Blaming Teachers Unions for Problems Reopening Schools Is Wrong: Reopening Must Be Done Safely

Right now, after nearly a year since life shut down for COVID-19, things feel like a chaotic mess. Children in lots of places are not in school but are instead learning remotely at home.  Unemployment is endemic. Families face unimaginable financial pressures, and if parents are working, the pressures of managing children out of school have been overwhelming. Some parents have felt obligated to quit work to supervise children learning at home, or if parents themselves are working from home, they may be struggling to manage kids learning remotely while the parents try to do their jobs.

As far as reopening schools full-time, the new Biden administration seems confused. The Washington Post‘s Cleve Wootson and Laura Meckler report: “As the country approaches the one-year mark of the pandemic’s isolation and restrictions, the Biden administration is struggling to give precise, consistent answers to two key questions: when will the pandemic truly be behind us? And short of that, when can children safely return to school? Biden himself has blamed miscommunications for some of the inconsistency, but his administration… is also grappling with the fact that science and data don’t produce answers as tidy or linear as campaign promises… For months, Biden has raised expectations that children would soon return to school… and his press secretary, Jen Psaki, recently suggested that the White House considers schools to be open if students are in school at least one day a week. But at a CNN town hall meeting Tuesday evening in Milwaukee, he clarified that he wants students back in school five days a week—while also specifying that his priority is students in grades K-8… It was an attempt to add clarity to an increasingly murky issue at the intersection of safety, education and politics.”

Education policy and politics over the past two decades have outrageously but consistently blamed educators themselves for the so-called “failure” of American public education. No Child Left Behind was designed, its sponsors said, to confront “the soft bigotry of low expectations”—the idea that teachers are not expecting enough from children whose standardized test scores are low.  Congress premised the law on punishments for the educators and the schools with the lowest overall test scores: fire the principal and half the staff, turn the school over to a charter management organization where a private entrepreneur could fire teachers who weren’t working hard enough. Race to the Top went farther by trying to evaluate teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. None of this policy recognized decades of data which has repeatedly correlated concentrated student poverty with low aggregate standardized test scores. Decades of public policy set out to blame and punish the schools and educators serving our society’s poorest children instead of investing in ameliorating poverty and helping the schools serving poor children.

The idea was that incentives and sanctions would make school teachers and principals work harder and smarter. And embedded in it all was our universal assumption that if we blamed teachers and tried to motivate them with incentives (carrots) and sanctions (sticks), they would solve the problem and let society itself escape the public responsibility for investing in the future of children living in poverty. As usual, we expected schoolteachers to be good sports, and we resented it if they pushed back.

COVID-19 is setting up the same scenario. The pandemic has especially devastated the school districts lacking adequate resources. As Joe Biden, the candidate pointed out in his Education Plan, our society needs to, “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”  In a new report, The Education Law Center adds that state governments collectively cut their funding for local school districts by $600 billion in the decade following the 2008 Great Recession.

It is, of course, the inadequately funded school districts which have struggled hardest to reopen in person during COVID-19. But when the teachers unions in these school districts question whether their large classes crowded into too small classrooms would permit social distancing or whether the school buildings are adequately ventilated, politicians and the general public easily slip into the old pattern of blaming the teachers and their unions.  In an interview last week with the NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein, Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot clearly continued to blame the Chicago Teachers Union for blocking the reopening of schools even after the school district and the union had settled and agreed to reopen.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss tried to sort out the controversy and clarify that while some teachers unions may have been demanding, feisty teachers unions are not the central problem: “Actually, there is a continued lack of governmental clarity over exactly what proper safety measures are necessary—and plenty of evidence that many school districts already open are not coming close to implementing some of the key measures. Researchers reporting on transmission in schools qualify their results by saying safety measures matter, a point that sometimes gets left out of the reopening debate.” Strauss continues: “In fact, the ‘science’ of reopening schools is evolving—even as more dangerous variants of the coronavirus are starting to spread and presenting new challenges to a country that has done one of the worst-recorded jobs in the world at containing the pandemic. And if a school district is trying to figure out exactly what protocols must be taken, the available guidance is still not crystal clear. ”

Strauss reviews new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control: “On Friday, the CDC released reopening guidance for school districts that rested on five key pillars: masking, social distancing, hand washing, cleaning, and contact-tracing when exposures occur, combined with quarantining those exposed. However, those pillars do not include what leading scientists say are other vital measures: well-functioning air ventilation systems and robust testing and screening programs at every school to find people who have the coronavirus but show no symptoms.”

There is some agreement that social distancing means leaving six feet between students’ desks.  However, at current funding levels, classes are usually pretty crowded. Almost no school district has enough teachers and enough empty classrooms to make overall class size smaller by putting smaller groups of children in separate classrooms with additional teachers. That is why many school districts which have brought students back to classrooms are doing so with complicated hybrid systems in which classes are split into remote and in-person sessions as smaller groups of students in each class rotate in and out of in-class and remote learning.

Finally, Strauss points out that, “Many schools are not—repeat, not—taking the appropriate safety steps to allow safe reopenings. Some have little or no testing protocols and poor ventilation.  Teachers report having to buy their own masks—sometimes for students, too—as well as insufficient social distancing and cleaning procedures. Some classrooms have desks inches apart… Many schools were not healthy environments for human beings before the pandemic. In too many places, this is the ordinary: crumbling buildings, unhealthy air quality, bugs and rodents, mold, broken or nonexistent air conditioning and heaters, nonfunctioning toilets, etc… Yet there is no serious discussion about addressing these issues. The debate is increasingly dominated by a refrain from outraged and exasperated editorial writers and columnists and news show hosts who say we must open schools and the monolithic teachers’ unions have to stop fighting it.”

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos chose to deny the seriousness of the pandemic and simply demand that public schools reopen. Significant assistance for public schools was finally included in a last minute, December 202, COVID-19 relief package, but I suspect the help, which is to be distributed to public school districts through their states, has not yet made it through the pipeline. And Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains that a good part of the  funding for schools in Biden’s new relief plan now being marked up in the U.S. House of Representatives is for next year: “While Biden has tied the need for more relief funding to his goal of opening a majority of K-8 schools in his first 100 days in office, the funding estimates in the document cover the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. ‘Funds are included for next year because we know that in order to invest in safely reopening, districts need financial certainty that they will not have to lay off teachers next fall in order to implement consistent COVID-19 safety protocols.’ says the Biden estimate obtained by Education Week.  ‘They do not have that certainty right now. Further, school districts that are already open need more support to implement mitigation efforts that protect students, educators and school staff.'”

The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman urges some patience as the new Biden administration tries to move our society out of the Trump era of COVID denial: “What policymakers are trying to do here is like fighting a war—a war both against the pandemic itself and against the human fallout from the pandemic slump. And when you’re fighting a war, you don’t decide how much to spend by asking: ‘How much stimulus do we need to achieve full employment?’ You spend what you need to spend to win the war. Winning in this case, means providing the resources for a huge vaccination program and for opening schools safely, while limiting the economic misery of families whose breadwinners can’t work and avoiding gratuitous cuts in public services provided by fiscally constrained state and local governments.” Krugman is pushing Congress swiftly to pass Biden’s proposed American Rescue Plan, but Krugman knows that it will take time and patience to address the problems that built up as the Trump administration denied the severity of COVID-19 and its attendant health and economic challenges.

There is one step, however, which can be taken immediately to protect schoolteachers—whether they work with 25 or 30 children each day in an elementary school classroom or teach more than a hundred middle and high school students cycling every day through their classrooms. Teachers and other school support staff need to be moved immediately to the front of the line to qualify for the vaccine. Even if school districts are able to enforce mask wearing, social distancing, and cleaning protocols, not all of the fifty states have prioritized schoolteachers for vaccination. That is wrong and it needs to be corrected.