The coronavirus pandemic changed education in the United States forever. It cast a critical light on school financing, the ability of students, teachers, and parents to adapt to a new scholastic landscape, and gave teachers unions more power than they’ve had in a generation. In this series, Students Left Behind, the Washington Examiner takes a closer look at the toll the pandemic had on our nation’s public school system and the lessons learned along the way.
President Joe Biden wants schools to reopen. So do parents, students, and thousands of teachers. So, what’s the holdup? Powerful teachers unions, critics claim.
With COVID-19 vaccines increasingly available and scant evidence asymptomatic children pose a transmission risk, more and more people are growing frustrated with the pace of school reopenings in the United States. Critics, including parents, have accused the unions of using the pandemic as leverage. They’ve blamed unions for putting the desires of teachers over the needs of students and have accused them of holding the public school system hostage in a cynical power grab.
Tactics on repeat and endorsed by national union leaders include the “general gaslighting of parents and students,” agreeing to reopen schools before backing out, and threatening to strike if districts play hardball, Diana Rickert, vice president of the Illinois-based Liberty Justice Center, told the Washington Examiner.
“It’s been a huge wake-up call for parents because they realize that the most powerful voice in their child’s education is not them, and it’s not even the school leadership, probably not even the school board they elect,” she said. “It’s actually the teachers unions.”
“When you became a parent, you never agreed to turn over control of your children to the teachers union,” Rickert added. “You thought you were making a choice about how to best educate your children.”
As COVID-19 tore its way through the U.S. in early 2020, public schools were ordered by state and local officials to shut down temporarily and shift to remote teaching. Students from kindergarten up participated in class online, always with the promise that things would return to normal as soon as it was safe. Over the last 12 months, the country’s 13,506 school districts have taken very different paths back to the classroom, with thousands still not ready for a full return.
Rickert believes unions are purposely slowing down the process to gain bargaining leverage for terms and conditions that, in some cases, have no clear connection to the COVID-19 risk. With districts at a disadvantage, parents eager to have their children back at school, and students suffering, the situation has created a “gross imbalance of power,” Rickert said.
“The teachers unions, like most government unions, have been able to collude with politicians to pass laws in states that are favorable to them and give them a tremendous amount of political power,” she said.
There is little basis for claims that in-person class instruction, with proper precautions, poses an elevated risk to teachers.
“Based on the data available, in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in a recent advisory.
Still, teachers unions insist their ranks are risking their lives by returning to the classroom.
Toward the end of the 2020 school year, when some Iowa districts floated a return to the classroom, several teachers wrote their own “obituaries” to dramatize the risk they believed the move would bring. In December, The Chicago Teachers Union faced backlash on Twitter for a now-deleted tweet claiming that “the push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.” And earlier this month, powerful Los Angeles teachers union President Cecily Myart-Cruz invoked class warfare in opposition to a return to the classroom.
“If this was a rich person’s disease, we would’ve seen a very different response. We would not have the high rates of infections and deaths,” she said. “Now, educators are asked instead to sacrifice ourselves, the safety of our students and the safety of our schools.”
Democratic leaders, long the allies of public sector unions, have not been spared the frustration. Earlier this year, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the city’s teachers union were locked in a bitter battle over reopening public schools. A deal was finally reached, and students who had been learning remotely for 10 months were allowed to return to school in March.
In an interview with the New York Times, Lightfoot spoke out about her “acrimonious relationship” with the CTU and said the school reopenings would not have been possible without mayoral control of schools — something that big cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco lack.
“Look, what’s easy, the path of least resistance, the political expediency, would have been to do nothing and just let the unions dictate what the state of play was going to be in education,” she said. “That’s never, ever going to be the path that I take.”
In California, Myart-Cruz’s United Teachers Los Angeles, one of the largest public employee unions in the country, finally agreed to a return to class, but with a raft of demands.
Its demands included vaccinations for all teachers and staff working with children in the sixth grade and below. The union wanted Los Angeles County to reach a lower rate of coronavirus spread and for schools to institute safety protocols, including social distancing. It also wanted personal protective equipment for teachers and staff, as well as better ventilation in buildings.
The demands busted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $6.6 billion aid budget, and the showdown became a test of how much influence a strong union could have on education policy. In New York, mayoral candidate Andrew Yang became public enemy No. 1 when he called out the teachers union for holding up school reopenings.
“I will confess to being a parent that has been frustrated by how slow our schools have been to open, and I do believe that the UFT has been a significant reason why our schools have been slow to open,” Yang told Politico, referring to New York City’s powerful United Federation of Teachers.
In a 2019 interview conducted well before the COVID-19 scourge or his own mayoral aspirations emerged, Yang called the teachers unions “a very, very powerful constituency” that some politicians bend to and believe they are “better served by getting behind.”
Biden, long a staunch union supporter, is pressing local authorities to reopen schools as part of a pledge he made for his first 100 days in office. The unions’ pressure may be yielding results from the White House: On Wednesday, Biden announced the release of $81 billion in education assistance to help schools across the country reopen.
“Help is here for schools to purchase PPE, hire additional personnel like nurses, counselors, custodial staff, improve ventilation and sanitation, avoid devastating layoffs, and give students extra support,” he said at the National Safe School Reopening Summit. “Help is here to help students make up for lost time and lost learning. Unless we act quickly, this pandemic could have a devastating long-term impact on our kids who have gone through this, including on their mental health.”
Biden also urged states to be more proactive.
“I need states to move quickly to get these resources down to the school districts and put them to work,” he said.
But not everyone is holding out hope that Biden has much pull with the unions anymore.
“Mr. Biden figured that his support for the teachers union agenda, along with more money, would get the unions to reopen the schools,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote in February. “Instead he’s discovering what America’s parents have learned in the last year: Unions run the schools, and no one—not parents, not school districts, not mayors, and not even a new Democratic President—will tell them what to do.”
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