School Climate & Safety

Teachers’ Unions Are Wary of Reopening Schools. Here’s What They’re Saying

By Madeline Will — July 10, 2020 6 min read
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The debate on whether and how to reopen school buildings has ramped up, with some politicians calling for a quick return to full in-person instruction and many teachers expressing major safety concerns.

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have urged governors to reopen school buildings, rejecting the hybrid in-person and remote approaches many districts have floated. Trump has threatened to “cut off funding” for schools that continue remote learning. Meanwhile, many teachers have pushed back against the idea of returning to school, saying the plans they’ve seen from their states and districts pose more questions than answers.

And yet the start of the school year is fast approaching. Districts are starting to release more concrete reopening plans, and in many places, teachers’ unions are urging caution. Union leaders have said they’re concerned about the healthy and safety of their members, and they don’t think many of the current plans go far enough to address their concerns.

In the nation’s five largest school districts, teachers’ unions are largely opposed to a full return to in-person instruction. Here is what they have said.

See also: Special Report: How We Go Back to School

New York City

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that students in the country’s largest school system would return to the classroom between one and three days a week this fall. Students would learn remotely the rest of the week, allowing schools to maintain social distancing with fewer children in the classrooms. The final decision on reopening, however, is up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has often disagreed with de Blasio. Cuomo plans to announce his decision during the first week of August.

In a letter to members, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the hybrid approach balances the union’s “safety concerns with the need to bring students back.” However, he said the UFT is still waiting for de Blasio to offer a concrete plan for child care for educators and other working parents on the days their children can’t be in school buildings.

The department of education needs to work out more details, he said, adding that a final decision on reopening shouldn’t be made until late August. The school year in New York City typically starts the first week of September.

“Reopening our schools will be a complex and difficult process, but we are not going to be careless with our students, their families, and our educators,” Mugrew said in a statement. The UFT represents nearly 200,000 educators.

Meanwhile, a caucus of members has released a list of safety precautions they want to see in school buildings. Those include temperature checks and mandatory COVID-19 testing for educators before they return to work.

Los Angeles

The teachers’ union for the nation’s second largest school district is recommending that school buildings remain closed when the new school year begins on Aug. 18. The district is still working on a plan.

“It is time to take a stand against Trump’s dangerous, anti-science agenda that puts the lives of our members, our students, and our families at risk,” said United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz in a statement. “We all want to physically open schools and be back with our students, but lives hang in the balance. Safety has to be the priority. We need to get this right for our communities.”

The union is polling its members today to get their opinion on returning to the classroom. The results will be released at the end of the day. The UTLA represents 33,000 educators.


Teachers in the third-largest school district say they do not want to go back to work in the fall unless extensive safety precautions are taken, according to survey results from the Chicago Teachers Union.

Nearly 5,000 educators responded to the survey, which was issued in mid-June. More than 85 percent said they felt like they “should not” or “might not” go back to the classroom without a detailed safety plan in place. More than two-thirds said they needed masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment from the district to feel comfortable going back to work, and that those should be required for everyone who enters a school building.

Most respondents also said they wanted daily COVID-19 testing and temperature screening for everyone entering the building, a full-time nurse or other health professional in each school building, remote learning options for vulnerable teachers and students, daily sanitation, and plans to ensure distancing in the classrooms and on school buses.

“Our members have made it very clear that they are not willing to put the health—and the lives, quite frankly—of their students, or their students’ families, or their own in jeopardy under any circumstances, and especially now if the Trump administration is talking about using them as guinea pigs to help jumpstart the economy,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement.

The CTU, which represents more than 25,000 educators, is currently in negotiations with Chicago Public Schools on what precautions will be taken in the fall.


Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the fourth-largest school district will not open its doors until the county is in the second phase of the state’s reopening plan. Currently, the county is still in phase one. When schools do reopen, parents can choose to keep their children at home full-time. The district will either have full-time in-person instruction or adapt a hybrid approach, depending on how many students opt to return to school.

The United Teachers of Dade, which represents about 29,000 educators, has applauded the wait-and-see approach.

"[Carvalho is] taking a stand despite the political pressures and the political agendas that exist,” UTD President Hernandez-Mats told local news station CBS-4. “We know that at the end of the day we have to do what is right for the health and well-being of our students and of course those taking care of children. We know there will be regression but I would much rather take educational regression that losing the life of my child or losing the life of a loved one in my family.”

Clark County, Nevada

Both teachers’ unions that represent the nation’s fifth-largest school district have come out against Clark County’s plan for reopening. The school system, which encompasses Las Vegas, has proposed a plan that has most students attending in-person classes twice a week and spending the three remaining days at home, engaging in distance learning. Another cohort of students would be learning remotely full-time.

But the two unions, Clark County Education Association and the National Education Association of Southern Nevada, have said the plan does not go far enough to address educators’ safety concerns. The NEA-SV, which represents fewer than 1,000 educators as of last year, said more teachers should have been consulted for what it will take to reopen.

“After looking at the district plan for reopening, we are categorically against opening in person at this time,” wrote NEA-SN President Vicki Kreidel in an open letter to the board of trustees. “In short, we do not believe the Clark County School District has the infrastructure to support a safe and healthy environment for our students, staff members, and our community. If we proceed, it is all but certain that students and their families, as well as staff members and our families, will contract COVID-19. Some will get very ill and die, as some in the district already have. The question you all must ask: How many student, staff, and family deaths are acceptable?”

And the CCEA, which represents about 18,000 educators, said the decision should be left up to the governor. The district needs more money from the state to put the proper safety precautions in place, the association said.

“We believe the reopening of the schools in Nevada is a state issue, not an issue to be punted to the local and underfunded school districts,” CCEA said. "[U]nless the governor addresses the key issues with resources in reopening the Clark County School District in this upcoming special session, CCEA cannot sign off on CCSD’s current plan as it stands and will support every educator and parent who chooses not to participate in the reopening of CCSD.”

Image via David Goldman/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.