CHICAGO — As a potential teachers strike looms in Chicago, President Joe Biden was asked Monday about school reopenings — and both the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools are interpreting his comments as a sign of support.
On Monday afternoon, Biden was asked if teachers, like the Chicago Teachers Union members who voted to defy CPS’ order to return to the classroom, should return to school.
“Do you believe teachers should return to school now?” a reporter asked Biden.
Biden did not directly weigh in on the impasse between the teachers union and CPS, but said schools should be safe before teachers return.
“The teachers I know, they want to work, they just want to work in a safe environment, and as safe as you can rationally make it, and we can do that,” Biden said. “And we should be able to open every school, kindergarten through eighth grade, if in fact, we administer these tests.”
In addition to robust testing, Biden also said schools need new ventilation systems and proper sanitation.
When schools reopen, it will help parents return to work after staying home to care for their children, he said.
After Biden’s comments, CPS touted the $100 million it’s invested to reopen schools, saying “we couldn’t agree more” with Biden’s comments.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union thanked Biden for his comments on Twitter.
“Exactly what educators have been saying, and responses from parents have shown since last March,” the tweet read.
On Monday evening, CTU leadership and teachers discussed Biden’s comments and the status of negotiations.
Dawn Kelly, a special education teacher at Bond Elementary, was among those who have been locked out of their classrooms, she said. Her request to teach remotely because of a medical condition was later accommodated by the district, she said.
Biden’s words “thrilled” her because it will help the union move towards a “safe reopening,” she said.
“So many of our colleagues are still locked out and they need those accommodations, as well. Not only for them, but for spouses and children, parents they may be caring for,” Kelly said. “This is very real in our community, and we need to address it.”
The union has vigorously fought CPS’ reopening plan, saying it harms school staff and families in communities already ravaged by the pandemic. District leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have said the school reopening plan — which requires teachers to return but not students, who can still learn virtually — helps disadvantaged families and students who are falling behind due to remote learning.
Over the weekend, thousands of CPS teachers voted to work remotely Monday, defying the district’s orders to return to the classroom.
In response, CPS officials announced they would push back the start date for K-8 teachers from Monday to Wednesday, hoping the extra days will help the two sides reach an agreement on reopening.
But preschool and special education teachers who already returned to classrooms were expected to show up to school Monday, CPS officials said.
It was not immediately clear how many of those teachers participated in the mass action approved by the union.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the two sides were bargaining all day.
“Are we able to vaccinate staff who are coming back? Are we able to get accommodations for people who are living with a relative who has in their house, or is caring for someone, someone with a comorbidity?” he asked.
Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said a question on whether Biden had taken sides in the debate was “disgusting.” Later, she said if Mayor Lori Lightfoot “could agree with” Biden, “then we can get an agreement.”
“People have told us how they feel and [CPS leadership] has refused to listen,” she said. “The President of the United States, hundreds of local school councils, a super-majority of City Council, a super majority of parents — Black and Brown parents — have said delay reopening until it’s safe.”
At an unrelated press conference, Lightfoot was asked about the status of negotiations with the union.
“I’m confident we’ll get something done at the bargaining table,” she said. “In partnership with the CTU, if we come together in good faith, I have every confidence we’ll 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.”
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