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Psaki: Schools can open safely ‘including in Chicago’

The escalating teachers union dispute in the nation’s third-largest school district has put the Biden administration at odds with a key labor constituency over the safety of in-person learning amid a holiday-inflected Covid spike.

“Long story short we want schools to be open, the president wants them to be open and we’re going to continue to use every resource and work to ensure that’s the case,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday.

The Chicago Teachers Union on Wednesday voted to not report to schools — a move that prompted the city’s school officials to cancel both in-person and remote instruction. The union said that the city’s leaders “have yet to provide safety for the overwhelming majority of schools” and that its members intend to work remotely until they are satisfied their concerns are sufficiently addressed.

The White House said that all school districts can and should have the resources necessary to safely continuing operating for face-to-face instruction, pointing to the large pot of money allocated to schools as part of the American Rescue Plan passed early last year.

“We know they can be open safely, and we’re here to make that happen,” Psaki said.

The Biden administration has been steadfast in its belief that schools should stay open despite the mounting pressure from teachers unions and others. Psaki said Wednesday that teachers “selflessly serve their communities” but that the nation is “more than equipped to ensure schools are open” and to “ensure that children are not enduring the mental health impact of not being in school, that there are not gaps in learning. This includes schools everywhere, including in Chicago.”

A spokesperson for the Chicago Teachers Union did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Psaki’s remarks.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, said Tuesday night that the city is continuing to work to resolve the dispute with the teachers union, while also pleading with teachers to return to their classrooms. Her office did not immediately return an email seeking comment on Psaki’s Wednesday comments.

“We are committed to remaining at the table with CTU leadership and negotiating a fair agreement,” Lightfoot wrote on Twitter. “But what we cannot accept is unilateral action to shut down the entire district, depriving hundreds of thousands of students of the safe, in-person schooling environment they need.”

She said that the administration is working with state and local officials to ensure that funding is being sent out to, and utilized by, school districts in order to meet their respective needs.

The press secretary added that unnecessary disruptions pose further risks to children’s mental health and learning — both of which have suffered during the pandemic that has entered its third calendar year.

While Chicago is on the forefront of the tension over keeping classrooms open, given the spread of the virus and its Omicron variant in the U.S., but similar tensions are percolating throughout the country. Many school districts face staffing shortages and issues such as testing availability that have exasperated parents and educators in recent weeks.

The standoff also poses political complications for the White House ahead of a challenging midterm election for Democrats and risks irking teachers unions, a long-standing ally. Biden in particular has made a point to regularly tout his pro-labor credentials, including his marriage to Jill Biden, a long-time community college professor and National Education Association member.

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