President Joe Biden said Tuesday that schools should remain open despite the ongoing nationwide surge of COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant.
He noted that his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan included billions of dollars to support schools during the pandemic.
“We have no reason to think at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants,” Biden said before a briefing with the White House COVID-19 Response Team.
“We know that our kids can be safe when in school, by the way,” he continued. “That’s why I believe schools should remain open. They have what they need.”
Biden said $130 billion of the coronavirus relief funds went toward ventilation in schools and social distancing in classrooms, and an additional $10 billion was set aside for COVID-19 testing in schools.
“That money went out to the states, and the states and the school districts have spent this money well — many of them. But unfortunately, some of them haven’t,” he said. “So I encourage the states and school districts to use the funding that you still have to protect your children and keep the schools open.”
While the White House has continued to call for schools to remain open during the pandemic, some schools have decided to switch to remote learning this week as COVID-19 cases surge across the country, including districts in Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, according to The Hill.
Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for Wednesday after the teachers union criticized the district’s response to the Omicron variant and said that classroom conditions were unsafe, according to The New York Times. Union members threatened to stay home to force instruction to move online during the surge in cases.
But Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said remote learning was unacceptable and unnecessary and decided to call off classes altogether rather than return to virtual instruction. She urged teachers to report to schools and suggested that city officials were considering an illegal work stoppage.
“Nobody signs up for being a home-schooler at the last minute,” she said on Tuesday night. “We can’t forget about how disruptive that remote process is to individual parents who have to work, who can’t afford the luxury of staying home.”
Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Eric Adams also rejected bids this week from the city’s largest teachers union to temporarily move to virtual learning, the newspaper reported.
The governors of Florida, Massachusetts, and New Jersey have called for schools to remain open despite staffing challenges, according to Politico. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law during the summer that requires distance learning to come through independent study, which most classrooms can’t provide.
The Simi Valley Unified School District, which is just north of Los Angeles, said ahead of Wednesday’s return to school that more than 50 staff members were out with COVID-19 or positive tests. A neighboring district had 75 people out. The adjacent districts share a pool of substitute teachers and expressed concerns about finding enough temporary teachers to cover classrooms, Politico reported.
“I was actually talking with some colleagues this morning, and we’re all facing the same concerns — anywhere from 10 to 15 to 30% of our staff being out right now with COVID, self-identified or tested,” Jason Peplinski, superintendent of Simi Valley Unified, told the news outlet.
For now, the district plans to merge classes in larger spaces, such as school libraries or gyms.
“It’s going to be a real challenging time, to be sure,” Peplinski said.
White House: “Briefing Room: Remarks by President Biden Before Meeting on COVID-19,” Jan. 4, 2021.
The Hill: “Biden: Schools should stay open despite omicron wave.”
The New York Times: “Public schools in Chicago close as teachers’ union says classroom conditions are unsafe.”
Politico: “Governors demand schools stay open but districts may lack enough teachers.”
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