WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Monday waded into the Chicago Teachers Union’s standoff with City Hall over reopening schools, indicating support for teachers’ COVID-19 safety concerns after, the Sun-Times has learned, White House senior staffers were briefed about the impasse by American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten.
“The teachers, I know they want to work,” Biden said when asked about the CTU by a reporter at a news conference after an event on American manufacturing. “They just want to work in a safe environment, and as safe as we can rationally make it, and we can do that.”
To the question, should “teachers return to school,” Biden said, “we should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that is in those schools maintaining those facilities.”
Biden did not directly reference Chicago in his reply nor Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, whose chief critics are the politically powerful CTU.
People have to be convinced and comfortable that a “school is safe and secure for everyone,” Biden said. Among the keys to reopening schools are the presence of widespread testing and functioning ventilation systems, he said — two points of contention between Chicago Public Schools officials and the CTU in recent months.
The president added, “we should be able to open up every, every school, kindergarten through eighth grade, if in fact we administer these tests, and we’ll have the added advantage I might add, a putting millions of people back to work.”
The CTU is the local affiliate of Weingarten’s AFT.
“The White House is really concerned about reopening and really concerned about doing it right,” Weingarten told the Sun-Times. “And I felt it was my moral obligation to brief the White House this weekend, which I did.”
Weingarten said she briefed Biden senior staffers on “what was going on in Chicago, from my perspective,” and was “very pleased” with his remarks on Monday.
“People know that in-person learning is really important, but they want to be safe,” she said. As for whether Biden was taking sides, Weingarten said the president “is siding with the science and trying to get this pandemic under control and trying to open schools safely. I think that is what he is siding with.”
With Biden as president, teachers unions have a seat at the table in the White House with two allies — Biden and first lady Jill Biden, a union member who teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College.
After Biden spoke, both Chicago officials and CTU leaders found points of agreement in his comments.
The school district shared video of the president’s response on its social media accounts, commenting, “We couldn’t agree more. The district has invested >$100M to ensure the health and safety of our community.”
Union members, meanwhile, said they were encouraged to hear Biden weigh in on the situation. CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said Biden “is not taking sides” but is “prioritizing the safety of every stakeholder in every city in every state in this country.”
Lightfoot: ‘Every confidence whatsoever that we will get something done’
Negotiations continued Monday between the union and schools officials with a Wednesday deadline set to reach an agreement or otherwise risk a disruption of classes. The CTU voted over the weekend to refuse in-person work until an agreement is reached, a move the city has said it will view as a strike.
“We’ve had a lot of very productive conversations with the folks at CTU,” Lightfoot said at a news conference Monday after receiving a dose of the coronavirus vaccine — and before Biden was asked about the CTU. “They were literally bargaining every single day over the weekend. All last week every day. And we’re gonna continue to be at the table until we get ... the remaining issues resolved.
“In partnership with the CTU, if we come together in good faith, I have every confidence whatsoever that we will get something done that, obviously, protects their members, but also gives families the option, if it’s right for them, to be able to send their children back to in-person learning,” she said.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey told reporters in the evening that negotiations are “slow going because there are some hard parts to this.”
The union is pushing for members who have medically vulnerable relatives at home to receive accommodations for remote work, and for teachers to only be required to return to classrooms after they receive a vaccination. The CTU is also asking for increased testing of staff and students and a public health metric that would determine when schools should reopen or close.
Biden has made addressing the pandemic — and the related reopening of schools and reviving the economy — a key part of his first 100-day, 100 million vaccinations agenda.
On Thursday, his first full day in office, Biden signed an executive order on school reopenings, stating his policy is “to provide support to help create the conditions for safe, in-person learning as quickly as possible; ensure high-quality instruction and the delivery of essential services often received by students and young children at school, institutions of higher education, child care providers, and Head Start programs; mitigate learning loss caused by the pandemic; and address educational disparities and inequities that the pandemic has created and exacerbated.”
The Democratic-allied powerful national teachers unions are a crucial part of Biden’s base. Last Thursday, the day after the inauguration, Jill Biden held a virtual event with 11,000 teachers: Weingarten and National Education Association President Becky Pringle were with the first lady in the White House.