White House Chief of Staff Defends Teachers Unions Refusing to Return to School

Ron Klain arrives in the White House East Room in Washington, D.C., October 29, 2014. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain on Tuesday defended teachers unions’ refusals to return to in-person learning despite scientific evidence suggesting that little transmission takes place in classrooms.

In an appearance on CNN, Klain advocated for President Biden’s plan for reopening schools in 100 days and backed teachers’ objections to teaching in-person, saying schools “haven’t made the investments to keep the students safe.”

“President Biden has sent a plan to Congress that will make sure that a majority of our schools can be open within 100 days,” Klain said. “We need congress to pass that plan so we can do the kinds of things you need to do so that the schools can be safe, so the teachers can be safe, so the students can be safe. Sadly, it costs money.”

Host Erin Burnett pushed back saying, “I mean that’s definitely true but we’ve all seen of course the transmission, it’s just not happening.”

In an article published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, three doctors affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged schools nationwide to re-open, noting that “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

A study published on Tuesday, which is cited in the article, found that in “schools in rural Wisconsin with high mask adherence (4876 students and 654 staff), COVID-19 incidence was lower in schools than in the community.”

Meanwhile, Burnett pointed to situations in Chicago, Ill. and Montclair, N.J. where teachers were set to return to classrooms for the first time since March 2020 “but they scrapped the plans at the last minute after the local teachers union refused to return to classrooms.”

“Why do you think that the unions in many cases are overruling what the studies show?” Burnett asked.

“I don’t think unions are overruling studies, I think what you’re seeing is schools that haven’t made the investments to keep the students safe,” he said. 

He noted that the Wisconsin study observed classrooms of 12 on average, “so, that required a lot more classrooms, a lot more teachers” or other kinds of arrangements.

“We need to do the things to open safely. Most of the teachers I talk to, they want to be back in the classroom. They just want to know that it’s safe and we as a country should make the investments to make it safe,” he said.

Klain’s comments echo remarks by Biden on Monday, when the president expressed support for the Chicago Teachers Union in its fight against reopening schools for in-person learning, saying, “I know they want to work.”

“They just want to work in a safe environment, and as safe as we can rationally make it, and we can do that,” Biden said.

Biden said widespread testing and functioning ventilation systems are key to reopening schools.

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