From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is it daily. 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 10th. Dana, welcome back to the show. Thanks for having me. I think it's been maybe like six months.
Yes, I can tell you to the day, because it was the last thing I did before I gave birth to my second baby in August was do a daily episode. Oh, my God. That's right.
It was like literally on the eve of your child's birth.
I'm pretty sure I went into labor the next day, but the episode came out after I had the baby.
So people were like, wow, did you record that in the hospital room?
No, the answer is not that much. We're not that kind of an operation.
So I want to start by asking you what the Biden administration's plan is for reopening schools. Well, President Biden has been quite clear.
It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school.
He expects K through eight schools. He has said to reopen within one hundred days of his inauguration. Aggressive.
Then my team will work to see that a majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.
That would put us in about mid-April.
Mass vaccinations, opening schools. These are the three key goals from our first 100 days.
And the reason it is so aggressive is that about a third of the nation's schools are still totally remote and another third are in some sort of hybrid scenario. 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.
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 where 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?
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. 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.
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 sort 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 that 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, you know, shutting down dining, shutting down movie theaters, basically curtailing other types of activity that spread the virus.
Am I right in thinking that teachers and their unions in this moment are exerting 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 kind of almost exercising a kind of veto.
There are very, very powerful forces, perhaps the most powerful force and 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. 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? 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 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 eight 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 kind of 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.
Right. Which I think brings us to the question of the risks involved in being in the 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. 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 math, social distancing handwashing are observed. And there's a lot of data now internationally to back that up. There are new studies from the EU, from the CDC 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.
So how do teachers and teachers unions answer the kind of consensus that especially in a pre corona virus 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?
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 Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, are coming out to embrace this scientific consensus that schools can be safe under certain circumstances, sort of 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 sort of flatly rejecting of that and really were angry that he and the Republicans in Congress were not giving the money to schools that schools that 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 are required to go back into the classroom in many parts of the country.
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.
Right. And some are actually even pushing it a little bit beyond that. You know, 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. 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 is vaccinated, I think he still has, you know, 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 sort of might outweigh these sort of aggregate risk. But for any individual in a really, really difficult scenario like that teacher, it's going to be a very big ask.
But if vaccines and vaccinations are a 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?
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, you know, getting the vaccine or states making teachers a priority.
About half the states have prioritized the teachers for vaccines currently. OK, so that's vaccines. What else is the Biden administration pushing on right now? What else are they doing?
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 one hundred and thirty billion dollar 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.
But it goes beyond that. You know, 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 road map for us that we can follow.
But, you know, 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 sort of sensitive to their anxieties. 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.
Yeah, it's a very careful needle that President Biden is trying to thread here. He wants to sort of bring the teachers and the unions, along with the school, to reopen trade schools without making them feel disrespected, are not listened to, which is really how they felt under the previous administration of President Trump.
And the politics on the ground are so tough. I mean, and many of these places, like Chicago, for example, or Philadelphia, its teachers unions versus Democratic mayors, you know, 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.
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I'm Bianca Gaber.
I'm an audio producer at the New York Times. So shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began, we talked to a 12 year old named Tili, whose grandfather had just died of coronavirus. She was so open and emotional about her grandfather, she wanted to remember him and tell the story of his life. The fact that it's part of my job to call children, to hear what they think about the news, to hear about how the news is affecting them is incredibly special.
And that episode is for anyone who's grieving or who's lost someone in this pandemic. We're able to make episodes like that one because of subscribers to The New York Times. So if you can please subscribe to The New York Times. The Daily is The New York Times. Thank you.
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. Right.
So Chicago is the third largest school district and the country has over three hundred thousand students. And the vast, vast majority have been out of school since the beginning of the pandemic. The fact of the matter is that it is not sustainable and Mayor Lawrence-Lightfoot really was clear, you know, she wanted to get back to school in January thanks to an eight point five dollars million investment.
Every classroom and front office that will be used during this time will be equipped with its own HEPA purifier this year.
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 there, you know, K through eight kids back in school.
It's thanks to measures like these that we are confident in our ability to support our students Monday and every day moving forward.
And the unions, we're still asking for more. The union fired back this afternoon saying what they've been saying for weeks. They don't buy it.
School is a place where we come together as a community until it's safe to do so. I refuse to go back into the buildings. I am making this decision not only for myself, but for the safety of my students and their families.
CPS and you 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.
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. You know, they were asking for even more stringent building safety measures. And this really dug in over the past week.
We begin this hour, 18, with that breaking news on the Chicago Public School.
Yeah, we just bringing the city to the point of a potential strike.
CPS 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 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.
And that is important because the union has said, you lock one of us out, you lock all of us out, and that lock out could trigger a strike. 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.
They did not end up following through on that, but it was explicitly threatened multiple times. That's a heck of a threat. Yeah. Some principals may have actually gone forward and done that to a couple of teachers. 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.
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.
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?
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. You know, Mayor Lightford and school superintendent have said that every parent does deserve that option. And Mayor Langford 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 CEO 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. They are the ones who have sort of 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 the number of traumas that we know that the pandemic is causing. And so what Mayor Litefoot and the school CEO said was these kids might come back if we reopen schools and, you know, we can't really get them back maybe until we do that.
So both sides, both Mayor Litefoot 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. Mm hmm.
So what ends up happening in this pretty high stakes standoff in Chicago?
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 CEO, and it all culminated after a weekend of all nighters on Sunday.
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 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.
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.
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 teacher's job during this time.
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, 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.
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.
So if the teachers do decide to endorse this deal, when would they be back in the classroom?
So preschool and high needs kids, potentially those with disabilities that require special services will be back on Thursday, elementary school students on March 1st and middle school students on March 8th.
So pretty fast. Yes, although Mayor Litefoot did want the students back in January. So it is, you know, a pretty big shift in terms of the number of weeks of learning here.
And this does seem to fall within the Biden administration's desired timeline. It does. And you know, what we heard on background is that a lot of calls were going back and forth between the mayor's office, the school superintendent, the teachers unions and Washington, you know, potentially speaking to folks in the Biden administration and also to New York, where Randi 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.
Right. So are we right to think of Chicago as a meaningful test case in this and goal of reopening schools by the 100 day mark of his administration?
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 through eight schools. Right. 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 reopening this spring were then pushing to fall. Mm hmm. And for parents and students that left school in twenty twenty, now we're talking about a third potentially disrupted school year. Right. This is going to be devastating for a lot of families.
Right. There's a lot riding on getting kids back into classrooms. Yeah.
And, you know, 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. 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 and in many parts of the country continues and it is not over at all.
Thank you, Dana. We appreciate it. Thanks, Michael. 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 Catholic 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. They're starting this week. We'll be right back. The daily showcases the New York Times best journalism, if you're running your own business or championing a social cause, you need an easy and effective way to show your best work to get the message out with Squarespace. Squarespace is an all in one platform that helps you bring your ideas to life and to the world.
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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 six 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.
We're going to walk down to the Capitol. Beginning with a 13 minute video that juxtaposed Trump's words on January six with the riot that followed senators, the president was impeached by the US House of Representatives on January 13th for doing that.
After the video had concluded, the lead house manager, Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin, addressed the senators in the room directly. You ask, would 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.
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 Harbour Michael Simon Johnson and Nina Puttock, it was edited by Dave Shaw and engineer by Chris.
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