. Two of the finalists for his Education Secretary post were Lily Elskelsen Garciá, former head of the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. First lady Jill Biden, a community college teacher herself, is a member of the National Education Association and invited Weingarten and current NEA president Becky Pringle to the White House the day after Biden was inaugurated.
Weingarten blasted McConnell’s accusations, calling them an effort to “cynically exploit this crisis to scapegoat teachers.”
“Teachers and school staff want to reopen,” she said. “They also want to be safe. Why is that so hard for Mitch McConnell to understand?”
“AFT has been updating our plan for a safe reopening since we first published it in April,” Weingarten added. “We’ve repeatedly identified the funding necessary to get back to in-person learning. The issue is how we get there, rather than how many rhetorical roadblocks you can throw up to avoid the responsibility to legislate.”
As the available data about potential transmission in schools has evolved, so too has the thinking of teachers union officials, whose current messaging is, in fact, focused on opening schools as quickly as possible as long as the proper safeguards are in place. But the conditional “as long as” gets complicated fast.
Schools aren’t a monolith. There are urban, rural and suburban schools. There are schools that serve high percentages of low-income families and schools that serve families whose median income crests $1 million. There are schools where the majority of children are Black and Latino, and schools where the majority of children are white.
They operate and are funded differently, they have different flavors of politics, they have different community transmission rates, and – most importantly for this debate – they’ve all adopted different ways to tackle teaching during the coronavirus pandemic. Those decisions, fluctuating between fully in-person to fully remote, are for the most part a reflection of the resources they have at their disposal – though not always.
Complicating matters further, there are inequities within school districts that make it difficult for superintendents, especially at big city schools, to impose a single reopening plan. For example, schools in certain neighborhoods might be able to afford a new ventilation system or a new school nurse, thanks to the fundraising efforts of powerhouse PTAs, while schools in other neighborhoods might be able to afford a few hundred masks for staff. Alternatively, some communities might have the resources to reopen for in-person learning safely but decide not to if a high percentage of their population is at high-risk for a serious infection.
But, given the increasingly partisan nature of politics, there’s little appetite for the nuance at the heart of these school reopening debates, which could give Republicans a pass on this new line of attack, especially if Biden’s goal of reopening schools becomes ensnared by any of the new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus that have re-shuttered schools across Europe over the last month.
McConnell’s accusations took on the sense of a more coordinated attack Wednesday, as they landed at the same time Miguel Cardona, Bidne’s nominee for education secretary, went before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for his confirmation hearing.
A handful of Republicans on the committee echoed McConnell’s concerns, including pushing back on the administration’s pitch to send an additional $175 billion to K-12 schools to help them reopen.
“Millions of children are stuck at home, trying to learn,” Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and ranking member of the committee, said to Cardona. “Parents are at their wits end and the adults running public schools across our country are failing to actually follow the science and open schools safely.”
Cardona, who as state education chief of Connecticut made headlines at the beginning of the current school year for opening schools for in-person learning when districts
with similar profiles in other states remained closed, pushed back on that narrative, arguing that educators and school staff want to welcome children back to the classroom but that most school districts lack the resources and personnel needed to do so safely.
“I recognize the frustration and distrust and fear that is out there,” he said. “We have great examples throughout our country of schools that are able to reopen safely and do so while following mitigation strategies.”
“If confirmed as secretary of education, I will do everything in my power to ensure that reopening strategy includes communication on how to safely reopen schools.”
Cardona sailed through his confirmation hearing, which was far less dramatic than his predecessor’s, and is expected to easily clear the committee and full Senate as soon as those votes can be scheduled.
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