WASHINGTON — With the standoff continuing between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union over reopening public schools — and a potential strike looming — White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that President Joe Biden hopes “they can come to common ground soon.”
Lightfoot, in an interview on MSNBC earlier Monday, said, “We are talking to the Biden administration” about the gridlocked talks.
Psaki waded into the impasse between Democratic Biden allies — the staunchly Democratic CTU and the mayor of one of the biggest cities in the nation — as disagreements linger over whether Chicago Public Schools have enough COVID-19 pandemic precautions in place.
In-person classroom teaching had been set to resume on Monday for pre-K-8 students. Instead, the city is on the verge of the second teacher strike in 15 months. Lightfoot has been arguing that sufficient safeguards are in place for a full reopening.
At the White House briefing, Psaki was asked, “Does the White House agree with the mayor that enough funding has been put into place and safety measures have been taken that the kids should return to schools?”
Some context: Top staffers in the Biden White House are aware of the Chicago schools situation. The Sun-Times reported last week that American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten briefed the administration about the status of the negotiations and the issues. A few days later, Biden, asked if teachers should return to schools, signaled support for the union position.
“The teachers, I know they want to work,” Biden. “They just want to work in a safe environment, and as safe as we can rationally make it, and we can do that.”
The CTU is the local affiliate of Weingarten’s AFT.
In light of that, at the start of her reply, Psaki said, “let me first say the President has been, has, enormous respect for Mayor Lightfoot and he has also been a strong ally to teachers through his entire career.”
Psaki said Biden “trusts the mayor and the unions to work this out.
“They’re both prioritizing the right things which is ensuring the health and safety of the kids and teachers and working to make sure that children in Chicago are getting the education they deserve.
“So, he is hopeful, we are hopeful, they can reach common ground as soon as possible,” Psaki said.
Asked if the White House has a role to play in mediating the negotiations to get kids back to school, Psaki said: “We will certainly remain in touch with a range of parties but, again, we hope that they can come to common ground soon.”
During Lightfoot’s interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Lightfoot highlighted how $100 million has been spent on COVID safety measures in schools. “Our schools are safe,” she said.
Lightfoot was asked during the segment if she would welcome White House involvement in breaking the impasse with the CTU.
“We are talking to the Biden administration, but you know this: These issues are a uniquely local issue. And we are very, very close, and we can get there if the union takes some steps in our direction.”
The showdown in Chicago, based on local concerns, highlights the potential difficulty Biden may face in making good on a promise to “implement a national strategy to support safely reopening schools” with a variety of proposals in his Jan. 21 executive order on schools issued on his first full day as president.