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President Biden Wants to Reopen Schools Quickly. What Will it Take?

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michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

[music]

Today: The Biden administration is determined to quickly reopen America’s public schools for in-person learning. To do that, it will have to convince teachers and their unions that returning to the classroom is safe. My colleague Dana Goldstein on whether that’s likely to happen.

It’s Wednesday, February 10. Dana, welcome back to the show.

dana goldstein

Thanks for having me.

michael barbaro

I think it’s been, maybe, like six months?

dana goldstein

[LAUGHS] Yes, I can tell you to the date, because it was the last thing I did before I gave birth to my second baby in August — was do a Daily episode.

michael barbaro

Oh my God, that’s right. It was like literally on the eve of your child’s birth.

dana goldstein

I’m pretty sure I went into labor the next day.

michael barbaro

[LAUGHS]

dana goldstein

But the episode came out after I had the baby. So people were like, wow, did you record that in the hospital room?

michael barbaro

No! The answer is no!

dana goldstein

I’m not that much of a superhero.

michael barbaro

We’re not that kind of an operation.

[chimes]

So I want to start by asking you what the Biden administration’s plan is for reopening schools.

dana goldstein

Well, President Biden has been quite clear.

archived recording (joe biden)

It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school.

dana goldstein

He expects K-8 8 schools, he has said, to reopen within 100 days of his inauguration.

michael barbaro

Aggressive.

archived recording (joe biden)

Then my team will work to see that a majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.

dana goldstein

That would put us in about mid-April.

archived recording (joe biden)

Masking, vaccinations, opening schools. These are the three key goals from my first 100 days.

dana goldstein

And the reason that it is so aggressive is that about 1/3 of the nation’s schools are still totally remote, and another 1/3 are in some sort of hybrid scenario.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

dana goldstein

And about half of the kids are not in school across the United States. So even though we are nearing the first anniversary here of the pandemic, we still have a very severely disrupted education system in this country.

michael barbaro

When we spoke with you last all those months ago, we talked about the very specific requests that public school teachers were making to feel comfortable returning to the classroom. I remember face masks were one of their demands, temperature checks for people entering school buildings, low positivity rates for communities around the schools. And so what is the status of those requests?

dana goldstein

Well, I think it’s important to say, first of all, that the low community positivity rates, and just the general background of the virus being controlled, has not been achieved, really, in most parts of the country.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

dana goldstein

So it’s a raging pandemic right now. It looks like the numbers are going down. But of course, right now, we’re also very concerned about the emergence of these new variants that appear to be highly transmissible. So we’ve never really achieved, as a country, the first thing that the teachers and their unions wanted, which was community control of the coronavirus.

michael barbaro

Right.

dana goldstein

I mean, the schools did already get quite a bit of federal money. They used it for things like face masks, face shields, desk partitions, hiring nurses in some cases, all types of hygiene and all types of staffing to meet some of these demands. And in broad swaths of the country — particularly in the South and in more conservative areas — the schools are open and the students are in school. But in the places where the teachers’ unions are powerful, where teachers have this political voice, those are the places where the schools are much more likely to be closed.

They have again and again cited the fact the virus remains out of control, that the country has not taken other difficult steps that they think it needs to take before schools are reopened, such as shutting down dining, shutting down movie theaters — basically curtailing other types of activity that spread the virus.

michael barbaro

Am I right in thinking that teachers and their unions in this moment are exerting a pretty significant amount of influence over this school reopening decision-making? And in a sense, they are deciding, in many communities, whether schools will be reopened for in-person instruction. They’re almost exercising a kind of veto.

dana goldstein

There are a very, very powerful force, perhaps the most powerful force, in wide swaths of the country that are controlled by Democrats and where unions are powerful. In places like Texas and Florida and Arizona, where unions don’t have that much power, it’s a totally different story. Teachers have fought for mitigation measures — and won them sometimes — but they haven’t had that veto power over reopening schools.

michael barbaro

Got it. And so at this point, despite all these reservations from teachers, what’s the most powerful case being made from people in the Biden administration for reopening schools? What are they arguing?

dana goldstein

Here’s the basic argument. It’s been almost a year of this crisis. Remote learning is not working for kids. It is subpar compared to in-school learning. It is hurting kids academically, emotionally, in terms of their mental health. And it’s hurting disadvantaged children the most. So whether your family can’t afford a great internet connection at home, or maybe you have a disability that makes it hard for you to learn via a screen.

Or maybe you’re just a child under the age of 8 or so, and you can’t really manipulate the computer on your own, and so it requires having a parent or grandparent next to you every minute of the day to guide you through this remote instruction — in a way that has left your family reeling and maybe prevented an adult from working in a way that impacts the broader economy of your city, state and the country. I mean, this is the basic argument for why schools do need to reopen.

michael barbaro

Right. Which, I think, brings us to the question of the risks involved in being in a classroom and benefiting from all those things you just described. And remind us of what the current thinking of those risks are. Because I feel like over time, in conversations with our colleagues from the Science desk and health reporters at The Times, that the consensus seems to be that the risks are lower — significantly lower — than previously thought.

dana goldstein

That’s right. Of all the different types of settings where groups of people come together, schools seem to be among the safest as long as mitigation strategies like masking, social distancing, handwashing are observed. And there’s a lot of data now internationally to back that up. There are new studies from the E.U., from the C.D.C. here in the United States, even in some places where the positivity rates for the virus itself in the larger community were quite high, there was very limited spread of Covid in the schools when there was compliance with strategies like masking.

Now, the risk is not zero. There are not zero cases of spread of Covid in schools. But it’s a risk-benefit calculus that is constantly being readjusted as more evidence comes to light. What I will say is that all of these studies that we’re talking about, they were not conducted with these new variants. They were conducted with the coronavirus we have come to know in the United States over the past 10 months. So this is kind of a looming unknown, which is, OK, we are feeling pretty confident that we can operate schools pretty safely with the virus as we’ve been living with it.

But what if, over the next few weeks and months, we are dealing with a significantly different foe? And I would say that’s the moment we’re in right now, which is so interesting politically and in terms of the health impact of this really big decision about whether to reopen in those places that remain closed.

michael barbaro

So how do teachers and teachers unions answer the kind of consensus — especially in a pre-coronavirus variant world — that the situation is relatively safe? It’s clear that they are disappointed with the level of community spread in many parts of the country, but given the understanding that schools remain pretty safe, how do these teachers’ unions defend their decision to be so reluctant about returning?

dana goldstein

So there’s thousands of these union affiliates across the country, so you can’t totally generalize. But what I’ve been covering is this kind of complicated dance that has emerged where some of the national union leaders, like Randy Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, are coming out to embrace this scientific consensus that schools can be safe under certain circumstances, allying themselves with President Biden and his push to reopen. This is a change in tune for some of these union leaders who, when President Trump was asking to reopen schools, were just flatly rejecting of that and really were angry that he and the Republicans in Congress were not giving the money to schools that schools said they needed in order to do this safely.

But on the ground in places like Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, it is a lot more complicated. In those places which are run by Democrats, a lot of the local unions still do not feel it is safe. They are not necessarily swayed by the rhetoric of the Biden administration or of a national union leader. And what they really want — and what they’re fighting for — is teacher vaccination. They really want their teachers to be vaccinated before they’re required to go back into the classroom in many parts of the country.

michael barbaro

So in other words, getting it right, in this moment, for many of these teachers and their unions, looks like getting a vaccine. That is the new standard by which they are measuring their comfort with bringing themselves and their students back into the classroom.

dana goldstein

Right, and some are actually even pushing it a little bit beyond that. Some union leaders I’ve spoken to on the ground are saying, well, we don’t know for sure if once you’re vaccinated, you can’t maybe still pick up a trace amount of the virus and bring it home and give it to your loved one. For example, I spoke to a teacher in Chicago whose wife has late-stage breast cancer and has restarted chemotherapy, and it is just not clear to him right now whether he’s going to be granted the accommodation to continue to work from home.

So for this teacher, going back without a vaccination is something he just really can’t comprehend. And even once he’s vaccinated, I think he still has some real concerns about what this would look like for his family and for himself. I think this is a really difficult case, where you’re basically saying, in the aggregate, the risk is pretty low and the benefits to children might outweigh these sort of aggregate risks. But for any individual in a really, really difficult scenario like that teacher, it’s going to be a very big ask.

michael barbaro

But if vaccines and vaccinations are the solution — or a very big part of it — what exactly is the Biden plan for getting teachers vaccines and making teachers a priority in the vaccination process? Because my sense is that that is mostly a decision — who gets the vaccine and in what order — made by state leaders.

dana goldstein

Yeah, you’re absolutely right about that. And that’s exactly where the rubber meets the road and where we have a really big challenge as a country. Because even in places where teachers are technically eligible for the vaccine — like many counties in California or in Chicago, for example — teachers are reporting that they’re having trouble getting the vaccine.

michael barbaro

Are states making teachers a priority?

dana goldstein

About half the states have prioritized the teachers for vaccines currently.

michael barbaro

OK, so that’s vaccines. What else is the Biden administration pushing on right now? What else are they doing?

dana goldstein

So President Biden is in a very careful dance with his allies at the teachers’ unions. He is offering something to them that they really, really want, which is a $130 billion schools funding package as part of the Covid relief bill, the Rescue Act. It includes money for all kinds of things that teachers’ unions love, like protecting jobs for teachers, as well as all sorts of mitigation, funding related to the pandemic for cleanliness and safety and masks, and all that kind of stuff.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

dana goldstein

But it goes beyond that. Under the Trump administration, there was a very confusing hodgepodge of guidance on schools that appear to be very ideologically motivated at times. The Biden administration is expected in the coming week to come out with new guidance for schools about how to reopen safely, and the unions are saying this is really something that’s going to help them by showing this to their local members on the ground, telling them that someone who’s more trusted — President Biden, his appointees have come up with this new roadmap for us that we can follow. But it’s really complicated, because President Biden doesn’t want to get too far out ahead of what teachers are feeling and wants to be sensitive to their anxieties.

michael barbaro

Right. What’s so interesting about all this, Dana, is that President Biden sees himself as an ally of unions and as an ally of the teachers’ union, right? And the reality is that to meet this goal he has, he needs this ally to come along with him and play ball. And it’s not clear that they are there yet.

dana goldstein

Yeah, it’s a very careful needle that President Biden is trying to thread here. He wants to bring the teachers and the unions along with the school to reopen K-8 schools without making them feel disrespected or not listened to, which is really how they felt under the previous administration of President Trump.

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And the politics on the ground are so tough. I mean, in many of these places — like Chicago, for example, or Philadelphia — it’s teachers unions versus Democratic mayors, other Democratic elected officials, school boards. It’s a sort of fight in the family, and that’s sometimes the nastiest kind of toughest fight to resolve.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Dana, you mentioned fights within the Democratic family, and you mentioned Chicago. It does feel like that is where one of the biggest battles over school reopening has just unfolded. So tell us about that.

dana goldstein

Right, so Chicago is the third largest school district in the country. It has over 300,000 students, and the vast, vast majority have been out of school since the beginning of the pandemic.

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archived recording (lori lightfoot)

The fact of the matter is that it is not sustainable.

dana goldstein

And Mayor Lori Lightfoot really was clear she wanted to get back to school in January.

archived recording (lori lightfoot)

Thanks to an $8.5 million investment, every classroom and front office that will be used during this time will be equipped with its own HEPA purifier. These purifiers —

dana goldstein

She said that the district had done a lot to improve ventilation and come up with all sorts of great cleanliness, hygiene, safety practices in school. And she wanted to offer parents the opportunity to get their K-8 kids back in school.

archived recording (lori lightfoot)

It’s thanks to measures like these that we are confident in our ability to support our students Monday and every day moving forward. Let me also —

dana goldstein

And the unions we’re still asking for more.

archived recording

The union fired back this afternoon, saying what they’ve been saying for weeks — they don’t buy it.

archived recording (teacher 1)

School is a place where we come together as a community, and until it’s safe to do so, I refuse to go back into the buildings.

archived recording (teacher 2)

I am making this decision not only for myself, but for the safety of my students and their families.

archived recording (teacher 3)

C.P.S. and C.T.U. stuck on four main issues — the timeline for reopening, accommodations for staff with vulnerable household members, health metrics that would pause in-person learning, and vaccinations.

dana goldstein

You know, they were asking for more accommodations for teachers with vulnerable relatives. They were asking for a vaccination for teachers before they had to return. They were asking for even more stringent building safety measures. And this really dug in over the past week.

archived recording

We begin this hour 18 with that breaking news on the Chicago Public Schools.

dana goldstein

— bringing the city to the point of a potential strike.

archived recording

C.P.S. sending a letter out to staff and families saying, among other things, come Monday, pre-K and cluster teachers and staff must show up. If you don’t show up, you will be locked out from that software that allows you to teach remote.

dana goldstein

Where the city had threatened that if teachers didn’t show up to work in person, they were actually going to lock teachers out of Google Classroom, which is the platform that teachers were using to interact with kids.

archived recording

And that is important because the union has said, you lock one of us out, you lock all of us out. And that lockout could trigger a strike.

michael barbaro

I just want to pause and understand that threat. So teachers, faced with a directive to come back to school, said, no, we don’t like what the City of Chicago, your preparations look like. And the City of Chicago says, if you don’t return to the classroom, we will lock you out of the software needed to teach remotely?

dana goldstein

Yes.

michael barbaro

That’s a heck of a threat.

dana goldstein

Yeah. And the reason why that is so shocking and such a sort of freighted thing to threaten is that the majority of parents that returned a survey in the City of Chicago asking them if they were ready to send their kids back to classrooms and if they wanted to do that, in fact, said no.

michael barbaro

Huh.

dana goldstein

The majority of parents said that they wanted to continue teaching their kids remotely, having their kids at home. And it is a predominantly Black and Latino school district. Those communities have borne the brunt of the pandemic, and those parents are not really confident that now is the right time to send their kids back, in many cases.

michael barbaro

So when the city made that threat to lock teachers out of the Google Education platform, who was that threat on behalf of if the majority of parents surveyed said that they wanted their kids at home using a Google remote learning platform?

dana goldstein

Well, it was on behalf of two groups, I’d say. First would be those parents who do want to go back. Although that group is disproportionately white compared to the number of white families in Chicago, still, the majority of kids in that group are also Black and Latino. Mayor Lightfoot and the school superintendent have said that every parent does deserve that option, and Mayor Lightfoot has spoken about, as a mother, observing her own 12-year-old daughter struggling with remote learning, and she has said that if it is not good enough for her child — and she doesn’t feel like it is adequate for her kid — that it shouldn’t be all that is offered to any child. But also, the mayor and school C.E.O. did bring up several times that some families did not return this survey at all, and these are the kids that, in many ways, educators are most worried about right now.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

dana goldstein

They are the ones who have drifted away from the school system over the course of the pandemic. They are not logging in regularly to online classes. They may not have an adult who’s able to stay home from work to guide them through remote instruction. Their families may be suffering economically from the pandemic, or having health issues related to the pandemic, or just going through any one of a number of traumas that we know that the pandemic is causing.

And so what Mayor Lightfoot and the school C.E.O. said was, these kids might come back if we reopen schools. And we can’t really get them back, maybe, until we do that. So both sides — both Mayor Lightfoot and the teachers’ unions — they’re both arguing that they have the best interests of the kids that are most vulnerable in mind. Both sides really are making that argument.

michael barbaro

So what ends up happening in this pretty high-stakes standoff in Chicago?

dana goldstein

So all through the month of January and into February, there were these very tense negotiations between the union and the Mayor’s Office and the school C.E.O. And it all culminated after a weekend of all-nighters on Sunday.

archived recording (lori lightfoot)

So good afternoon, everyone. We are here to announce the very good news that our children will be returning to in-person learning this week.

dana goldstein

When Mayor Lori Lightfoot stepped out in a news conference and announced a tentative deal with the Chicago Teachers Union to get kids back in school —

archived recording (lori lightfoot)

CPS has finally reached a tentative agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, that opens up the school doors for safe in-person learning for our pre-K —

dana goldstein

They said that they were going to accelerate vaccination for thousands of teachers to go as fast as they could on that. But for those teachers who maybe weren’t able to access a vaccine, if there aren’t enough vaccine doses to go around, they did say that they would have the option of taking an unpaid leave of absence for the next quarter instead of teaching in person. So it’s not necessarily what the teacher wants — which is to continue to get paid for some sort of work from home — but it does promise to protect that teachers’ job during this time.

archived recording (lori lightfoot)

This agreement was about making sure everyone in our school communities just aren’t safe, but also that they feel safe, and feel that their lived experience and fears and frustrations have been heard.

michael barbaro

I imagine from the perspective of many teachers, the choice they’re being given is essentially work and potentially put your loved ones at risk, or ensure that your loved ones are safer, but you don’t get paid.

dana goldstein

Yeah, and that’s a really stark choice for an individual teacher to have to make. But I think what you have to also think about is that many other essential workers have taken on a lot of risk to themselves and their families to work outside their homes during this pandemic.

michael barbaro

So if the teachers do decide to endorse this deal, when would they be back in the classroom?

dana goldstein

So preschool and high-needs kids, potentially those with disabilities that require special services, will be back on Thursday, elementary school students on March 1, and middle school students on March 8.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm, so pretty fast.

dana goldstein

Yes, although Mayor Lightfoot did want the students back in January. So it is a pretty big shift in terms of the number of weeks of learning here.

michael barbaro

And this does seem to fall within the Biden administration’s desired timeline.

dana goldstein

It does. And what we heard on background it that a lot of calls were going back and forth between the mayor’s office, the school superintendent, the teachers’ unions, and Washington, potentially speaking to folks in the Biden administration — and also to New York, where Randy Weingarten, the teachers’ union president, is located. And all of these people were negotiating with each other, talking, pushing each other, accommodating each other in some cases, fighting. And that’s what it took to get to this agreement, which is still tentative and still very controversial with rank-and-file teachers in Chicago.

michael barbaro

Right. So are we right to think of Chicago as a meaningful test case in this Biden goal of reopening schools by the 100-day mark of his administration?

dana goldstein

Yeah, I think it is. I mean, Chicago has a very feisty union that’s always up for a fight, and if they can get to reopening in the next few weeks there, I think it will offer a path forward for those other places that remain closed. But remember, this whole Biden push is only for K-8.

michael barbaro

Right.

dana goldstein

And the parents of high school kids are saying, what about us? When are our kids going to be part of this conversation? For those schools and cities, maybe, that don’t manage to negotiate the reopenings this spring, we’re then pushing to fall.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

dana goldstein

And for parents and students that left school in 2020, now we’re talking about a third, potentially, disrupted school year.

michael barbaro

Right.

dana goldstein

This is going to be devastating for a lot of families.

michael barbaro

Right. There’s a lot riding on getting kids back into classrooms.

dana goldstein

Yeah, and it’s interesting, because I just came back from parental leave with a new baby, and I had thought, when I stepped out to have my baby in August, that I might be returning to the story of recovery — educational, social and mental health recovery for the nation’s students — as kids were basically all back in school at some point this semester. I now think I’m going to be covering a very different story over the next six months — that the fight and debate over whether schools can be reopened and how they should be reopened, in many parts of the country, continues, and it is not over at all.

[music]
michael barbaro

Thank you, Dana. We appreciate it.

dana goldstein

Thanks, Michael.

michael barbaro

On Tuesday afternoon, after we spoke with Dana, White House press secretary Jen Psaki seemed to lower expectations for President Biden’s 100-day school reopening plan. His plan, she said, was to have a majority of K-8 schools holding in-person classes for as little as one day a week. Hours later, in Chicago, the Teachers Union announced that its members had ratified the agreement with the city, paving the way for students to begin returning to classrooms there starting this week.

We’ll be right back.

[music]

Here’s what else you need to know today.

archived recording

Esteemed members of the Senate, going forward with this impeachment trial of a former president of the United States is unconstitutional, and as a matter of policy, it is wrong as wrong can be for all of us as a nation.

michael barbaro

During the opening day of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, the Senate rejected the claim from his defense team that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute a former president. The vote was 56 to 44, with 6 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats. However, the vote revealed just how little Republican support exists to convict Trump — something that would require 17 Republicans. After the vote, Democratic House impeachment managers began presenting their case that Trump incited an insurrection at the Capitol —

archived recording (donald trump)

We’re going to walk down to the Capitol.

archived recording

Yeah! Take the capitol! Take the capitol! Take the capitol!

michael barbaro

— beginning with a 13-minute video that juxtaposed Trump’s words on January 6 with the riot that followed.

archived recording (jamie raskin)

Senators, the president was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on January 13 for doing that.

michael barbaro

After the video had concluded, the lead House manager, Democratic representative Jamie Raskin, addressed the senators in the room directly.

archived recording (jamie raskin)

You ask what a high crime and misdemeanor is under our Constitution? That’s a high crime and misdemeanor. If that’s not an impeachable offense, then there is no such thing.

michael barbaro

The next phase of the trial will begin today, when impeachment managers deliver their oral arguments to senators. Today’s episode was produced by Sydney Harper, Michael Simon Johnson and Neena Pathak. It was edited by Dave Shaw and engineered by Chris Wood.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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