In his address to Congress last night, President Joe Biden congratulated himself and his administration for lots of things, including bringing teachers back into classrooms.
He described “an educator in Florida, who has a child suffering from an autoimmune disease,” who told the president “that she was worried about bringing the virus home. She said she then got vaccinated at a large site in her car. She said she sat in her car when she got vaccinated and just cried, cried out of joy, and cried out of relief.” He cited “parents seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces, for those who are able to go back to school because the teachers and the school bus drivers and the cafeteria workers have been vaccinated.”
For those of us whose kids are in public schools in many of the nation’s cities (including here in Washington, D.C.), such stories belong in the realm of fiction. Our schools remain closed, in many cases, despite teachers having been vaccinated and despite parents who are eager for their kids to be able to return to in-person learning.
Since the mainstream media has declared that it is no longer in the business of fact-checking the president, here is a data point that undermines the self-congratulatory tone of Biden’s speech: More than one-third of American schoolchildren are still not back in school five full days a week. Biden’s claim that schools are open is true only if you completely ignore what reasonable people mean by school being open, which means five days a week for a full school day with a teacher in every classroom; not virtual, not hybrid, not two hours a week or every other Wednesday. These continued closures have most acutely impacted black, Latino, and Asian students.
So why aren’t this country’s kids all back in school? Because powerful teachers’ unions and incompetent local officials and school bureaucrats have made it so.
As a recent research paper showed, schools that have remained either fully closed or only hybrid for more than a year are in union-dominated locations. Teachers’ unions lined the pockets of Democratic officials just as they were deciding if it was safe to reopen schools. As Roll Call reported on Wednesday, “As debates raged earlier this year over reopening schools and including money for education in a massive coronavirus relief package, the nation’s largest teachers’ unions sharply increased their spending on political contributions, a comparison to the same period in 2019 shows. The money overwhelmingly went to Democrats.”
In addition, “The unions, for example, lobbied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year to keep in place guidance that schools maintain six feet of distance between students.” They also put pressure on Democrats to reject any and all efforts by Republicans to ensure that schools receiving federal funding committed to a return to in-person learning.
The nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are among the Democratic Party’s top donors and most powerful voting blocs. For anyone who believed that teachers put the needs of students before their own pursuit of power, this past year should finally disabuse them of this notion.
And yet, the Biden Administration is happy to promote the fiction that the Democratic Party is all about the kids while touting its “success” in reopening schools.
Tomorrow, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will visit a school in D.C. “to conclude ‘Help is Here’ School Reopening Tour and deliver remarks on school reopening.” Instead of engaging in such useless photo ops, perhaps Cardona should stop by either of my kids’ D.C. high schools. One of those schools has offered no in-person learning for more than a year. The other generously allowed students to begin attending one class per week in February. This isn’t “open schools,” and both the Biden Administration and local officials are insulting parents and students by claiming that it is.
As Joseph Allen of the Harvard School of Public Health noted in a succinct tweet, “There are no excuses if your school did not open this year. Guidance on how to protect kids+adults was there since early summer, stimulus money was there (2x), study after study confirmed it could be done. Epic failure with consequences that will play out for years.”
He’s right. Corrupt teachers’ unions and incompetent school administrators can no longer use a lack of access to vaccines as an excuse not to return to their jobs. Nor can they cite the “fears” of parents about COVID spread, since studies now show that such fear drops dramatically once schools reopen (and overwhelming evidence shows that rates of COVID spread in schools are low). Schools should no longer cater to “back to school” hesitancy or irrational fear; it’s as damaging to children’s education as vaccine hesitancy is to public health.
There was one elected official last night who sent the right message about schools: Senator Tim Scott, who, in his response to Biden’s remarks, said, “I am saddened that millions of kids have lost a year of learning when they could not afford to lose a day. Locking vulnerable kids out of the classroom is locking adults out of their future. Our public schools should have reopened months ago. Other countries did. Private and religious schools did. Science has shown for months that schools are safe. But too often, powerful grown-ups set science aside. And kids like me were left behind. The clearest case for school choice in our lifetimes.”
Sen. Scott is right. By giving a shoutout to teachers (and a wink and a nod to the recalcitrant unions that elected him) but not to the students and parents who have sacrificed and suffered during the past year, Biden revealed his priorities.
Biden could have used this moment to urge reluctant unions to get on board and incompetent school administrators to figure out plans for a full return to the classroom. He could have congratulated the many parents and kids who have shown extraordinary resilience and creativity in juggling work and education at home. Instead, he praised the very people and special interests who have been actively harming our nation’s kids by preventing a return to in-person education.
Despite all the high-flown rhetoric and expressions of concern for American families, that tells you everything you need to know about this administration’s priorities.