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The science or the unions?

By Marc A. Thiessen

We’re just a few weeks into Joe Biden’s presidency, and already the broken promises are piling up. Biden made two big pledges in his campaign. The first was that he would unite the country and bring Republicans and Democrats together on Capitol Hill. Already he has broken that promise — rejecting an offer from 10 Republican senators to work with him on a filibuster-proof bipartisan covid-19 relief package.

Biden’s second big promise was that he would “listen to scientists and heed their advice – not silence them.” But when his handpicked director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, said last week that “schools can safely reopen” and “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools,” the Biden White House slapped her down, with press secretary Jen Psaki insisting that Walensky was speaking in her “personal capacity.”

No, she wasn’t. Walensky was speaking in her capacity as a government scientist during an official briefing of the White House covid response team. And her comments came just days after a team of CDC scientists published a review in the Journal of the American Medical Association of numerous studies which show “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” Indeed, the CDC researchers pointed out one study of 17 Wisconsin schools found that after taking basic mitigation measures, “COVID-19 incidence was lower in schools than in the community.” According to data compiled by Brown University Economics professor Emily Oster, in the last two weeks of January, the covid-19 case rate among students attending in-person school was just 0.45 percent and 0.88 percent among staff, compared with a community case rate of 10.57 percent during the same period.

The fact is, there is no scientific evidence to support continued school closures. Quite the opposite, evidence is piling up that such closures are doing irreparable harm to children. A new study by professors from Yale, Northwestern, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Amsterdam finds that “one year of school closures will cost ninth graders in the poorest communities a 25 percent decrease in their post-educational earning potential.” As my American Enterprise Institute colleague John P. Bailey points out, McKinsey & Company estimates that the average student could lose between $61,000 and $82,000 in lifetime earnings solely due to learning losses.

But despite the evidence, teachers unions across the country are refusing to resume in-person learning. This weekend, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers instructed its members to defy the city and not return to school. In Chicago, the teachers union has been fighting the city over reopening for months. In Fairfax County, Va., the teachers union said its members would not return until they were vaccinated, so they were bumped up in the vaccination priority line. But then the union said it would not allow vaccinated teachers to return to class until students were vaccinated too – even though children under 14 are not approved for vaccination.

During the recent budget debate, Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., introduced an amendment to withhold aid for schools that don’t reopen after teachers have been vaccinated. Every single Democrat voted against it. Why? Because in 2020, teachers unions gave $43.7 million in political contributions, 98 percent of which went to Democrats. The No. 1 recipient of teachers union cash? Joe Biden.

Biden says he wants kids to return to school. But instead of calling out his teachers union allies, he is giving them a pretext for holding out by insisting that Congress must pass his $1.9 trillion covid relief package first in order for schools to reopen safely. This is a canard. Congress just approved $54 billion in December for K-12 schools, on top of the $13.5 billion set aside for schools in the Cares Act last spring. Moreover, most of the nation’s Catholic schools (including Biden’s alma mater, Archmere Academy in Claymont, Del.) have safely opened for in-person learning; many other private schools have opened as well. But thanks to the unions, millions of children who arguably need it most — those with the least advantages — aren’t in school.

The refusal of unions to teach is appalling. Imagine if the millions of grocery clerks who showed up for work over the past year had said they would not conduct in-person sales until they had been vaccinated? America would have starved. They came to work because their jobs were essential. But apparently teachers unions don’t believe teachers are essential. Millions of American parents say otherwise. Now Biden has to choose. The science says it is safe to reopen schools, but his union allies say no. Will he follow the science or follow the unions?

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

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