Psaki Says U.S. ‘More Than Equipped to Ensure Schools are Open’ as Chicago Teachers Strike

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., November 12, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said schools can remain open safely during the latest surge of Covid-19 cases, saying children need not endure the mental health impact of not being in school.

Psaki’s comments come as Chicago Public Schools closed on Wednesday after the Chicago Teachers’ Union voted Tuesday to strike against in-person schooling and conduct remote instruction until extra Covid-19 safety measures are in place. 

During a press briefing on Wednesday, a reporter asked Psaki if the White House, Department of Education, or Biden administration at-large is doing anything to help get teachers and students back into the classroom in Chicago.

“Across government we are in regular contact with a range of stakeholders on the issue of school reopening and closures, including superintendents, state leaders, principals, teachers, parents and other school staff and that is certainly the case now, today, this week, as the president is working — and we are all working — to keep schools open,” Psaki said.

She noted that Biden said Tuesday that he wants school to be open — a shift from earlier in the pandemic when Biden and the CDC supported lockdowns and school closures.

“We know they can be open safely and we’re here to help make that happen and he agrees with medical, scientific and education experts that because of the historic work we’ve done we are more than equipped to ensure schools are open and we’re going to keep our children and educators who selflessly serve their community safe but ensure that children are not enduring the mental health impact of not being in school.”

She added that the administration wants to ensure there are not gaps in learning in schools everywhere, including in Chicago. She added that 96 percent of schools are “doing just that.”

More than 450,000 students returned to remote learning in the first week of January after the holiday break ended, according to the New York Times. A number of districts, including in Newark, N.J., Atlanta, Ga., and Cleveland, Ohio, began online learning amid a surge in Covid cases driven by the Omicron variant. Newark schools will be closed until January 14.

Seventy-three percent of Chicago’s Teacher Union’s 22,000 members voted to take a “remote work action” beginning Wednesday. The suspension of in-person teaching could continue until January 18 or until the virus-infection rate in the district hits below the threshold set last year.

The vote came one day after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot underscored her commitment to keeping schools open for students’s sake after two years of virtual schooling have taken a toll on their learning and mental health.

“What we have learned from this pandemic is that schools are the safest place for students to be: we have spent over a $100 million to put mitigations in place, most CPS staff members are vaccinated, and we generally see little transmission in school settings,” Lightfoot said. “Keeping kids safely in school where they can learn and thrive is what we should all be focused on.”

CTU leaders claim that a spike in Covid-19 cases is putting teachers and students at risk. The union had demanded that all students and staff present negative Covid-19 test results after winter vacation to return to the classroom.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady has reassured schools that the virus poses minimal risk to children and that school closures are unreasonable, especially as the district undertakes plans to expand its testing program. Psaki noted that President Biden had fought to include $130 billion in the American Rescue Plan for funding for schools to implement mitigation strategies, including $10 million for testing which has already been distributed to states.

The Department of Education has been providing technical assistance and resources for months to help schools in implementing mitigation strategies, as well as connecting schools with testing providers, hosting vaccine clinics and addressing pandemic-related mental health issues, she said.

“Long story short, we want schools to be open,” Psaki said. “The president wants schools to be open and we’re going to continue to use every resource and work to ensure that’s the case.”

Another reporter asked Psaki if the White House sees the Chicago Teachers Union as an “obstruction” to opening schools and asked what official’s message would be to the union.

Psaki declined to offer a specific message to Chicago and instead reiterated that the president wants schools to be open and believes “we have the tools for schools to be open.”

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