In a conversation with Senator Dick Durbin last Friday morning, MSNBC’s Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough opened his interview reporting that Chicago’s parents are “up in arms” and “outraged” that schools aren’t re-opening. He followed up with the assertion that “science is fairly clear on this issue: it’s safe to send children back to school.”
Both assertions are largely false, misrepresenting what both scientific leaders and the vast majority of Chicago’s parents have, on the whole, actually indicated.
Nonetheless, major media voices, such as Scarborough, continue to peddle the specious narratives that it’s safe to re-open schools without vaccinating teachers. They are listening only very selectively to what scientific experts, such Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, actually have been saying.
This selective listening results in the ideologically-driven promulgation of erroneous tales downplaying the severity of the virus, constituting merely subtler versions of Trump’s downplaying and denials that characterized the COVID-19 virus as a hoax.
These downplaying and denials have, of course, discouraged the very policy-making and actions that would actually help the nation move through the pandemic and return to more normal conditions more swiftly.
But here we go again.
Washington Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen, for example, accuses Biden of following teachers unions and not science, as if the choice is really an either/or proposition. He selects some of her words to make his case, highlighting her phrases that “schools can safely reopen” and “vaccination of teachers is not prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”
Walensky did, undeniably, say that schools CAN reopen, but let’s also listen more fully—and not so selectively–to what Walensky actually says.
She has made clear that the data, the science, “shows not a lot of coronavirus transmission when proper mitigation measures, including masking, distancing, dedensification of the classroom, ventilation, contact tracing, hand washing” are in place and being done well. And she also stresses that teachers should be prioritized for vaccinations as essential workers.
Let’s underline the big “IF” here. There is “not a lot” of transmission IF these mitigating measures are implemented well.
Should “not a lot” make parents feel safe about sending their children back to school? Should teachers, who then have to return home to their partners, children, and perhaps extended families, feel safe about returning, when the CDC actually points out that “models of consistent implementation of mitigation measures in schools have shown success in limiting outbreaks and infections in schools.”
Let’s underline “limiting outbreaks” here.
Mayor Lightfoot has insisted teachers return to Chicago Public Schools prior to vaccination, calling for the union to reach a compromise.
Compromise with death? Is that what she means?
First, as a resident of the fair city of Chicago who has children attending Chicago Public Schools, I can tell you many of the buildings are ancient and lack proper ventilation. And as I write the temperature is 10 degrees, so windows ain’t going to be opened.
I myself work at a small state university in Chicago, and the administration walked away from the bargaining table when it came to assuring proper ventilation and safe air quality.
So let’s really listen to what the CDC says. First, proper mitigating measures need to be in place. The media and some of our leaders seem conveniently omit this phrase when they lambaste teachers.
Second, what they are calling safe is “not a lot of transmission.”
Thiessen cites a study of Wisconsin schools that found that “COVID-19 incidence was lower in schools than in the community,” after those schools implemented basic mitigation measures.
Does a lower incidence really translate to “safe”?
The CDC actually said that schools can safely reopen “if they follow appropriate protocols and are located in communities that report fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days and have a positivity rate lower than 8%.”
Walensky herself emphasized, however, that over 90% of the nation’s K-12 schools are located in areas with high transmission rates.
At my own institution, which serves a large proportion of working-class students and students of color, the predominant expressions of fear and reluctance to return to campus come from students themselves who may take several buses to get to school and who live with extended family, including grandparents.
And while young children may be less vulnerable to COVID-19, they can certainly transmit it and do so widely.
Are we forgetting that over 450,000 Americans have died thus far, with 630,000 projected by June?
Indeed, in a recent poll, only 37% of Chicago’s parents said they would return their children to school.
This push isn’t coming from families.
And if Lightfoot and others really care about children, their families, teachers, and school staff, then just get teachers vaccinated, as many districts around and outside of Chicago are actually doing!
Biden has been clear: “I think it’s time for schools to reopen safely – safely,” he said in a recent interview on CBS. “You have to have fewer people in the classroom, you have to have ventilation systems that have been reworked.”
He is listening to science AND he is listening to teachers and the unions who represent them in their workplaces.
California teachers have pushed for vaccinations as a condition for return precisely because the buildings are far from being upgraded to meet safety guidelines. As Joey Garrison and Maureen Groppe have reported for USA Today, “if recommendations include updating ventilation systems in aging school buildings or smaller class sizes – safety measures the president has discussed – fixes might not be quick.”
Biden recognizes that listening to unions in order to value worker safety and listening to science fully are not mutually exclusive.
In listening to workers and science, Biden is providing an example of how we properly value lives and protect and practice democracy. Workplace democracy in America is far less than a reality, but Biden is attempting to model and encourage it by listening to workers’ voices as he listens to science.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.